We were walking down the street in Paris several years ago to find ourselves taken by a body image considered to be “beautiful.” We were looking at the street lamps in front of the Paris Opera House. Built in the mid-1800’s, those lamps are supported by statues of naked women. These castings done in the Neo-Baroque style are curvy with rounded bellies and by today’s standards they all need to go on Weight Watchers, visit Jenny Craig or at the very least, tighten their abs with a good dose of Pilates.
Our idea of a beautiful body was given to us by the culture in which we grew up. By the time we reached puberty we each had decided how we needed to look in order to have the perfect body. But by that time, we knew we never would.
One year the two of us led six weeks of consecutive courses at a conference center on Maui. The course room had an entire wall of mirrors, so we became comfortable seeing ourselves daily in shorts and even from time to time in our bikini and swim suit. When we completed the groups, however, and rented a hotel room at the beach for a bit of R&R, we were surprised to discover that our bodies appeared sadly lacking. We realized that we were no longer living in the cloistered environment in our courses, where people were encouraged to let go of their judgmental nature. We were now looking in the same mirror where thousands of tourists before us had stood while being self-critical and we were surrounded by people in everyday life with their everyday criticisms and complaints about their bodies.
It was a lesson we never forgot. The culture that surrounds you can make a direct and immediate impact on our self-perceptions. If you want to know your body image, begin by paying attention to your internal conversation without taking it personally.
“What?” you might say, “How can I possibly not take how I look and feel personally?”
It is easy, once you realize that your thoughts about yourself and how you look are a collection of recordings stored in your internal jukebox or MP3 player. When the circumstances apply a little pressure, they play a familiar tune.
The key to creating something new rather than playing an oldie-but-not-so-goody is awareness. The art of awareness, or self-observation without self-reproach, is a skill-set that can be learned. It’s like exercising a muscle. The more you simply see things without judging them, the better you get at neutrally observing yourself. As you discover how to be kind to yourself rather than berate yourself for the body you have, it sets you up to find motivation for living a healthy lifestyle. If every time you step on a scale or go to the gym, you find reinforcement that you’re “fat,” sooner or later you are going to want to quit on yourself. If every time you feel like having sex with your husband or wife you are worried about them seeing your body, it will be difficult to have the physical intimacy you crave.
Do you want to know a great secret for dissolving a negative body image? Practice your anthropological approach. Pretend you’re a scientist observing a culture of one – yourself. The trick is not to judge what you see, but to neutrally observe how you function, including your thought processes. Awareness and kindness are key.
If you have some extra pounds, be kind to yourself right now, not when you lose the weight and not when you continue the exercise routine that you promised yourself you would.
In this moment, you are a perfect you. If you gain or lose some weight, then you will still be you. But if you are kind to yourself right now and just notice how you are without beating up on yourself for what you see, then regardless of your weight, shape or size, you’ll feel satisfied. This also applies to your sexual experience or lack of experience. If you are kind to yourself about what you don’t yet know or haven’t experienced, it is far easier to learn.
Most people are afraid that if they aren’t hard on themselves, there will be no motivation to improve, no reason to move, and they will turn into the world’s largest couch potato. Not true. When you are feeling satisfied, and good in your own skin, there is no need to turn to comfort food. That extra cookie doesn’t feel like a reward when living your life is its own reward. Don’t you feel more like moving out into the world and being active in your life when you aren’t being hard on yourself? When you don’t pick on yourself, your actions will support a healthy lifestyle and your body is sure to follow.