Building a better image

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Building a Better Body Image

According to Psychology Today's 1997 Body Image Survey, more people are dissatisfied with their bodies today than ever before. The 1997 survey followed the landmark survey of 1985, among the most widely quoted on the subject. Respondents were asked to fill a five page questionnaire on how they saw, felt and were influenced by their bodies.

While respondents identified body image as their physical appearance or attractiveness, they credited that same body image with psychologically influencing their behavior and self-esteem. How we perceive, how we feel about and what we believe to be true about our bodies determines our overall view of what we can achieve and what we will settle for in life.

Gaining weight caused the most negative feelings for two-thirds of the women and a third of the men, the heaviest people being the most unhappy with themselves. To grasp the full magnitude of how important it is for people to be the weight they want, 15% of women and 11% of men said they'd be willing to give up at least five years of their life in exchange for the ability to reach their goal weight.

What was so fascinating for me about these findings is that they mirror both my own experience with prior feelings of self-loathing due to body dissatisfaction and my conversations with countless women over the last ten years. I would say that only a handful of those women were happy with their looks.

Besides body weight, other factors influencing negative body image were; not exercising, looking at a bulging stomach in the mirror, a partner's low opinion of one's appearance and receiving critical feedback. When I read this I knew exactly how all these people felt.

My bulging stomach was, for forty-six years of my life, my greatest source of anguish and shame. Even though I was not grossly overweight, all my life I had a big stomach. I can remember standing in front of the mirror while dressing for a special affair and sucking it in as hard as I could. I couldn't understand why it didn't stay in. At the time, instead of that image fostering change, I accepted what I erroneously believed could not be changed. I became an expert at camouflaging my protruding stomach by wearing pleated skirts and trousers.

When my husband began criticizing by big stomach, I became so paranoid I started undressing in my closet so he wouldn't see me naked. My dissatisfaction with my stomach took precedent over the fact that I had pretty eyes or a well proportioned body. At the time, my sense of worth was directly related to what my husband thought of me.

It has taken me many years of personal growth and research on the issue of self-esteem to come to the conclusion that my husband's criticisms only reflected and confirmed my own, already established low opinion of myself.

This survey and other research suggests that hating our body creates a vicious cycle: When we feel low about anything, we dislike ourselves even more, and when we hate our body, our mood sinks. That's because the more negative we are all around, the more critical we are of ourselves. When we are angry or sad, we focus more on our shortcomings. If we were to examine the thoughts that have created the mood, though, we would find they are the same type of thoughts that are now picking on the body. This suggests that how we feel in general about our lives, others and the world around us profoundly affects how we feel about our bodies and vice versa.

Fourteen years ago I was very negative. I criticized and judged everything and everyone. When I looked at my body, my dialogue didn't change, it followed the same pattern. Years later, when I became more positive and happy, I developed a more forgiving and compassionate nature. Positivity helps us to overlook faults all around.

So where does this distorted view of ourselves come from? I believe that the first step in solving any problem is to look for the source because permanent change only comes about when the origin is understood and transformed. Again, survey findings and my own experience correlate: our beliefs about ourselves are a result of parental messages and attitudes about our bodies, teasing from peers as children and in many cases, sexual abuse.

In her book, "Revolution From Within / A Book of Self-Esteem," Gloria Steinem describes how her own feelings of low self-esteem were shaped by her obese father and a depressed mother who suffered low self-regard. After her parents' divorce, Gloria's visits with her father consisted of periodic lunch dates. Eating at a restaurant with a three hundred pound father who spilled food all over his clothes was always a source of embarrassment for the little girl. As a result of her mother's depression and her father's absence, Gloria took on at a very early age responsibilities which later fostered professional success at the expense of her own emotional and spiritual needs. Unconsciously, little Gloria had internalized both her parents feelings about themselves, carried those same feelings into adulthood and allowed them to greatly influence her life.

Contrary to popular belief, fashion magazine models and Hollywood celebrities are not the cause of our obsession with weight or how we look. We bring to the table who we are. Low self-esteem must be present before we can be influenced by a picture in a magazine. When we have a strong sense of self, nothing in the external world, especially a picture in a magazine, can have that kind of power. Self-accepting people are not so easily swayed.

One of the most distressing findings of the survey is that dissatisfaction with weight escalates with age. While 62% of young women between the ages of 13 and 19 are unhappy with their weight, 67% of women over thirty want to lose weight. The most drastic, unhealthy and dangerous measures of weight control taken by some of these women are induced vomiting, taking laxatives and smoking. Half of all women surveyed said they smoked to control their weight. Are we so desperate to be thin that we are willing to die from lung and heart disease?

A negative body image is a universal problem - a common struggle many of us share. To end the cycle of destruction, though, we must realize that even though other's opinion of ourselves may have shaped and programmed us as children; today, as adults, we are the cause of of our own pain. So what can we do to change so we can believe that we are worthy and deserving of the health and happiness that is our birthright, and thus, have the body we want?

Identify and change negative thoughts about your body
Before we can change our belief system we must change the thoughts that have created the belief. Begin by identifying negative thoughts in the form of self-criticism. Change them to positive, empowering messages. Every thought we think every moment of our day is creating a feeling and an action which later becomes our reality. By empowering ourselves with positive thoughts we begin to accept ourselves as we are. Once we accept ourselves, change comes easily and naturally. Construct your own personal tape of positive and uplifting self-talk with emphasis on past successes to listen to when you are feeling low. Chances are that the strategies you developed to win once can be applied in any arena.

