Changing Your Body Image


BY KALI MUNRO, M.Ed., Psychotherapist, 2001
Published in Healing Words Newsletter, Vol. 2, February 2001

Many people think body image is only an issue for people who aren’t stereotypically thin, or who have an eating disorder, but the truth is body image has nothing to do with one’s size, or whether you struggle with an eating disorder. It has to do with how you see yourself, what you tell yourself about your body, how you describe your body, and how you think, feel and behave toward your body — all work to create your body image.

There are thin women who think that they are fat, women who fit the societal standard of beauty who think they are ugly, and many people who daily struggle with discomfort, shame, embarrassment, and hatred about their bodies.

Despite all the pressure to look a certain way, you can change your body image without dieting or controlling what you eat.

To better understand your body image, think about how you relate to your body. How do you:

  • See your body in your mind?
  • Describe your body to others?
  • Talk about your body to yourself?
  • Feel about your body?
  • Treat your body?

Each of these ways of relating to your body effects the others, they are inter-connected. That might sound overwhelming, but it’s actually good news — changes in one area will lead to changes in the others.

For example, if you begin to change how you describe your body, you will start to think differently about your body, and this will effect how you feel about your body. Or, if you start to change how you treat your body, it will change how you feel and think about your body.

One way to start changing your body image is to become aware of how you think, see, describe, and treat your body, and how you feel about your body. Choose one of these components of body image to work on and focus your attention on it.

For example, if you think about your body in a negative way, become aware of when you have those thoughts. Begin by simply noticing them. Pay attention to how often they occur, when they occur, and what you say to yourself. See if there’s a pattern. Recognizing a pattern can help you be aware of the things or situations that feed your shame or hatred about your body.

For example, some people think more negative thoughts about their bodies when they are feeling anxious or nervous. If that’s true for you, you may want to think about what you can do to help yourself to feel more calm and safe, such as acknowledge how you feel, say something reassuring to yourself, and take a few deep breaths. By working on your anxiety, you may find that you feel better and aren’t thinking as many negative thoughts about your body.

Another way to counteract critical thinking about your body is to become aware of when you’re thinking that way, then interrupt your thoughts by turning your attention to something else. Or, tell yourself that you don’t want to say those things about your body any more — that you want to respect and love your body. Some people also say positive things about their body, affirming what they like or what they want to like about their bodies.

Work on treating your body with love and respect. Be as gentle and tender with your body as you can. Pay attention to how you interact with your body. For example, when you put lotion on your body, notice how you do it. Do you put it on roughly or quickly? Do you notice that you are touching your body? Try putting lotion or oil on your body slowly, thoughtfully, and gently. Notice the sensation of your hand touching your body.

Do you pick at or hit your body, bump into things, or ignore that you have a body except when you criticize it? See if you can change one way in which you treat your body unkindly. Try noticing that you have a body, and be kind to it. Pay attention to when your body is tired and needs to rest. Touch your body with gentleness – the way you would with a lover or friend.

Often when people don’t like their bodies, or have an eating disorder, they believe that if they had a different body they would be happy. They are waiting for the day when their body looks the way they want it to in order to feel better about themselves. In the meantime they criticize their bodies and feel anxious about what they eat.

Many people, particularly women focus on changing their bodies when what they really want is to feel differently about themselves — to feel sensual, attractive, confident, light, graceful, elegant, or sexy. But you can feel any or all of those things without changing your body.

It’s true anyone can feel light, graceful, and sexy at any size, shape, or body weight. I’m sure you’ve seen women who carry themselves with great dignity and beauty who are no where close to the ideal supermodel or barbie-doll size. What is their secret? They feel good about themselves. They feel sexy inside. You know they feel that way by how they carry themselves and by how they speak. Have you noticed that when people feel beautiful and sexy, they look beautiful and sexy?

One way to feel the way you want to feel is to imagine or visualize yourself that way. Really let yourself see, smell, hear, touch, and feel yourself the way that you would want to feel. Don’t focus on how you want to look, but on how you want to feel. Focus on the feeling of lightness or solidness, of feeling sexy or graceful. Notice what it’s like to feel this way, what you do, and how you interact with people when you feel this way.

Try one or both of the following exercies to increase your ability to feel the way you want to in your body – or skip over them to the rest of the article.

  • Imagine yourself as something-an animal, plant, or object-that has a quality that you would like to have. (A tree for its strong roots and presence, a giraffe for its grace and head held high) Really put yourself into it, be that animal, plant, or object. Move around as if you are that animal or object. Feel what it is like to be this body-how you move, see the world, and think. Just do as much as you feel comfortable with-it’ll get easier with practice.
  • Identify how you most often feel about your body. This isn’t how your body looks – it’s how you feel inside. Perhaps, you feel heavy, awkward, or cumbersome. Now think about how you would like to feel inside-confident, light, sexy, or graceful. Now use your imagination to consider what object, plant, animal, or colour best represents this feeling. For example, if you feel heavy, maybe a cannon ball would fit. Then focus on how you would like to feel and think of an object, plant, animal, or colour that could represent that, like a feather for lightness, or a cat for gracefulness.
  • Next, let yourself imagine that you are a cannon ball. Really put yourself into this; let yourself feel what it is like for you. Move around the room as a cannon ball. Is there anything that you like about this feeling, anything that you don’t like? Spend time with this and gradually let yourself change into the object that represents how you would like to feel. As you slowly transform from the cannon ball to the feather, take notice of what it feels like to make that change. Be that feather in all its lightness. Move around the room as a feather floating in the air. Let yourself feel what it is like to be light as a feather. Notice how this feels, and what you like, and don’t like. Stay with this feeling for awhile. Notice how you move when you are a feather.
  • When you are done, write out what you learned from the experience. Was it hard moving from one feeling to the other? What did you enjoy and dislike about both feelings? Would you be willing to continue practicing how you want to feel? What does how you usually feel give you? Is there anything scary about feeling the way you want to feel?
  • Answering these questions can give you important insight about yourself that you may not have known before. For example, some women discover that they feel comfort or safety in feeling heavy, and that they associate fear and vulnerability with feeling light or sexy. It’s important to hear your answers and to explore why they are true for you.

These exercises can bring about dramatic change if you really put yourself into them, and make them a part of your life. I’ve seen women who once walked with timidity and hesitation, walk with newfound confidence after practicing this. The power of visualization can be quite remarkable — especially in the area of body image — because you are working on replacing one image for another. You are changing your body image to something that you want.

You don’t have to change your body to feel better about your body. In fact, it’s better not to try to force your body to change, but rather to feel comfortable and alive in the body you have. Loving your body and working on feeling the way you want to can not only improve your body image, it can help you feel happier in the rest of your life – because you’re accepting yourself.

Transforming Body Image | Hutchinson, Marcia Germaine | CA: The Crossing Press, 1985
200 Ways To Love The Body You Have | Hutchinson, Marcia Germaine | CA: The Crossing Press, 1999
When Food Is Love | Roth, Geneen | CA: A Plume Book, 1991
Copyright © KALI MUNRO. All rights reserved.