At 45, Kim’s body upkeep felt like a full time job. “Eat this, don’t eat that;” waxing; moisturizers; hair appointments; gym time; nails; doctor’s appointments; teeth whitening; massages; and shopping for shoes and clothing. Somehow, despite all of this care and attention, Kim did not love her body and did not feel confident in it. She was embarrassed to be seen changing at the gym. Always wore a t-shirt over her swimsuit at the beach. When having sex, she preferred the lights low or off. If asked, she could name at least 12 things she’d like to change about her body. These feelings were not new, in fact, Kim believed her self confidence was currently the highest it had ever been. She could wear shorts without shame, she actually changed at the gym and, while conscious of her eating, she wasn’t doing the full blown obsessive diets that she had in her 20’s. This all felt pretty normal.
A Note to Men…
This post addresses body positivity in women. Men are a part of the social structure which has the power to support women in becoming more body positive. If you have noticed the women in your life being less than satisfied with their bodies, this post might bring some understanding to you. All of us benefit from women becoming more body positive. Therefore, this post is for everyone.
Where Body Negative Messages Come From
As women, most of us are told in one way or another throughout the course of our lives, that we are only really welcome in the world if our bodies are found to be attractive to other people based not the beauty standards of our time. This is reenforced by the following:
While walking or biking down a street, while standing at bus stop,or shopping at a store, while sitting in her own yard, while at school or at her workplace, a woman deemed attractive might be whistled at, have comments about her sexual attractiveness shouted at her, notice people staring at her, or just generally find that she is treated with an exceptional level of politeness and friendliness. In those same venues, a woman deemed unattractive might have comments about her perceived unattractiveness yelled at her, and find herself treated in exceptionally rude ways or find herself regularly ignored, even when she is trying to be seen or heard.
The media sends messages to women, telling them that their primary purpose in life and means to love and acceptance is to reach whatever beauty standards it is currently emitting. It does this through magazine covers and articles, tv shows, billboards and social media, to name a few.
The media tries to convince the woman that all of the energy and money spent ‘beautifying’ herself is for her own enjoyment and that this is what she really wants for her self. It tells women that we deserves to do all these things and spend all this money ‘on ourselves for our own sake.’
After a lifetime of being told that being found physically attractive according to the beauty standards set out by the media is the only way to being accepted in the world, most women do feel that reaching these standard of beauty will bring happiness. For the women who feels she can never reach these standards, depression, might be the result. And sometimes, in punishment for not reaching these standards, women reject their own bodies and stop caring for them.
For the woman who is deemed attractive, there is fear that she will lose that attractiveness, or that someone will notice her flaws. She might question if she, as a human being, is interesting or valuable, outside of her appearance or simply assume that her appearance is the only valuable thing about her.
Parents are not immune to society’s messages about the female body’s role in the world and that bodies deemed unattractive will not be acceptable. Sometimes parents criticize their daughters’ bodies out of fear that their daughters will be rejected by society if they are not conforming to beauty standards. Ironically, they are communicating rejection and therefore adding significant weight to these social messages that result in so many women’s low self esteem and poor body image. Many parents have difficulty fulling separating themselves from their children and so pass on critical messages about appearance to their daughters, often in the same way that they criticize themselves. Parents might demonstrate their adherence to social beauty standards by dieting, and by demonstrating their own appearance anxieties through constant negative self talk or simply by the amount of time and energy devoted to appearance.
Intimate partners are humans with their own personal history and relationship with their own bodies and sexuality. They are not immune to messages received by society and by their own parents and, potentially, from previous intimate partners. When the person to whom you have been the most physically vulnerable with (and often emotionally vulnerable) expresses anything other than complete adoration and acceptance of your body, it can be devastating. Almost all of us are very sensitive about our bodies, and often that is very tied into our experience in a very sex negative society (see 12 Ways to Increase Your Sex Positivity).
If an intimate partner is giving very critical feedback about your body, it can be catastrophic for self esteem. Sometimes women interpret their their partner’s porn watching as a confirmation of this message, when the porn showcases women whose bodies appear to meet the current mainstream media standards of beauty. If a woman’s partner cheats a woman might believe that this is related to her own failure to meet the mainstream beauty standards despite knowing that even women who are held up as “the standard” have been cheated on.
For many women, even complete adoration and acceptance of one’s body from an intimate partner is not enough to override the negative messages about our bodies, already embedded our psyche.
