As many young girls do, I decided that my body wasn’t good enough when I was around 12 years old. I did the occasional fad diet behind my parents’ backs and tried various workout regiments. My weight fluctuated for the next few years, but my self-confidence never got any better. Before I knew it, I was 25 years old and still living with the same yoyo-dieting mindset.
I knew there had to be some other way to feel better about my body than to lose weight, and that’s when I decided to try to “hack” my own mind.
Hell, I had been brainwashed to believe that I wasn’t good enough as I was — I should be able to brainwash myself back, so to speak.
I was frustrated by much of the advice I’d found online. It was mostly positive self-talk and social media habits, and while important, I didn’t feel like they were nearly enough.
So for the next five years, I tried various mental hacking techniques, I read books, and I even went to therapy. It took time, but I ended up finding habits and techniques that made me feel much more comfortable in my skin.
Now that I feel like I’ve “conquered” it, I’ve boiled healing a poor body image down to a few concepts.
Let’s delve into each…
1. Personal Values and Identity
One of the most fruitful things I’ve done is to study body-positive influencers. What enables them to be so comfortable with themselves that they can post pictures in their underwear, especially when they don’t fit the “norm”? Even when the pictures might be seen by family members, people they went to school with, or potential dates?
I started to wonder if the answer is (1) what they identify with, and (2) what their personal values are.
Our identity shapes how we feel about ourselves. It can make us feel confident (“I usually excel at most things I try”), or give us negative emotions (“I’m not good enough”).
Let’s say that part of a body-positive influencer’s identity is “I am overweight” (not all are overweight, this is just for the sake of explaining). For a lot of people, this would be a source of negative emotions, but for this person, it’s not.
Why? Because of their values. According to researchers, personal values play a big role in body image. Think about how much it means to other people when someone dares to be different, and be themselves completely. Not just accept what they look like, but to love themselves. “The greatest act of rebellion is loving yourself” is a popular quote for a reason. It’s not just freeing for the person themselves, but gives space for other people to do the same.
They find value in being exactly how they are, right now, and choose “to be themselves” as the “ideal” way to be.
Taking a look at what our values are and what we identify with, is powerful because it enables us to get rid of our perfectionist standards. Instead of comparing ourselves to one single body ideal, we’re given the space to be however we are — because we are all unique.
Exercises that can help you change your identity can be found here:
Is your identity ruining your body image?
I’ve tried a lot of things over the years to improve my body image, and one that yielded my most surprising results…
2. Healing the “Split” in Our Personality
There’s one thing that always puzzled me:
Why do I struggle with body image when I’m otherwise independent and open-minded?
It just didn’t make sense.
I often felt like my body image issues that told me all the negative things about myself were almost a separate part of me — a devil on my shoulder. A little devil who believed that looking a certain way is more important than my mental wellbeing, and that looks are such an important part of life that you should always be thinking about it.
It never aligned with anything else that I thought, valued, and stood for.
Naturally, I struggled to understand why I had this devil there. Was its agenda just to make me feel bad? And if so, how could I stop it?
I tried to think more positively. Even though it would work right there and then, it became a conscious process I had to do regularly, which was tiring. If I had to willfully change my “original” thoughts, I wasn’t where I wanted to be.
I gradually discovered the reason: my identity as being independent and open-minded came from my conscious mind. My body image issues, on the other hand, likely came from my subconscious mind.
When I eventually went to Emotion-Focused Therapy, I learned that this is called a conflict split. It’s where one aspect of you conflicts with a different aspect. I describe how this was dealt with in therapy here:
My Unconventional Method for a Healthier Body Image
I’m not a psychologist (yet!), but I’m someone who used to struggle a lot with body image.
3. Getting Out of Our Heads
A lot of insecure people experience what’s termed “social hyper-awareness”. It means being very aware and almost paralyzed by what we believe other people think about us in social settings.
One of the most popular articles I’ve written on Medium is about the power of walking meditations, and how I used it to make me less self-conscious in public. Read it here:
4. Self-Compassion Meditation
Studies (1, 2, 3) show that self-compassion can be an effective tool in battling a bad body image, and my own experience points to the same. I learned a Buddhist form of meditation called metta, often translated to loving-kindness, which focuses on exactly that, and is one of the tools often used in that type of research.
The idea behind Metta is that an important part of becoming a better human being is having compassion. In essence, it’s a practice of unconditional love, also towards yourself.
In short, Metta works like this: you come up with three loving statements, for instance, “May you be happy”, “May you be healthy and strong” and “May you be safe”. You sit in a quiet place and say these statements to yourself, either out loud or in your mind. It’s important to not try to force the feeling of compassion, but let the feeling come through genuinely, and be sure you genuinely mean what you say when you recite the statements.
In classical Metta, you first imagine saying these statements to yourself, then to a loved one, then to someone you feel neutral about, and lastly to someone you dislike. Interestingly enough, beginners of this practice usually have to spend their first year only practicing unconditional love only towards themselves, since many have blockages from experiencing true self-love.
It can be helpful to imagine yourself in a situation you find it more natural to feel empathy with yourself, for instance imagining yourself as a child, and direct the statements towards yourself back then. Repeat the phrases a few times slowly, preferably every day. With time, the feeling of love towards yourself will get easier to get in touch with.
It can also help to start by imagining directing the statements to a close friend or family member, where it’s easy to get in touch with your sense of unconditional love, and then follow up with the statements to yourself and see if the love and kindness can be extended to yourself easier that way.
5. Cleaning Up Our Social Media
I used to follow “fitness inspiration” accounts on Instagram. The idea, of course, was to get inspired and motivated to lose weight. I figured that if every time I scrolled through my feed and saw their pictures, I would think “If they can look like that, so can I!”
And a few times, it worked! I would feel inspired to workout, and I was reminded of my goals. Most times, however, it didn’t.
It can become a constant reminder that we don’t fit that standard, over and over again. Instead of leading to any concrete action, it just starts leading to self-loathing.
I decided to clean up my social media: unfollow any accounts that made me feel “less than”, and find influencers that I looked up to for other reasons than how they looked. I’ve never looked back since. You can read about it here:
I Unfollowed All Fitness Inspiration and This is What Happened
Letting go of an ideal can be just as difficult as reaching it.
6. Systematic Desensitization
Growing up in the ‘90s, flat abs were all the rage, and at age 12 I wanted nothing more. Despite dieting in secret behind my parents’ back, a flat stomach proved difficult to achieve. That’s when I decided to resort to a plan B: simply holding it in.
It started as a way to look thinner in front of the boys I liked, but it shortly took on a life of its’ own.
I was doing it at home in front of my family, when I was hanging out with friends, at school, in front of every mirror, in front of the boyfriend I eventually got, and the boyfriend after that.
Before I knew it, I had held my stomach in from age 12 to 26.
It took me years to discover that holding my stomach in wasn’t actually my own unique idea — many people did it, there were just very few people talking about it. When it finally occurred to me to look it up on the Internet, I found thread after thread after thread of people asking if this is normal.
When I started seriously working on my body image issues in 2015, I knew that addressing this would have to be part of it, so this is what I did:
I made a plan to gradually get used to letting my stomach out. This way I put less pressure on myself, but at the same time, I would be moving in the right direction.
This was inspired by a technique in behavioral therapy called systematic desensitization, in which the subject is exposed to higher and higher degrees of what they fear.
You can find the plan here: