My body shaming started in fifth grade shortly after a classmate made up a “clever” little saying about my breasts. She recruited a group of boys who all chanted for days: “Rachel’s so flat a pancake would be jealous. Flatty cakes, flatty cakes!”
Good one, sister. I was 11 years old… of course I was flat.
As junior high came into full swing—and then high school—I noticed when friends blossomed as my own adolescent development seemed to lag behind my peers. When I finally started my period at the age of 15, I felt defective for showing up to the puberty party late.
Over the years, I’ve badmouthed, overworked, and shamed my body. Some of my shaming was induced by males who told me I’d be prettier if I had larger breasts or less cellulite on my thighs. Some of my body shaming was also engrained vernacular, passed down generationally by family members who viewed their bodies through a skewed lens. While the intensity and duration of my body bullying have varied, the truth is, I still struggle with how I talk to my body some days.
I’m not alone in this: one study reports 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies while 8 out of 10 girls ages 8-16 report anxiety about their looks. The advent of social media and widespread access to information anytime, anywhere, doesn’t help matters much as we are met with unobtainable ideals. Today’s women have much to contend with on the image front, but this has been a struggle for us for many generations.
The good news is our society is starting to wake up to the epidemic of photoshopped images thrown in our faces and are doing something about it. Companies such as Dove, Modcloth, Swimsuits for All, and countless others promote body health and models of varying shapes, sizes, and ages.
But the even better news is that it’s possible to love the skin that you’re in.
Here are 5 steps you can take on your journey toward self-love:
1. Dismantle the messages you’ve been told about women’s bodies.
Dissect the overt and covert messages you’ve been told about yourself and about women—what women ought to look like, act like, be like—and evaluate how our culture’s opinions impact your day-to-day life. Have others told you that you’re too fat, thin, have funny features, or other, similar messages? Or have these thoughts been more covert in nature, such as hearing others talk about their own appearances or viewing advertisements that promise happiness based on looking a certain way? It’s important to know where negative thoughts about your body first took root and what those messages are. This knowledge empowers you to dismantle any toxic assumptions you’ve held onto, enabling you to move forward on your journey toward body appreciation.
2. Recruit support.
Don’t be afraid (or ashamed) to seek professional counsel if you need someone to help you work through any areas of pain related to body image. Doing the hard mental and emotional work of getting down to the nitty-gritty of your inner-workings can be exhausting—especially if you’re a survivor of trauma or bullying—so having support along the way is crucial. Talk to your doctor about therapy, do a Google search to find a support group or body image workshops, or read through the resources found on Dove’s Self-Esteem Project on how to start loving the skin you’re in.
3. Filter your media exposure.
You know that much of what you see splashed across magazines or the web are edited, unobtainable images. Yet, even with this knowledge, it can be tricky to keep reality in context while taking steps to love your body. Filtering your exposure can mean not purchasing certain magazines for a while or unfollowing social media sites. Set yourself up for success by removing things or images that will cause you to sink into a downward body-debasing spiral.
4. Thank your body.
It might sound silly, but start thanking your body for all the ways it has enabled you to experience the fullness of life. Gratitude shifts the mindset and compels you to move forward in your journey toward self-love. After all, what voice motivates you more: the bully voice that sneers accusations like, “You stink at life. Look how you’ve let yourself go.” Or the voice of grace that says, “Your value isn’t contingent on how you look, act, or what you can do.” Focus on what is, rather than what isn’t.
5. Discover your best and healthiest self.
The healthiest version of you looks different than it does for others around you because you’re unique. Discover what activities empower you and make you appreciate your own skin. Identify your gifts and skills. Where do you excel? Are you energized by seeking new adventures, hosting parties, painting a canvas, or leading workshops? Feel on a high after the power yoga class or the 20-minute outdoor hike? Feeling your best could mean fueling your body with certain foods or practicing self-care tactics like meditation on a consistent basis. The point is, your healthiest self is found through varying avenues; it can take time to figure out what makes you tick and come alive, but once you do, you’ll be apt to discover more about your inner and outer self.
Loving your body and re-writing your personal body image narrative takes times and intentional effort to dismantle ingrained messages. Have high measures of grace and extend compassion for yourself along the way. There are countless others on the road to body love with you, including me.