An important component of emotional healing and spiritual growth involves identifying and challenging the conditioned beliefs we’ve unintentionally adopted that don’t foster our wellbeing. These usually include thoughts about our physical appearance. Whether consciously or unconsciously, many of us are convinced that to be worthy of love and admiration, we need to look a certain way—the way our current society deems ideal. This can make us feel shamefully lacking and lead to a highly critical and antagonistic relationship with our bodies.
Psychotherapist and meditation teacher Andrea Wachter—author of three books tackling body image issues and teacher of a popular course on Insight Timer called “Making Peace with the Body You Live In”—explains that comparing often goes hand-in-hand with despairing.
“Because of programming that often begins when we’re very young, many of us have been hypnotized to believe that we’re supposed to look a certain way, a way that is often very different from how we are naturally meant to look,” Wachter explains. Whether it’s our weight, shape, height, hair, or skin, this type of programming leads to suffering. “When we look in the mirror, instead of looking with eyes of love, many people view themselves with eyes of criticism, or even hate.”
Riding the Diet/Riot Roller Coaster
In 2021, the weight loss industry in the United States was estimated to be worth over $70 billion, which means that massive amounts of advertising dollars are being aimed at convincing people that their happiness depends on being thin. “This type of messaging often leads to what I call the ‘diet/riot roller coaster,’” says Wachter. “Restricting leads most people to obsession and rebellion. Dieting causes people to lose touch with their natural hunger, natural fullness, and essentially their natural feelings and desires.”
As someone who wasted decades of her life on a diet/riot roller coaster fueled by body hatred, Wachter is passionate about helping people break free from the toxic programming that causes people to turn against their bodies.
“We compare ourselves to images of bodies in the media that have been retouched, and then reject ourselves for not looking more like bodies that don’t actually exist,” explains Wachter, who points out that there is nothing objective about our society’s beauty standards. “There are cultures that aren’t programmed the way we are, ones that appreciate diverse body types and welcome aging. In fact, there are cultures that send women to fattening huts before they get married so that they’ll be more attractive to their husbands. Constantly critiquing and criticizing our bodies is the result of a massive, wide-spread hypnotic spell of body perfection.”
Wachter believes that, in the same way we take a stand for or against many important social issues in our efforts to be agents of positive change, we can learn to take a stand against perfectionism, fatphobia, dieting, and body obsession. “It’s not our fault that we’ve received this programming, but we can learn to say, ‘No! I am going to become my body’s staunchest ally and stop agreeing with messages that rob me of fully enjoying my precious time on this planet.’”
The Roots of Negative Body Image
Wachter explains that negative body image messaging has been so successful because we all have a basic need to feel loved and secure, and because we’ve been told that we should look a certain way in order to fit in. But this programming actually results in feelings of shame and rejection—exactly the opposite of what we’re deeply yearning for.
When we wake up to the fact that the programming is the problem, not our bodies, we can understand why people who have an “ideal” body according to society might still feel miserable, while others who may not fit into those narrow confines feel free, comfortable, and confident. “We all have the power to stop looking at ourselves through eyes that scan for flaws. We can begin to prioritize acceptance and appreciation. Self-hate pretends it is helping by whipping us into shape, but self-hate never leads to lasting peace or happiness.”
4 Practices to Foster Body Love
Wachter offers many techniques to help people become their own “body buddy” instead of their “body bully.” Here are some practices she recommends:
“It can be helpful to reflect back on your life and see if there were moments when something painful occurred that led you to conclude that your body was somehow unacceptable. I call these ‘dart in the heart moments’—turning points that moved us away from feeling comfortable in our bodies and into evaluating and criticizing our bodies. Can you remember any of these moments and offer that younger part of you some compassion and wisdom?”
Put Negative Thoughts on Your Watch List
“When we’re gardening, weeds that we didn’t plant show up, but we make sure to remove them as soon as we can. In this same way, we can be diligent about bringing awareness to our self-critical thoughts and stay committed to challenging them as soon as they sprout. We all have the power to pull the mental weeds that inhibit our healthy growth, and we all have the power to plant new seeds of kindness, compassion, and acceptance that nurture our confidence and happiness. Every time you catch a negative thought and decide not to believe it, you can praise yourself for being aware enough to break the spell and upgrade your thinking.”
“Thinking of all the incredible things your body does for you can increase your appreciation of your body while helping you focus on much more than just its external appearance. A big shift can happen if you make body appreciation a regular practice. Try spending a few minutes every day summoning up gratitude towards your body. You can thank your heart for beating, your lungs for breathing, your miraculous senses that enable you to experience so much delight. What about your lips, teeth, fingers, and feet? The list of things to feel grateful for is endless!”
Meditate on Self-Love
“While you’re in a meditative state, think of something you love. It can be a person, a pet, or even a tree or the ocean. As you’re breathing deeply, look at your chosen image in your mind’s eye, and feel the love inside of you grow stronger and expand. Now slip your body into your gaze, using those same love-filled eyes to look at yourself. Stay with the practice for a few minutes, noticing how wonderful that self-love feels.”
Healing Negative Body Image: An Ongoing Process
Wachter explains that healing negative body image issues is an ongoing process. It’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to move quickly from self-criticism to self-love. “Although it takes patience and practice to reprogram ourselves to stop believing all the hurtful messages we’ve been taught and replace them with kind ones, it is possible,” she assures us. First, we must understand that holding ourselves up against an ideal that is not natural for us will never lead to feelings of peace and contentment, which is what we ultimately want to achieve.
“In the past, I always believed that I needed to change my body in order to be lovable. It turned out that I only needed to change my thinking,” Wachter shares. “Now I know that changing my body will not make me feel loved, only loving myself will. And the same goes for you.”
Try these practices to reconnect with your body.