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How to Overcome Body Shame

Learn how to move toward compassion and ultimately love for your body.

Source: PhotoMediaGroup/Shutterstock

In our society, it’s difficult to love your body without effort, and it can take many years of work to get there. There are many challenges to face before one feels compassion, acceptance, and ultimately love for their body.

Pictures, articles, videos, blogs, and vlogs constantly feed us messages about how we should look. How many times a day do you see an article telling you how you can get a, “bikini body,” as if putting a bikini on your body doesn’t qualify as a bikini body? These kinds of messages can seem so normal that we don’t realize the message we’re receiving and telling ourselves is that our bodies aren’t good enough as they are.

There is a societal body-shaming that is so ingrained that it can feel like the truth. But it’s not the truth. You don’t have to change your body to be deserving of showing it off however you’d like—bikini, tankini, one-piece, and perhaps even just your birthday suit (where permitted, of course).

In addition to the societal challenges we face, your family history may be another barrier to overcome. Our values and beliefs are passed down through generations. Many kids were told directly to change their appearance, because they were too fat, too thin, or otherwise not right. In other families, parents were careful not to criticize their child’s body, but they criticized their own bodies and modeled behaviors like constant dieting, which sent the message that their body type wasn’t good enough. This is an example of a covert message, because even if the parent never explicitly told you what the “right” body should look like, you still internalized the message that their body wasn’t good enough as it was.

Those who were teased and bullied as children suffered wounds from peers that can bleed for a lifetime unless tended to. As children, the need to be accepted and for a sense of safety among peers is important. When a child feels ostracized for their appearance, the belief that they are not OK, good enough, or worthy of love begins to get cemented. The outcome may be a lifetime focused on changing their body, but the feeling of worthlessness is much deeper than that.

When it comes to dating and mating in this complex world, one’s body shame can greatly impact their experience. It contributes to low self-esteem, which impacts who you choose, how you expect to be treated, what kinds of boundaries you have, and how you treat others. Also, it impacts your ability to be vulnerable, intimate, and to experience pleasure. Body shame, and not body weight, can be a barrier to love and connection.

Changing your body might seem like the answer. If only you could be thinner, leaner, stronger, or bigger, you’d feel great. Perhaps you would, in some ways. I like to call these our “if only’s,” which are the false beliefs that if only we could reach some (often unattainable) goal, everything would change.

Unfortunately, even when one does reach their “if only,” they find that it wasn’t the answer to all of their pain and problems. More often than not, healing these painful wounds takes a different kind of change. Usually, healing body shame takes changing internally, not externally.

Bruce Rolff/Shutterstock
Source: Bruce Rolff/Shutterstock

Keep in mind that acceptance and love for your body as it is doesn’t mean that you can’t still work toward health goals. However, when you work toward those goals with love, support, and compassion for yourself, you’re more likely to get there, and you’re definitely going to be happier along the way and beyond those goals. Feeling better about your body may seem far away for some of you; impossible even.

However, there is hope that you can wake up in the morning one day soon, and feel for your body in a way you can’t imagine yet, just as your body is right now. The work to get there might be hard, but it’s definitely worth doing. You’re going to be with yourself for the rest of your life, so it serves you to be someone you enjoy being with and not someone who puts you down. To begin overcoming shame about your body, start with an openness to the possibility that this can be different for you, even if you don’t know how.

The following tips will help you in your journey toward overcoming shameful feelings about your body:

1. Choose your messages on social media platforms.

Intentionally surround yourself with messages that promote body-acceptance and self-love. Doing this gives you power over the influx of overt and covert messages coming at you. Follow body-positive Instagram feeds, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds. Examples of body-positive celebrities and other body-positive people you can follow on Instagram include Ashley Graham, Roz The Diva, and Honor Curves. A google search for body-positive accounts will get you even more options.

Body-positive social media feeds are not the same as body-improvement feeds. Social media feeds that promote fitspo, weight loss, weight gain, bulk up, or slim down can be healthy, but if your goal is to feel better as you are right now, focus on surrounding yourself with messages about body acceptance.

2. Believe you can love your body as it is.

One of the most important factors in determining how far you can go is how far you’re open to going. If you listen to those voices that say you can’t do things, then not only is the end goal out of reach, but progress is as well. With progress, you start to feel better, and you generate more progress. When you deny that you can feel better about yourself as you are and insist that none of the tips in this article can work for you, and therapy won’t help either, and so on, you ensure that you’re right.

