Body positivity has become a much-needed cultural trend to counter the prevailing uber-thin-body ideal. Yet these well-meaning messages—”Love yourself at any size!”, “You are beautiful!”, “Celebrate your curves!”—can be vague, overly simplistic, and unhelpful in real life.
How can one simply go from decades of self-criticism or self-loathing to self-love without any practical support and guidance?
According to some experts, the missing piece in better body acceptance is another trending buzzword: mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a state of active awareness of the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them as good or bad. Mindfulness means living in the moment, developing a greater connection to the human experience.
Tackling the Inner Critic
The mental habits you form over your lifetime—good or bad—create patterns or neural pathways in the brain, according to neuroscientists. If you’ve been critical of yourself for many years, these patterns can be entrenched and tough to break—but it’s possible, with practice and effort.
Being mindful can help us become more aware of this self-hating inner commentary and change our self-perception as we change these bad habits, says Alena Gerst, a mind-body focused psychotherapist in New York.
“One of the prime ways that mindfulness can be used to improve positive body mindset is to notice how you speak to yourself,” said Gerst.
“When you look in the mirror, actually notice what you’re saying—are you being critical immediately? Are you berating yourself for what you perceive as body imperfections? If that is the case, which is very common in our society, then you can start to use mindfulness to [change] how you’re talking to yourself.”
The act of noticing these self-defeating habits in the first place is progress, says Gerst. You can’t tame a beast you don’t recognize.
You can start by keeping a tally—track how many times a day you say negative things to yourself or others about your body. You may be surprised how often you go on the attack. Pay attention to cues and triggers—are there certain rooms, people, or activities that make you feel worse about yourself when you’re around them?
Those are times to be extra aware of your thoughts and root them out, says Cynthia Bulik, author of “The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like with Who You Are.”
For example, standing in line at the supermarket, staring at bikini-clad models and photoshopped celebrities as you wait, might trigger you. If you know this kind of situation tends to be hard for you, fire up your inner coach with some self-encouragement: “I can definitely make it through the checkout without feeling bad about myself.” Or maybe this is a good time to think more carefully about media messages: “What is this magazine trying to make me buy into with these images?”
Bulik also warns of the damaging “fat talk” pervasive among women. This is the tendency to complain to each other about how fat we are and what we hate about our bodies. It can also involve criticizing others’ bodies (i.e.”I can’t believe how much baby weight she gained”).
“Fat talk is a plague. It is insidious and ubiquitous,” Bulik writes in “The Woman in the Mirror.”
“We barely know that it’s coming out of our mouths, yet it is all around us. Fat talk destroys women and girls.”
To end fat talk, Bulik recommends a two-fold strategy: Ban it from your head, then ban it from your environment. You can discourage fat talk by refusing to engage, changing the subject, and modeling fat-free talk yourself, she says. You can also have a heartfelt conversation with others about your new self-love resolutions and fat-talk ban. This may just motivate them to do the same.
From Inner Critic to Inner Coach
Author and former model KJ Landis knows well the debilitating damage of daily self-criticism. Landis suffered second- and third-degree burns when a faulty travel mug exploded while she was driving, leaving thick scars that ran from her stomach to her thighs. After three decades in the modeling business, she couldn’t accept her new reality.
“I felt ugly from the scars and my self-esteem began to slide. … I began to feel the blues and slide into depression. I was scared,” she wrote on her blog.
On a recommendation from her niece, Landis signed up for a Bikram hot yoga class, where she learned to be mindful, tune into her body and thoughts, meditate, and practice gratitude. The process was transformative, she says.
“My regular practice of mindfulness, and then of being present with myself and my flaws, has been so helpful for my self-esteem and body image in my head,” she said in an email.
“Mindfulness allows me to let go. The reactions to others’ negativity and my inner critic is subdued. I say to myself, ‘I’m perfectly beautiful with all my scars. God made me. I’m a work in progress like everybody else.'”
Rather than aiming for 100 percent body positivity right away, strive for the more achievable “body neutrality” to start, says Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills-based family psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent.”
“It’s nearly impossible to go from harshly self-critical to super positive,” said Walfish. “The first goal is to become a benign self-observer. This is achieved by becoming more self-aware and noticing each time you think or feel a self-putdown. … This is the first giant step toward changing toward positive thinking.”
Walfish advises that when your inner bully starts its attack, simply diffuse it with a detached observation, such as “There it goes again, thinking critical thoughts.” This allows your mind to observe it without fear, emotional reaction, or judgment, and to separate it from you.
“When you are in a mindful state, the body-shaming and physical judgments lose their power over you. You accept what is right here and right now,” said Dr. Nancy Mramor, psychologist and author of “Spiritual Fitness.”
“You can take the time and go deeper into your own thoughts and feelings about your body with detachment, and can become less attached to outcomes about the body, choosing appreciation over judgment.”
Kimberly Hershenson, a New York-based therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image, uses mindfulness to help her clients overcome a distorted self-image. One way to shift the focus away from physical appearance is focusing on how the body feels instead, she says.
“For example, when exercising, focus on the stretching of your muscles, the calmness of your mind, and the feeling of your feet on the ground, instead of looking for six-pack abs or your waist getting smaller,” she said.
Reframing our “flaws” in a non-judgmental way is also important, she says. For example, instead of thinking, “I don’t like my thighs,” mentally rephrase it as, “I’m grateful I have strong legs to walk on.” This allows space for more self-compassion. Yet it doesn’t mean we can’t work to change our bodies or improve our health, notes Hershenson. Self-compassion gives us a supportive boost in efforts for positive change rather than shooting us down.
“Rather than fighting against your thoughts, you accept where you are today,” she said.
For better body acceptance, clinical therapist Lynn Zakeri says body gratitude is also key—acknowledging where your body has been and what it’s helped you achieve, now and in the future.
“Focusing on what is good about your body right now and knowing your body is a reflection of you, your love, your feelings, your authenticity, can lead to more loving of your body,” she said.
The Power of Tuning In
Once we’ve mastered the art of positive self-talk through mindfulness, we may experience a whole new relationship with ourselves, says Christine Forner, a mindfulness expert and author of “Dissociation, Mindfulness, and Creative Meditations.”
“Mindfulness is the place where we learn to fit into ourselves, into the body, like a glove,” she said. “We can learn how to value every sensation and all the emotions that are coming from the body. We can use mindfulness to have compassion for why we might have negativity toward our body, and acceptance comes as a result.”
This newfound state may also benefit your life in unexpected ways, says Nosh Marzbani, author and founder of the Beverly Remedy Center.
“Once you have gained this awareness of the body, you know how to use it adaptively. You know how to respond to the stresses and pressures of your day-to-day activities,” he said. “You are also able to deal with situations that cause an emotional imbalance with a greater degree of stability.”