Without exception, all studies show that exercise promotes weight loss and boosts mood. Weight training has been found to have a greater beneficial effect on body image than aerobic exercise because results come sooner and can be easily measured: in a matter of weeks one can be lifting double or triple the amount weight with which one started. The physical strength generated by the increase in weight builds resiliency and inner strength which fosters acceptance. From that moment on losing the weight is a matter of time.

Seek supporting and encouraging people
Change makes others uncomfortable, so they will try to discourage you. Realize tha in refusing to support you, their own stagnation and rigidity is apparent. Leave abusive relationships. Learn to stand up to ridicule and teasing. Recognize that jokes at the expense of others are socially acceptable forms of expressing anger with the intent to hurt another. Sarcasm is a lethal weapon. Negative comments from those around you will cause self-doubt about your desire to change and realize your goals.

Become assertive and develop social skills
Egocentric people think they are the center of the universe and everything revolves around them. Therefore, others should approach them because they are superior. The other side of self-centered behavior is that sufferers feel completely isolated not only from themselves, but also from others and the world around them. They are totally focused and obsessed with their own pain and their own shyness. This distorted mind set and behavior keeps them from reaching out, connecting with others and feeling that they are part of humanity. I know-that used to be me. Once I overcame my shyness, became assertive and learned to reach out to others, I realized my story was everyone's story. Understanding and compassion helped me to become more tolerant of faults and focus instead on talents. I could then accept myself: my round face, my short nose, my small chest, my short stature.

Meditation helps to clear the mind so we can think more clearly. Distorted and irrational thinking is at the root of low self-esteem. It's been my experience that perfectly intelligent, physically attractive and slim people see themselves as the opposite. Even if you just sit still for a few moments and take in a few deep breaths on a regular basis, it will eventually make a difference. I will never forget the day I took my first deep breath while working out: It changed my world. For the first time in my life I heard a voice in my head spewing criticisms that were totally contrary to what I was seeing in the mirror. From that moment on I decided to change that destructive tape in my head to an empowering, positive one that would eventually create the kind of person I wanted to be.


Seek Cognitive Therapy
Cognitive therapy works by helping people identify self-destructive habits of thinking and substitute forgiving alternatives.

Some of the most common destructive patterns of thinking are:

All or nothing thinking: defining oneself by a single episode: "I missed a workout, I'm a failure."
Discounting the positive: focusing on the negative side of life: "Everyone in my family is fat, so I will always be fat."
Assuming the worst: building in our minds the worst possible scenario: "Why go to the party? Everyone will know I gained weight."
Overgeneralizing: Identifying every turn for the worse as a part of total failure: "Passed up for that promotion again, I must not be worth it."
Personalizing: Assuming responsibility for events beyond one's control: "He didn't say hello. He must be losing interest in me."
One of my heroes, champion long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, was once asked in an interview why she was willing to train so hard to achieve her goals. Her answer was: "Because it builds character." I agree with her wholeheartedly. Studies suggest that the demands of athleticism provide a structure that makes coping with other life requirements easier. Fro example: Dedicated runners are more likely to acclimated and suffer less anguish from warm and humid weather than sedentary people who exist mainly in air conditioned surroundings. Fortunately for the rest of us, we don't have to train like Diana Nyad to fully reap the benefits of exercise, as moderate exercise can do the job. I developed character by lifting weights.

I was so self-conscious, shy and ashamed of the way I looked, that the first time I walked into a gym I practically crawled to the first empty corner I saw, in the women's section. I wanted to hide from what I perceived to be "prying eyes." The truth as I see it now, is that no one really cared. They were all too busy with their won workouts. Regardless of my feelings at the time, I persisted and soon began to feel and see results. Within a matter of months I had developed enough lower body strength to need the advanced machines in the men's section. So I valiantly entered the male domain and proceeded to work my legs. What a change from the little mouse that had first crawled to the women's section on her first day at the gym! As I developed physical strength, emotional stability followed. I no longer felt threatened by "prying eyes."

It is no accident that exercise is cited over and over as the number one cure for a negative body image, because exercise can be the catalyst for personal transformation. Through exercise, I learned to take responsibility for myself instead of blaming others for how low I felt. Seeing results made me more determined to succeed which prompted self-motivation.

In general, most exercisers lead healthier lifestyles than sedentary people. The reason is that committed exercisers are able to follow through with other changes-such as what and how much they eat and when to rest. Effort in one area is likely to produce results in other areas.

Some scientists think exercise works for weight control because it promotes psychological health, especially when it is combined with relaxation techniques. Evidence shows that people feel better after strenuous exercise because it decreases anxiety, depression and stress. Committed exercisers report feeling relaxed, having increased energy and more discipline. They also claim to have greater self-confidence, a sense of looking better, greater work productivity and a stronger sense of being at one with themselves and the world. Ultimately, having a healthy body image is all about self-respect. It begins with a conscious decision-a shift in perception-to begin to see ourselves as deserving of the best that life has to offer and to value and care for ourselves by taking the time for self-nurture: daily exercise, healthy nutrition, positive feedback, reflection and meditation.


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