If you consider that there is help for you, you can begin to discover what’s getting in the way of your being helped. When you can recognize that you’re condemning yourself to being stuck, you can start to have a choice as to whether or not you really want to be. Perhaps you don’t want to condemn yourself to misery for the rest of your life. Perhaps you want to give yourself permission to see if you can feel better and begin the journey of figuring out how to make it happen. Believing in yourself is one way—perhaps the biggest way—to get out of your own way.

3. Come out from hiding.

If you feel shame about your body, you may find ways to hide yourself. Some people cover up with extra clothing, or sit in the back of a room full of people, or stay silent when they have things to say.

If there’s a way you’re keeping yourself hidden, try pushing your comfort zone a little at a time. See what happens if you go outside with less coverage, even just for a short time. See what happens if you sit a little closer to the front of a room, where more people can see you. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking up in front of a group, see how it is to say hello, goodbye, or make a comment to people on your way into or out of meetings, classes, or social gatherings. Take small steps, pay attention to how you feel, and see if you want to continue to move further and further out of your comfort zone.

4. Consider that you’ve been wrong.

It’s easy to confirm already solidified beliefs about yourself. The belief that your body is not good enough as it is feels like the truth, so it’s easy to find evidence in your day-to-day to confirm what you currently believe. Our brains absorb information that fits our current beliefs, and often we can’t acknowledge data that might prove us wrong.

If you believe your body isn’t good enough as it is, any information to the contrary will hit you and bounce off, instead of being considered as possibly true. So, when evidence comes along that shows you that you are good enough just as you are, there’s a good chance your brain won’t automatically recognize the information, and certainly won’t take it in as valid. Unless you intentionally open up to the possibility that you’ve been wrong about your body not being good enough as it is, no amount of body-positive messages or positive self-talk will have a big impact on you.

However, when you consider that what you believe now could be wrong, you can begin to open up to the possibility that you are in fact enough as you are. You can begin recognizing external data that says you’re enough, and you can begin to practice body-positive language toward yourself, which may start to seem truer.

5. Get to know your inner-bully.

Sometimes we’re unaware of what we’re doing to ourselves when we put ourselves down. For many, it can seem like motivation to do better. But putting yourself down doesn’t serve you. In fact, it has the same devastating impact on you as someone else’s abuse has on you—perhaps an even greater negative impact.

It’s difficult to thrive or be happy and peaceful when you’re enduring abuse. When you can be kinder to yourself, you will feel better. Also, you are more likely to thrive when you support yourself, just as you’re more likely to do well when you’re in a supportive environment. To gain a greater awareness of what you’re doing to yourself, you’ll need to invite your inner-bully to the surface so you can get to know it. Once you’re aware of what your inner-bully sounds like, and how you feel when it shows up, you’ll be able to choose whether or not you want to collude with your inner-bully, or if you’d prefer to offer yourself kindness and support.

To become more aware of your negative self-talk and the impact you’re having on yourself, try standing naked in front of the mirror (do this to the extent that you feel some discomfort, but not extreme distress). Speak your negative thoughts out loud. Notice your tone of voice; pay attention to sensations in your body as you speak, and let yourself feel your feelings. As you get to know this inner-bully you’ve been spending so much time with, consider how devastating it is to be bullied so much. The more often you become aware that your inner-bully is present, the more you can decide not to entertain its harshness.

6. Create an inner-supporter.

Once you’re aware of your critical thoughts and how deeply you’re harming yourself with them, you might want to stop doing this to yourself. One way to stop doing this is to create an inner-supportive part of yourself to step in when your inner-bully is trying to steal the show. Unfortunately, body-positive beliefs, thoughts, and language do not just emerge. They must be created, just as the negative thoughts were created and repeated enough to become automatic for you.

To create a strong, inner, supportive self, you will have to create new language and repeat it, so that body-positive, compassionate language eventually becomes automatic. Stand in front of the mirror and speak out loud what you want to believe about yourself. Use “I” statements. You might say something like, “I am beautiful,” or “I am strong,” or “I am sexy.”

It’s OK if you don’t believe these thoughts just yet. In fact, you probably won’t at first, so this should feel strange. But over time, the more you tell yourself things, the more you will believe them. Work to make your inner-supporter stronger than your inner-bully. Remember, the inner-bully has been around for a long time, so it will take work to build a stronger inner-supporter. Be patient and practice, practice, practice!

7. Practice thanking your body.

It’s hard to be grateful to your body when you’re ashamed of it, and you wish it were different. However, there are always things about your body to be thankful for. Your body keeps you alive, your body carries you every day, and your body protects you in many ways. Your body has survived a lifetime of events so far. Think about what your body does for you, instead of what you wish it did for you. Practice taking time to thank your body for all that it does.

More from Caitlin Cantor LCSW, CST, CGT
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