As a nutrition coach, body image is something that has come up often with my clients, and certainly not just women. Although the vast majority of my clients (start out) as overweight or obese, I know it’s not just this segment of the population that struggles with poor body image.
Helping people lose weight doesn’t mean I’ve always been immune to having a poor self-image myself. I’ve worked very hard to change mine, because I used to hear a lot of crazy crap pop up in my head. My perceived body flaws all had deprecating labels: my legs were shapeless tree trunks, I had a cottage cheese butt, and my clothes choked my body like a wad of packaged ham.
It was brutal.
The problem with speaking to yourself in this way is that it absolutely murders your motivation to improve, and can sometimes trigger destructive behaviors that make the problem worse. For example, feeling bad about being fat leading to emotional eating, which leads to feeling guilty about emotional eating, feeling out of control, and gaining fat, which leads to….more emotional eating.
The other problem is that if you get into the habit of treating yourself badly when you’re fat, you’re not going to magically love yourself when you’re thin.
Your body image is as much a habit as your eating habits.
If you constantly fill your body with junk food, you’re going to feel terrible. If you constantly fill your head with negative criticisms of yourself, you’re going to feel terrible.
And if that’s your habit, you’re going to be critical of yourself no matter what you look like.
So if this pattern isn’t going to change when your body changes, and it’s actively preventing you from changing your body, what are you supposed to do?
Change your thoughts.
"But that’s hard."
Indeed, it is. But I’m pretty sure that hating yourself isn’t making you happy, so why not give it a shot?
The first step toward changing your thoughts is recognition. Eckhart Tolle gives the instruction:
"Start listening to the voice inside your head as often as you can. Pay particular attention to any repetitive thought patterns, those old audio tapes that have been playing in your head perhaps for many years."
You may not always be aware when negative thoughts pop into your head because they happen so frequently, and because you’ve never questioned them before.
That’s the second step—questioning the thoughts. Is it true? Or an exaggerated version of the truth? Is it helpful? Let’s say I said, "yes, I believe it’s true that I look like a mangled troll today." Is that statement helpful or hurtful? How is that going to affect how I go about the rest of my day? How is that going to affect my self-image in the long run?
Once you’ve listened to the thought and done an assessment of it, it’s time to combat it. If you are looking at something you can change (e.g. body fat), envision how you would like to change and how you are going to get there. If you’re struggling with something you can’t change (e.g. scars, loose skin), ask yourself what it would feel like if you accepted this attribute. Or how might someone you love see them? If your partner, your sibling, or your child had this attribute, would you find them repulsive and unlovable, or would you see past it?
The final step is to assess how you’re feeling after questioning and combating the thought. Do you feel better or worse? Do you feel more or less energized? More or less accepting? More connected or disconnected from yourself?
Changing your thoughts is not an easy process and it doesn’t happen right away. If your thought patterns are grooved to seek out the negative, those are the thoughts that will continue to be the most pervasive until you’re able to gradually replace them with more helpful ones.
This is not to say that you will never have a negative thought again. You will. But you will be able to see them for what they are. You can reject the ones that are harmful. And you can replace them with more helpful ones.
You are going to be stuck with your thoughts for the rest of your life. Would you rather act as your own enemy, or your own hero?