Growing Self-Compassion about our Perfectly Imperfect Bodies
I’ve been writing a lot this month about self acceptance and compassion. We often tear ourselves to shreds with self criticism when we don’t look the way we think were supposed to.
We stare at the super thin, aerobicized models on the covers of magazines and understandably, don’t feel we measure up. Even the cover girls don’t feel they measure up, since most images are digitally enhanced. Cindy Crawford was once quoted saying, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.” See, the photos you’re seeing aren’t real. The models have expert make-up, lighting, and photoshop. You can’t compare yourself against a fantasy that doesn’t really exist.
Such a high value is placed on beauty in our society, that it’s no wonder perceived attractiveness is one of the most important areas in which people invest their sense of self-worth. It’s true for all genders, but especially females. And that is because the standards for female beauty are so much higher than those for males, especially when it comes to weight.
Research indicates that four out of five Canadian women are dissatisfied with the way they look, and over half are on a diet at any one given time. And almost 50% of all girls between first and third grade say they want to be thinner, and by age 18, 80% of girls report that they have dieted at some point in their life.
For people like me, my obsession with thinness lead to an eating disorder. One of the most prevalent eating disorders – binge eating – when I would overeat, past the point of fullness but didn’t purge afterward. Something I’ve learned, and psychologists agree, that when people binge eat they’re often trying to fill an internal emotional hunger. Stuffing yourself numbs the pain for feelings. For me, it has been a way of self medicating with food. Indulging in the pleasure of food is an easy way to make myself feel happy, at least in the short term. The long-term of overeating, is never pleasant.
So why is being overweight so common, even as most people are trying to diet? Because diets don’t actually work. People start diets because they don’t like the way they look.
My overeating internal dialogue sounds like this. “I can’t believe I ate so much. I’m so disgusted with myself. I guess I might as well finish off that bag of cookies since I’m clearly already a lost cause.”
Criticizing yourself in this way will probably make you eat more as a means of self comfort – eating to feel better because you feel bad about eating. It’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to stop and one of the reasons why patterns of yo-yo dieting are so common.
A self compassionate response to breaking your diet looks radically different.
First, self compassion involves forgiving yourself for the lapses.
If your ultimate goal is to be healthy, then it doesn't really matter if you fall off your diet from time to time. We are not machines whose dial can be turned to “reduce calorie input.” Most people fluctuate in their ability to stay focused on their eating goals. Two steps forward, one step back seems to be a natural way of things. But having compassion for yourself when you fall off your diet, you will be least driven to overeat as a way to make you feel better afterward.
Exercise is also an important part of being healthy. (Plus, did you know exercise increases your libido?) Research suggests that self-compassionate people tend to exercise for the right reasons. That means self-compassionate women tend to work out or play sports because they find it fulfilling and worthwhile and not just because they think they’re supposed to. Research also shows that self compassionate people are more comfortable with their bodies and aren't obsessed with physical appearance as those who are more self-critical. They are also less likely to worry about how they look to other people.
Oprah, whose weight loss efforts have been the focus of intense media attention, is a good role model for how to deal with body issues compassionately. In a memorable 1988 episode of her show, she wheeled in a wagon loaded with fat to represent the 67 pounds she had shed. Shortly afterward she had gained the weight back. She dropped the weight again in 2005 through a well chronicled diet and exercise program. She eventually gained much of it back. Despite the ups and downs, Oprah remains focused on what's most important: “my goal isn't to be thin. My goal is for my body to be the weight it can hold – to be strong and healthy and fit, to be itself. My goal is to learn to embrace this body and to be grateful every day for what he has given me.”
When you don't need to be perfect in order to feel good about yourself, you can drop the obsessive fixation with being thin enough or pretty enough, and accept yourself as you are! You can even revel in who you are. Being comfortable in your own skin allows you to focus on what's really important, being healthy – and that always looks good.
Your body, and self compassion.
Having compassion for the imperfection of our bodies can be especially challenging in a culture that is obsessed with physical attractiveness. We need to learn to love and accept our bodies as they are, not in comparison to unrealistic and media images of beauty.
At the same time, many people don't take good care of their bodies. The stress of life often leads us to eat and drink more than we should, and our bodies can suffer due to a lack of exercise and time outdoors. The middle way involves accepting our imperfection, recognizing that beauty comes in all different shapes and sizes, at the same time that we nurture our physical health and well-being.
Now, Where do we start?
Start by taking a pen and paper and making a kind but honest assessment of your body.
First, list all of the features of your body that you like. Maybe you have a great head of hair or a lovely smile. Don't overlook things that may not normally factor into your self-image: the fact that you have strong hands, or the fact that your stomach digests food well. Let yourself fully appreciate the aspects of your body that you're happy with.
Now list all the features of your body that you don't like so well. Maybe you have blemished skin or think your hips are too wide, or you're out of shape and get tired easily. Give yourself compassion for the difficulty of being an imperfect human. Everyone has aspects of the body that they're unhappy with. Almost no one reaches their physical ideal. At the same time, make sure you're making a balanced assessment of your deficits. Is it the fact that your hair is turning grey really such a problem? Are those extra 10 pounds really an issue in terms of feeling good and healthy in your body? Don't try to minimize your flaws, but don't blow them out of proportion either.
Now give yourself compassion for the imperfections, remembering how difficult it is to feel such strong societal pressure to look a certain way. Try to be kind, supportive, and understanding towards yourself as you confront the suffering you face – the suffering that most people face – because you are dissatisfied with your body.
Finally, try to think if there's any steps you want to take that will help you feel better in your body. Forgetting about what other people think, is anything you would like to change because you care about yourself? Would you feel better if you lost some weight or exercise more, if you got highlights in your hair to blend the grey? If so, go for it! As you chart out the changes you want to make, make sure that you motivate yourself with kindness rather than self-criticism. Remember that's what's most important is your desire to be healthy and happy.