Increasing Your Body Positivity
1. Notice what gives your body pleasure
Imagine that your body is someone you have a serious crush on and are wanting a long term relationship with. How can you show love to this person? You would likely start by finding out what they like and trying to give them that. For your body, this starts with the 5 senses.
- Notice what smells, textures, images and colours, tastes and sounds bring you pleasure. (Check out How to Make a First Aid Kit for Your Emotions for more on this).
- Address pain and discomfort. See the doctor, dentist, physiotherapist, massage therapist, etc. Get a decent pillow, make sure your purse, bags or back pack are fitting you well. Invest in hot pack or cold packs. Change lighting if need be. Do some research on ergonomic work stations or hire and OT to help you with this. Take care of your feet.
- Care for yourself when sick. An athletic friend of mine told me that if you are sick below the neck, (chest cold, fever, etc.) avoid anything that increases heart rate as you will burden your body and make recovery slower. If you are sick from the neck up, you are probably good to go.
- Notice what activities feel good. Try various things, walking, dance, rocking in a chair or a hammock, masturbate, run really hard, or bike somewhere slowly. Notice how your body responds. What sensations do you feel? How do you feel the following two days? Keep trying new things, based on the information you’ve gathered about previous experiments until you have a list of activities that feel good to you.
We tend to remember pain and discomfort more clearly than pleasure. Take note of the good feelings, keep track of them in a journal or daytimer. Also pay attention to what may have contributed to pleasure or discomfort, for example, did you have a bad sleep the night before the activity or was the weather just perfect that day? An experience of pain or pleasure rarely happens in isolation.
2. Separate appearance from health
This will be easier to do when you know what gives your body pleasure. The media has tried to conflate health and appearance. This has been a disaster. We know that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. One of my favourite body positive message came from Howard Schatz’s photo of olympic athletes posing together to show the diversity of body types that top athletes in various fields possess. Don’t be fooled by appearances, health is more than skin deep.
3. Commit to giving your body more pleasure
Once you know what gives your body pleasure, Give your body pleasure, regularly.
Maybe you need to make a list of all the pleasurable activities you’ve discovered in order to remember what feels good to your body.
4. Practice looking for beauty in those who don’t appear to meet conventional beauty standards
Give yourself a task on your next outing to see if you can find something beautiful about each person you meet (just make sure you’re not staring creepily at people). This exercise is designed to help you redefine beauty. Most of us would not define beauty primarily based on appearance, but we don’t often articulate when we find beauty in non conventional places and forms. Lets start to articulate this more.
5. Assume your habits come from good intentions
Instead of beating yourself up for what you ate or the exercise you didn’t do, assume that there has been a good reason for your behaviour. Most people develop habits based on what works best for them, at that time. Sometimes the harm begins to outweigh the benefits when the context changes or when there are better strategies available. If you are struggling with behavioural changes which are causing more harm than good, self criticism is not likely to help. Talk to a counsellor about this.
6. Surround yourself with body positive people and messages
Body size, skin colour, aging, natural bodily functions such as menstruation and orgasms, are areas that many people, women in particular, struggle to feel positively about, in themselves. You don’t have to find this positivity in yourself, all by yourself. You can also get support from others.
- Check out https://www.twofatprofessors.com for a blog fighting “fat phobia.”
- Also check out the book “Shrill : Notes from a Loud Woman” by Lindy West
- Check out the podcast Heavy Flow by Amanda Laird for info about menstruation and reproductive health. She also has a book by the same name. Check it out Here.
- Check out Ashton Applewhite‘s essay, “The Age of Distinction” based on her book, “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.”
- Also check out “Scars” – A Body Positive Memoir.
- For more on sex positivity see “Pleasure Mechanics” website and podcast.
- And check out 12 Ways to Increase Your Sex Positivity.
PLEASE ADD MORE RESOURCES THAT YOU KNOW ABOUT IN THE COMMENTS.
7. Challenge body negativity wherever you see it
- By giving your body pleasure;
- By caring for yourself unapologetically;
- By finding beauty wherever you see it;
- By joining others in promoting body positivity;
- By passing on a love for life and a non judgemental curiosity for the wonders of the human body, to your children;
- And by speaking back to body negative messages in public, on social media, and in your own family.
PLEASE ADD MORE WAYS TO INCREASE BODY POSITIVITY AND CHALLENGE BODY NEGATIVITY IN THE COMMENTS.
You may also want to check out What do You Really Need? – A 6 Step Complete Self-Care Assessment Guide
Also check out Re-negotiating Our Relationship with Food