It’s summer, and the clothes are coming off. If you are feeling a little body acceptance challenged, a harmless pool party or trip to the beach can turn into a day (or more) of feeling anxious, inadequate, and isolated. I have spent a lifetime hating myself and how I looked, but when I reached the age of thirty, I decided I was done being miserable, judgmental, and critical of myself. Then, I made the decision to stop hating on my body and other women’s bodies too. YES, other women’s bodies.
At the beginning of my “no body hate” commitment, I began to notice my own criticisms. I also noticed how much I looked for outside information (women’s magazines, fashion police, and who wore it better articles) to inform my preferences and justify my own dysfunctional thoughts. My self-hate had turned into “other people” hate. I noticed when I was on the beach I looked for someone bigger than me. I thought I could be the second fattest half naked person, but I couldn’t be the fattest. I just wanted to be acceptable.
We all want to belong. This desire for belonging isn’t a failure or weakness; it’s actually a basic human need that our minds are wired to seek. We want this need met so strongly that we disconnect from our own guidance, preferences, thoughts, and feelings. Instead of consulting our own empathy and compassion, we consult outside sources (friends, family, or the media). In a way, we seek connection with others by disconnecting with ourselves. What I found is that when I connected with myself and created my own sense of belonging, I stopped hating what I (and others) looked like. This may be a muscle you need to build up, and with practice comes progress.
If you find yourself stuck in a self-hate cycle about your own body, try to find some acceptance even for your own inner critic. You don’t have to agree with your inner critic, but you can accept what it says, acknowledge it, and try something different. For example, you may see a picture of yourself at a family event and think you look hideous. You could say to yourself, “I hear that you don’t like the way I look, and I can choose to be kind to myself in this moment.” OR, “I hear that you don’t like the way I look. And I also know that I had a lot of fun at this family gathering. I got to cuddle my nieces, eat good barbeque, and listen to my family tell funny stories. I felt joy in that moment, and it’s possible to feel joy no matter what I look like.” We you reframe your thoughts in this way you are practicing compassionate listening with yourself (even when your inner-critic says pretty awful things). You let the inner-critic plead its case, but you give your own loving voice the last word.
If you find yourself hating on someone else’s body/swimsuit choice, try some empathy on for size. If you were having a great day minding your own business, how would you feel knowing someone was tormenting (or entertaining) themselves by picking apart YOUR wardrobe choices? Feels icky right? Also, don’t we have more enriching and better uses of our time? I mostly discovered when I was scrutinizing others it’s because I needed to make myself feel better or figure out where I was at in the attractiveness pecking order. Any disapproval I feel about someone else says more about my own standards than theirs. You might even say that your own opinions about what other people should do is just your brain’s way of trying to find evidence and justification for your own beliefs. If you find yourself thinking, “She doesn’t have the body to pull that look off.” You are simply reinforcing your own belief that people need to look a certain way to have freedom of wardrobe choices. When I notice judgments coming up about other women’s appearances I gently remind myself, “You are okay, and she’s okay too.”
Whether you are stuck in a shame spiral about yourself or others, taking a few deep breaths as well as engaging in physical activity (a short walk, yoga, or dancing) can help. When you check in with your own body, it takes your attention away from an endless chain of thought to the present moment. In my experience, doing this helped me learn how to accept myself. When I’m breathing or moving, I notice how my body is doing its job. My heart is pumping, my breath is flowing, and it doesn’t really matter what I’m wearing or how much adipose tissue I have. My body is working just fine. It carries me from place to place. It allows me to do the things I love, love the people I care about the most, and experience everything this world has to offer.
We hold onto these criticisms because we think that shaming ourselves will motivate us to look better, and when we look better we will have joy. When you are fully present in your body in this moment, you find that joy already exists. It’s here. It is for young, old, overweight, underweight, not fit, athletic, healthy, sick, male, or female. It’s here for all of us. Whether you are wearing a thong or a strategically placed bed sheet, you can be at peace if you are present.