Body image and self-esteem walk hand-in-hand

“Stop saying that!” “Why?” he asked. “It’s the truth.” “It’s not the truth,” she cried. “I’m a hideous, fat pig.” “That,” he declared, standing up, “is so untrue! You’re beautiful.” “You have to say that,” she replied. “You’re my husband.” Jack had been trying in vain to convince his wife, Ellen that she was beautiful — still beautiful — despite three children and 20 years of marriage.

“The eyes of others are our prisons; their thoughts our cages.”

— Virginia Woolf, English writer and modernist

“Stop saying that!”

“Why?” he asked. “It’s the truth.”

“It’s not the truth,” she cried. “I’m a hideous, fat pig.”

“That,” he declared, standing up, “is so untrue! You’re beautiful.”

“You have to say that,” she replied. “You’re my husband.”

Jack had been trying in vain to convince his wife, Ellen that she was beautiful — still beautiful — despite three children and 20 years of marriage. Ellen had gained a few pounds with the first pregnancy and a few more pounds with each subsequent birth. In all, Ellen had gained about 40 pounds and kept 20 or so despite ongoing efforts to lose it. And Jack was being sincere when he told his wife she was beautiful. He even pointed out to her that he had gained and maintained a few extra pounds over the years but that admission only seemed to make matters worse.

I am amazed by how many beautiful people — women in particular — feel poorly about their body image. Body image is really nothing more than a mental picture we have of our body. It’s what we perceive when we look in the mirror. Self-esteem and body image walk hand-in-hand. It’s difficult, if not impossible to feel good about yourself when you despise your body.

People with healthy self-esteem generally have a positive self-image and thus a healthier body image. If not completely satisfied with their appearance, they will make an effort — in a positive and healthy manner — to make changes deemed necessary.

They’re also less likely to buy into the perfect body myth as perpetuated by movies, media and advertising.

It is important to understand that each body is unique. No one body shape, size or weight is right for everyone.

Everyone’s genetics are different thus influencing bone structure, body size, build, weight and shape. And, of course, here I’m referencing a healthy body supported by an appropriate diet, adequate exercise, proper sleep and a positive mental attitude.

In researching this topic, I happened upon a survey by Glamour magazine conducted among 300 American women of all sizes. Before you dismiss the source and findings, let me state that the survey was conducted by Ann Kerney-Cooke, PhD at the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute. Dr. Ann (as she is known) is a renowned author and speaker, and one of North America’s leading authorities on eating disorders. She is an expert on the impact of body image on self-worth.

“It’s become such an accepted norm to put yourself down that if someone says she likes her body, she’s the odd woman out.”

Dr. Ann goes on to say that negative body talk is “pervasive” and that it’s actually “more acceptable to insult your body than to praise it.”

According the survey, most women had at least one negative body-thought per hour. Some participants confessed to having 35, 50 and even 100 “hateful thoughts” about their body shape each day. Ninety-seven per cent had at least one “I hate my body” moment per day.

When Dr. Ann broke down the data, a “fascinating trend” emerged. Respondents who were dissatisfied with work and relationships — who felt stressed, lonely or even bored — reported more negative body-thoughts than those who confessed satisfaction in the said areas.

According to Dr. Ann, unattainable cultural beauty ideals and celebrity worship play a significant role in negative body image. And apparently, we’ve trained ourselves to be this way.

“Neuroscience has shown that whatever you focus on shapes your brain. If you’re constantly thinking negative thoughts about your body, that neural pathway becomes stronger and those thoughts become habitual.” Dr. Ann offers up the example of a concert pianist who — through practice and perseverance – would have “stronger neural pathways that support musicality and dexterity” than someone who hadn’t devoted a lifetime to perfecting playing the piano.

In self-esteem coaching, we often speak of recognizing negative self-talk. That’s exactly what’s happening with negative body-talk. We’re pounding our self-esteem into the ground with a vicious and unending internal “insult-athon” and have come to think of it as normal.

Says Dr. Ann, “Negative (body) talk has become part of the way women bond. Friends getting together and tearing themselves down is such a common thing that it’s hard to avoid.”

How can you break the cycle? According to Dr. Ann, through awareness and a conscious effort to shift your thinking. To that end, here are some suggestions from people who’ve done it.

See the whole person. When you view yourself in the mirror, see yourself as a whole person and not simply a collection of specific body parts.

Accept and celebrate. Acknowledge the beauty and uniqueness of your natural body shape and size. Focus upon what you appreciate and enjoy about your appearance.

Broaden your perspective. Recognize that your physical appearance says little about your character and value as a human being.

Drop the judgments. Resist the urge to judge yourself based upon weight, shape and size and stop judging others based upon the same criteria.

Build self-esteem. Choose to feel good about yourself and who you are. Carry yourself with confidence and self-acceptance. Respect and take good care of your body.

Need another good reason? A recent study by the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, found that women who obsessed over body image and diet had “chronically elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol.” There is ample evidence to suggest that such elevated levels can lead to higher blood pressure, lower bone density, heart disease and even cancer.

Perhaps American fashion model and actress Erin Heatherton expressed it best when she said, “Healthy body image is not something that you’re going to learn from fashion magazines.”

It’s time to acknowledge that beauty, health and courage come in a variety of sizes and that with the right attitude you can feel comfortable and confident in your natural body shape.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.

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