If there’s just one post you read today, please make it this one, then bookmark it to save it and re-read whenever you need to remind yourself how to love your body. Go absorb therapist, Hillary L McBride’s every word.
Over to Hillary.
There is a woman sitting across from me with tears forming gentle rivers running down her face dragging with them, mascara and shame. Her eyes are turned towards the ground and I can hear us both breathing. I am her therapist, and I have asked her to lean into the silence that holds so much weight. A moment before she has told me, ‘I want to learn to love my body, I really want to, but I feel like I just can’t. How do you learn to love something, someone, who you’ve hated for decades? How do you even begin to go about changing that, let alone changing it to love?’.
I hear her story and feel the soul-aching that comes with it- the aching that is more than hers and mine, but belongs to so many of us who want to tell a different story about ourselves, our physicality,yet it just seems so hard. The opposite to what has been. Her story pierces me, like she is telling my own narrative back to me.
I am a therapist, researcher, speaker and writer, and one of the things my work is focused around, is bodies: how we feel and think about, relate to, and experience the body.
It matters to me because I had an eating disorder for many years that almost ended my life. The irony was that even when I was no longer ‘sick’, I still hated my body.
I looked healthy on the outside but I still felt as lost as ever. Like the woman in the story above, I kept wondering over and over, how do I love something I hated for so long? A lot of the existing research and clinical strategies are helpful in understanding how that relationship goes sour: why we hate our bodies, and the factors that contribute to it.
Yet, there is still so much we can learn when it comes to how to heal our relationship with our bodies, how to feel and think differently, or better yet, how to stop the hatred from showing up in the first place. So, I want to share some things with you that I’ve learned in my academic research on the topic. These things have also been deeply helpful for me on my path in re-writing the narrative about my own body, and are the things I do with clients, like the one I describe above.
I hope it helps you.
My tips on how to love your body:
–Think critically about your use of media.
It is hard to tell a new story when the old one is still playing in the background. If you’re following social media accounts, watching TV shows, reading print media or looking at websites which assert and reinforce that you should change your body in order to be happy, or indicate that some bodies are better than others, decide to disengage with these forms of media. One of the most powerful things you can do for your body image, your mental health and your real-life interactions, is to stop following social media accounts that promote a certain kind of ‘ideal’ body and make you feel ashamed of yourself.
Instead, start following accounts and using and supporting resources and media of any kind which advocate the goodness of all bodies and promote body-diversity. When you do engage with mainstream media, pay attention to the messages (both direct and indirect) that are communicated through the images. Try noticing the messages being sent about race, ability, size, beauty, weight, age, gender, and anything else which relates to the body. Being able to challenge the harmful images we see, when we see them, can act as a protective barrier.
– Think of your body as a being, not a thing.
Most of the language we use, suggests that our body is more of a thing then a being. When talking about our body we say ‘it’ as if the body is a machine that won’t cooperate, or an alien speaking a language we can’t decipher. Think about it this way: how differently do you treat a scrap of paper from a family member?
There is an understanding that the paper is not alive, that it is a thing but that the family member is alive, with intelligence and value. You probably wouldn’t worry about hurting the paper’s feelings but you will no doubt be careful about what you say around a person who you believe can hear you, and who cares about what you say. It’s hard to relate to a thing in a caring way and so much easier to be caring towards a someone.
So what if you started thinking about your body as a someone? And that was a someone that you wanted to build relationship with? And what if that was a someone who you used to hate, or were really critical of, but you were trying to build back trust with? You might start thinking of saying things to that being like, ‘I’m sorry I said so many hurtful things’. Or, when your body tries to say something like, ‘I’m hungry’ or, ‘I’m full’ or, ‘I’m tired’, you might listen and respect it like a person you care about.
-Catch your body-related thoughts, and change them.
Would you ever say to someone you love the critical things you say about your own body? It is a simple kind of filter that helps us catch body-related thoughts, and sort through which ones are healthy to keep, and which ones we need to toss away.
