It is mid-summer here in Philadelphia and that means it’s hot as an oven (at least by Northern standards). It’s time to put on those shorts, swimsuits, summer dresses and sleeveless tops. If you are parent with young kids, over-scheduled older kids, or just a busy professional, the only things you’re typically worried about when picking out your weather appropriate clothes are: is it clean (or clean enough) and does it fit well? Unfortunately, those are not the questions the multi-billion-dollar (yes, that’s with a B) beauty, fashion and fitness industry wants you to ask yourself as you stare into the abyss of your closet.
According to 90% of the summer magazines gracing the checkout stands, you need to be asking “Are my thighs too jiggly?” “Is my butt too small?” “Are my ‘guns’ big enough?” and “How do I get down to a 10% body fat level?” Now that your body confidence has been shattered (because how many of us think we have the perfect body?), you can buy that magazine to get the “21 day yoga body,” “30 day boot camp butt,” or “6 week monster abs.” Regardless of how we actually look, we can all find a way to be self-critical. If you are ready to break free from your negative thoughts, then these 5 tips will help you boost your body confidence just in time to enjoy the rest of the summer.
The most important thing to remember is self-image is an attitude, not an attribute. So instead of trying to change our bodies, we should focus on changing our thoughts.
1. Adopt a New Way to People Watch
Avoid judging people based on their appearance. Instead, focus on what they say, how they act, and how they treat others. Focusing on their behaviors and not appearance creates a healthier lens in which we can view ourselves. In other words, if we retrain our minds to evaluate other people based on their actions and personality traits, then we evaluate ourselves within that same perspective versus constantly comparing our bodies to other people’s bodies.
This is an excellent activity to try at the pool or the beach. Before you head out, ask yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the best) how you feel about yourself. After adopting the new way to “people watch” re-evaluate your self-image using the same scale. Most people will report after just a few hours of diligent, behavior watching an increase in confidence (even if it is only a half or a full point increase, that’s still progress!). Creating healthy habits is hard. Start with a goal of one day, then a week and keep extending the time until it becomes second nature.
2. Avoid Negative Body Messages
Research has suggested that on some level our brains can’t tell the difference between external messages (something we hear or read) and internal messages (something we think ourselves). Exposure to negative body messages via advertisements, articles, friends or family can indirectly send a message to us that we are flawed and need improvement. In other words, we might have a positive self-image, but after listening to friends talk about how “fat” they are and their efforts to lose weight or skimming the endless magazine titles while waiting an eternity to checkout (why do we always end up behind the person with the 28 expired coupons who insists they are still valid?!), our brains start to internalize these messages and we begin to think we aren’t happy with our body and we need to alter it too (even though we weren’t previously having that thought!). The more exposure to these negative messages, the more we willingly accept them as truths.
If you don’t want to go down that rabbit hole, then find as many ways to avoid negative body messages (I know; easier said than done with the 24/7 infiltration of multi and social media.). A little preplanning can go a long way. Be prepared to redirect conversations (or just exit the room if you can’t get people to stop the cycle of body shaming); scroll past the before-after posts or latest miracle pill ads (#AintNobodyGotTimeForThat); and, whatever you do, don’t listen to the siren’s call and purchase that magazine telling you how to get “6 pack abs in 2 weeks” (the only packs you should be thinking about is how many cold ones you want to drink tonight on your patio while enjoying this nice weather).
3. Focus on Function
Stop thinking about the aesthetic and remember the function. We can become so fixated on how something looks that we forget about the beauty in its utility. Our bodies perform countless, amazing feats daily that we take for granted. If you need a reminder, try not using a body part for an hour or even a whole day (you might look funny with a clothes pin on your “strong Italian” nose or walking around locked in an upright position so you don’t use your “birthing” hips, but you will get a much better sense--pun intended--of how much we rely on our bodies).
When you start to become critical of a body part, make a list of all the ways it helps you accomplish your daily activities and moves you closer to your dreams. For example, you may think your arms are too skinny, but remember they can embrace your partner, carry sleeping children to bed and even comfort a sick friend. Every time you start to focus on the aesthetic, stop and go over your list and try to add at least one new element each time you cycle through the list. Eventually, you will have a lopsided assessment that will help accept and love your body (aesthetic = 1 negative; function = 37 positives; conclusion = my body is awesome!).
4. Focus on What You Like
When we hyper focus on the negative aspects of how we look, we create what’s called “selective attention.” This means that you are training your brain to look for evidence that supports your negative assessment and disregard any contrary information. Do this enough and all you can see are your “flaws.” In the extreme form of this behavior you can develop body dysmorphia which is characterized by the persistent, preoccupation with imagined or minor physical variations. Fortunately, we can use selective attention for our benefit.
Create a list of all the things that you like about your body, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem (you like the look of your nailbeds; great, add it to the list). If you are struggling with coming up with a list, ask a trusted friend, family member or even your partner. Their answers may surprise you. One woman’s 5-year-old daughter loved her “squishy, big-old belly” because she saw that belly expand (and continue to expand!) to accommodate her growing twin sisters and that was the most amazing thing in the world. This can be a great reminder that our friends and family don’t judge our bodies or have the same values for aesthetics as we think they do. Once you have your list, you are ready for step two. Every time you look in the mirror (or stare at your reflection in a window or your smartphone display—we all do it), go over your list. Try to be very diligent about this activity and do it as frequently as possible. The goal is to create a positive, selective attention so that you start finding evidence to support your body confidence and disregard any negative information.
5. Dress the Body You Have Now
What you wear impacts how you feel about yourself. A lot of people will avoid buying new clothes because they don’t want to waste money on clothes they hope become irrelevant after they “lose the baby weight” (the “baby” just got his driver’s license; I think that ship has sailed), or get rid of their “beer gut” (Didn’t you hear? The Dad-Bod is hot now.). The problem with this mentality is that every day that you put on clothes that either don’t fit or aren’t very flattering, you are reinforcing your negative self-image and increasing your changes of feeling too overwhelmed to make any long-term changes. Instead, focus on dressing the body you have now and not the one from 10 years ago or the ideal future body.
First things first. Purge your closet of those skinny jeans from your youth (not only will it mentally hurt when they don’t fit, they can seriously cause you physical harm trying to shove all your bits into a package 8 times too small) or any other outdated, way too small items that you are never going to wear again. If you honestly believe that you will be able to wear some of those items again in the future, box them up and put them in the attic. Next, buy (or you could even go to a consignment shop and trade in your archaic clothes for some new threads; kids these days love “vintage”) clothes that are going to fit well and highlight the parts of your body that you like. Now that you can breathe and move freely, you can sashay your way to building back up your confidence. Remember, confidence is the sexiest thing you can put on.
In the long run, we have only so much control over how our bodies will change and look. Some of us may have permanent body transformations from different life events (e.g., pregnancies, injuries, diseases) but all of us, if we are lucky enough to live a long life, will have to deal with an aging body. Unfortunately, the media has historically promoted a very narrowly defined body ideal that doesn’t include the wide variety of beautiful bodies in the world. So rather than trying to win an impossible race to keep up with unrealistic beauty standards, let’s focus on loving and accepting the body that we are blessed to have now.
Hopefully these tips will help you enjoy the rest of the summer doing fun activities and not worrying about how you look. If you find you still need a little more support to help build your body confidence, you can schedule an appointment with one of our highly skilled therapists at the Center for Growth.