NOTE: This post was originally published on my previous blog, Body Image Rehab.
“I’m fat! My thighs are huge! I’m ugly! I look old!”
How often do you say these types of things about yourself, either aloud or inside your head? How much time and energy do you spend disparaging yourself and your appearance? Do you think this kind of negative self-talk helps you to change?
My Own Worst Critic
For many years, I was my own worst critic. I would criticize myself for a multitude of “sins,” but my most frequent criticisms related to my appearance. I set unbelievably high standards for how I looked, and I would berate myself for not living up to these benchmarks. Whenever I would look at myself in the mirror, all I would see were my flaws; my virtues were invisible to the harsh judge inside my head.
I used to believe that my self-criticism served a useful purpose. I thought that my brutal thoughts and words motivated me to change, and that the judgments pushed me toward productive action. While it’s true that seeing that I didn’t live up to my own standards propelled me to exercise more often and restrict my food intake, there was also a downside to my self-criticism that I didn’t see until recently.
Self-Criticism vs. Self-Acceptance
I paid a high price for hating and berating myself, for spewing so much negativity about and toward my body. I became unhappy, my health suffered, and I didn’t experience even a moment of the inner peace I so desperately craved. Others would compliment me and tell me I was attractive and slim, but I wouldn’t believe them. I would compare myself to the models and actresses I‘d see in magazines and on television and movie screens and find myself coming up short. I would even look at my current body next to that of my younger self and feel sorely lacking in comparison.
On the flip side, I have known women who were much larger than me who would exude a level of confidence and self-acceptance that I have never experienced. They would embrace the reality of their bodies and treat themselves with loving kindness instead of disdain. These wise women would still work to improve their physical selves, within reason. If they had gained a few pounds as a result of bad habits, they would shift their eating and exercise routines such that the pounds would gradually drop away. If they had started to neglect their appearance in various ways, they would begin to place more focus on their grooming and clothing to improve the way they looked.
I would do those things, too, but the difference was more in attitude than in behavior. I would beat myself up while working to change the status quo, while the well-adjusted women would love and accept themselves in the present moment and simultaneously make positive changes to affect their futures.
The Power of Our Words and Thoughts
I started to become aware of the power of my words a while back, after my husband had pointed out the critical ways in which I spoke about myself and my appearance. I started to shift the words I spoke and endeavored to adhere to the maxim that “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I would bite my tongue before speaking statements such as, “I look fat in this” or “My hips and thighs are disgusting.” I would stop myself from voicing my displeasure toward my physical being, at least most of the time. Yet, much more damaging than the words I spoke aloud were the thoughts inside my head.
A large part of my “body image rehab” relates to the way I treat myself when no one else is watching or listening. My challenge is to think positive thoughts about myself whenever possible, and to cancel the negative thoughts when they arise. I remember a self-help tape I had years ago… The narrator suggested that we use the words “cancel, cancel” whenever we notice a negative thought, and then replace that thought with a positive thought. Since positive thoughts are much more powerful (not to mention more empowering) than negative thoughts, over time this practice helps one to become more self-accepting.
Affirming Statements While Shopping
Here’s an example… Let’s say I am in a department store trying on pants (my least favorite shopping activity besides buying a swimsuit!) and I start to lament my “huge” hips and thighs. Upon noticing my negativity, I say “cancel, cancel” (either aloud or internally), and then find something about my appearance to compliment. While the positive statement can be about any aspect of my appearance, I find it most empowering to think or say something affirming about the very same physical characteristic I had been criticizing.
In the department store situation, I could affirm my strong and toned legs or compliment myself on having long and graceful limbs. Those statements are equally if not more true than the negative thought about my large hips and thighs.
Your Body Isn’t “Wrong”
I remember that on a number of episodes of What Not to Wear (see my post “Fashion Isn’t Frivolous” for more on that show and how fashion can help body image), the hosts have told the makeover contributors that it isn’t their bodies that are bad or wrong; it’s the clothes that are wrong for their bodies. It’s so true that when I am wearing clothes that fit well and flatter my unique figure, I feel infinitely better about my body than when I am in tight and ill-fitting garments.
When I am shopping and find pants that are too tight and make me feel fat, I move on until I find pants that make me feel fabulous, regardless of the size! When I’m getting dressed to go anywhere, whether it is to the grocery store or to a nice dinner, I make sure to wear something that makes me feel attractive and slim, not fat and frumpy. I want to look at myself in the mirror and feel good and think positive thoughts, not critical ones.
If I have gained a few pounds or am retaining water, I reach for clothing that feels good, not garments that are too tight. If I have to purchase new pants that don’t cut or bind my skin until I lose weight I’ve gained, I do so. So many people don’t do this because they don’t feel they “deserve” to buy anything until they lose weight. But if they’re walking around feeling uncomfortable in tight pants, how likely is it that they will feel empowered to eat well and exercise? Wouldn’t it be better to spend a little money (there are always sales, discount stores, and resale shops) to buy a few things that fit and flatter your current shape?
Replace Negative Thoughts with Positive
I’m still working on my self-talk and continue to catch myself thinking negative thoughts about my body. At those times, I do my best to shift the focus to something positive about my appearance. Failing that, I think of a positive thought not related to my body or simply distract myself by engaging in an unrelated (but NOT destructive) task. I find that when I am thinking kinder and more uplifting thoughts about myself, I feel happier and more peaceful and have a lighter heart.
My challenge to you is to begin to notice your words and thoughts about your body and gradually start to shift your dialogue and thinking to a more positive and uplifting space. In addition, wear clothes that fit and flatter you and in which you feel attractive. Although I am still a “work in progress” in terms of my body image, these are a few things that have helped me. I believe that these subtle changes will help a lot as you endeavor to improve your body image.