This is kind of like the Golden-Rule, but just in reverse. Don’t say something to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else. There is no reason to add more shame to the pile already, so if you catch yourself thinking or saying something critical about your body, try to notice it and replace it with something kind, or at least neutral. Instead of, ‘I hate that my body …’, we might say, ‘I’m so grateful that my body can still…’ or, ‘I really like that….’. And if that is too hard at first, it’s OK to start by shifting focus away from the critical thoughts towards.’this is the body I have’. It can be challenging to be aware of what we are thinking with enough immediacy to do something about it. So, I usually ask people to start by recognising one or two of the most frequent un-helpful thoughts that occur, pay special attention to when those come up, and make a commitment to say something different instead.
-Notice experiences of body-goodness.
When it comes to our body, we focus way too much on appearances, and not enough on the experience of being a body. We all have experiences of goodness in our bodies, of pleasure, sensuality, delight, vitality, joy and playfulness but we’re often too preoccupied with the things we don’t like (or have been told we shouldn’t like) about our bodies to notice the subtle, sometimes surprising experiences we have where something else comes to the foreground. So, the trick is to become a detective for those things.
First, start looking for these experiences of body-goodness anywhere you can find them. For me, I feel most in love with my body when I’m dancing. I don’t have any training in dance but when I’m home alone, I often turn on something with a beat that vibrates up through my feet, and I dance. Not for anyone else, just for me. For you, this might happen when doing yoga, having a bath, going for a walk, having sex, or laughing out loud with someone you love. If you’re up for it, when a moment feels enjoyable, try leaving your thoughts behind for a moment and come into the body experience of that moment. What is happening to your body that makes you feel that enjoyment?
Secondly, if you want to take it further, try to hold onto those moments a little bit longer. Anxiety, stress, and the chaos of life can be the thief of joy so when you’re in a moment of goodness, do your best to savour it.
It’s like the difference between eating chocolate by inhaling it, compared to letting it melt slowly on your tongue to make it last as long as possible.
–Be with other people who (want to) love their bodies.
We are social creatures, and deeply influenced by the things we hear other people say about bodies, theirs and ours. This can go both ways. When we are surrounded by people who negatively body-talk, our brain picks that up, often without us consciously realising it, and subtly notes, ‘This is how I need think, feel, talk, and act, in order to belong to the tribe’. But, if we surround ourselves with people who love their bodies, or are on the mission to, it makes it easier for us to do the same. The research shows us that this can even help us buffer against oppressive messages when we have a marginalised body.
You might start by noticing the conversations happening in your social circles and can decide which conversations are happening that are helpful or not so helpful, and what you’re longing for more, of. For some people, this means having hard conversations where you ask people close to you to help you learn to heal your relationship with your body by trying to speak more positively about themselves and bodies in general.
For others, it means starting a book club with some friends that is oriented around body-positive books, and self-compassion. Perhaps you might want to organise events at community centres with body-positive speakers, or talking circles.
We did not learn to dislike, hate, or feel shame about our bodies on our own and so we are not going to write a new story on our own, either. We need each other.
I have lost track of the number of people who say that they will love their body when they fit into their old jeans, lose the weight, fix that one thing, or any other thing they have decided will give them permission to finally set the shame down. But no real love is conditional. And any love that is based on conditions is always based on conditions; we can’t expect the system of conditional love to go away as soon as we meet one set of conditions. It is like hoping to get to the end of a race that just does not end.
At some point, we have to make a choice to say about our body, this is what is. And, when we’re ready, that this body is good as it is. This means deciding we will no longer wait for a condition, date, event, number, experience in order to decide our body is lovable. We get to decide that we are not going to keep playing the game (‘I’ll love my body when….’) because the game never ends. At some point, we get to decide to tell a new story about what is a lovable body. And we get to start over every morning, or even every minute, to recommit to telling the new story about our body.
This is all a process. You did not get here overnight and you won’t get somewhere else overnight, either. Find the resources, people, experiences and insights that help you start repairing your relationship with your body and keep talking. Change happens one step at a time. And, you don’t have to do it alone.
Hillary L McBride, MA, RCC, PhD cand. is a therapist, researcher, speaker and writer from Vancouver BC, Canada. To read more about this, check out Hillary’s book Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: Learning to love ourselves as we are. You can find her at , on Instagram @hillaryliannamcbride or on twitter @hillarylmcbride. You can hear her as a co-host on The Liturgists Podcast, and as host of the podcast Other People’s Problems.
Hillary also wrote powerfully on how to handle trolls, naysayers and online bullies.