When you look at your body in the mirror, where does your gaze go? If you’re like most women, your eyes are drawn instantly to the parts of yourself that you want to change; the parts you hate. You zoom in on your “trouble spots.” Maybe you suck your belly in, or use your hands to lift or tighten something that’s sagging, and you curse your body for looking the way it does. Why can’t you just look DIFFERENT? Ugh.
If this nasty little ritual sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Most women do this, to various degrees. When this mental behavior is taken to the extreme, then we start talking about Body Dismorphia Disorder, which is defined as “a psychological disorder in which a person becomes obsessed with imaginary defects in their appearance.”
A person with BDD can’t believe others who say they look fine; their obsessively negative thoughts cause severe emotional distress, and interfere with the person’s daily functioning. The scary thing is, while maybe not at a clinically diagnosable level, I think most women suffer emotional distress based on distorted perceptions of what they look like.
Most of us really don’t believe others who say they look fine (or great!). And we do allow negative thoughts about our appearances to dictate how we show up in the world- or if, indeed, we show up at all. We choose to dress certain ways, behave certain ways, and pursue certain careers and relationships, all based on how we think we look. Most women think they don’t look good enough, and they behave accordingly. That behavior is so common, that we hardly even recognize how fucked up it is.
Think about how often you hear people say things like “ugh I really need to get back in shape” when noticing a part of their body that jiggles or wobbles. We all agree to pretend not to notice that what they’re really saying is “I wish I was different,” or even “I disgust myself.” We go around repeating phrases of sugar-coated self-loathing to each other, blindly supporting each other in this habit. It’s easy to do for the most part, because we feel the same about ourselves.
We support each other in the belief that the problem is our bodies. We want to believe that our problems will be fixed when we fix our bodies. You might think- if I can get rid of this arm fat, I’ll be satisfied. You imagine that when your thighs are smaller and tighter, you’ll be happy. But the problem ISN’T your body. Don’t get me wrong, getting into shape is awesome. I’m a big fan. Plus the process teaches you a whole helluva lot about yourself.
But obsessing about what you want to change (or even obsessing about the process of changing it!) keeps you from dealing with the real problem. The real problem is how the brain translates what it sees, and how you’ve trained it to translate YOU.
Your brain is constantly putting together a picture for you, based on all the clues and information it receives via your senses and feelings. Hormones, which respond to your emotional and mental state, affect how the picture is put together. For example, right after your partner gives you an orgasm, as you lay there flooded with oxytocin and dopamine, your partner will appear just so beeeaaauuutiful to you, right?
Or let’s say your ex is now dating a (supposedly) hot blonde girl. As you stalk her on facebook (no judgement), your brain will be shuffling her image around so that she doesn’t look attractive to you at all. While everyone else seems to think she’s hot, your mind will find ways of confirming that she looks like a bitchy idiot who wouldn’t be very pretty without all that makeup. Had you met this girl somewhere else though, your brain would have put together a totally different image. Let’s say she was a huge fan of your work and shyly approached you at the office hoping for some advice. She would have probably seemed very pretty, as you noticed her genuine smile, or how great purple mascara looks against her skin tone.
The point is, your brain is constantly using context clues and how you feel about stuff to put together the picture you see. So what does it put together when you look at yourself?
What we see when we look at ourselves
Most women have unconsciously trained themselves to search for- and find- every single fault in their face and body. Over the course of years (especially formative years as we go through puberty), many girls and women will ritualistically look in the mirror and tear themselves apart. We break our bodies into individual parts, zooming in on every possible flaw and scrutinizing it to death. We think mean thoughts, curse our flaws, and desperately wish we looked different.
Eventually it becomes such an engrained habit, such an automatic ritual of self-hatred, that our eyes inevitably go straight to those flaws every time we look in the mirror, triggering that familiar wealth of negative thoughts multiple times a day. We have practiced this skill for so long, so well, and so often, that sometimes we can no longer even see what other people think is pretty or sexy about us. We’re not intending to be rude when we disagree with compliments paid to us, it just seems so obviously untrue. After all, how could I believe someone thinks I look great, when the only thing I see when I look at myself are enormous glaring flaws?
Even without having clinically diagnosable level of distortion, the way we see ourselves is distorted. Not because there’s something wrong with us, but because everything everyone sees is always distorted. Our perception is always biased; it’s always skewed based on our feelings and beliefs. Women simply spend our entire lives training our brains to see our bodies as monumentally, catastrophically wrong.
What we train for determines the results we see. We’ve been training, our whole lives, for low self-esteem and negative body image. But that doesn’t mean we’re stuck there. Luckily, since we trained our brains into this mess, we can train our brains out.
8 Tips for Training Your Brain to Love Your Body
- Acknowledge that you have a choice. Will you find yourself slipping back into negative habits? Of course. Probably over and over. But every time you have the choice: will you give into the old habits? Or will you choose in this moment something new?
- Consciously look for what you like about yourself. When you look at your face and body in the mirror (or photos), purposefully, intentionally send your eyes to the things you like about yourself, and linger there. Say nice things to yourself about them, admire them, and let yourself imagine how other people admire them too.
- Skim over the rest. Learn how to let your eyes skim lightly over the rest of your face and body, taking in the bigger picture without pausing and thinking about what you want to change. If that means your eyes must always be moving, fine. You’re more than a jumble of body parts. You’re a whole, and you deserve to be taken in as one.
- Do impressive stuff. Maybe that means you crush it at work, get strong at the gym, of learn a neat skill. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you think it’s impressive. Focusing on what you can do, instead of what you look like, is a huge part of re-training the brain. Impress yourself as often as you can.
- Explore your body from a different POV. Make a playdate with yourself to admire and… masturbate! (Yup. I’m going there.) You’re worth exploring, so make it a date and take your time. Look at, and admire, the lines and curves of your body. Imagine what your lover (past, future, or even imaginary!) must see when they look at you- a lover who thinks that you are carnal perfection. Admire and explore yourself from that POV, or any other that lets you see yourself as exactly right.
- Work to stop comparing yourself to other women. We each have our own gifts to offer, and another woman’s beauty or success does not take away from your own. You would never compare a rose and daisy and conclude that since one was beautiful, the other was ugly.
- If you do catch yourself comparing, be sure to remember they are human too. Even the most “perfect looking” woman has a rich, chaotic emotional landscape, filled with her own insecurities, struggles, and distorted self-perception. Imagine you can briefly see what SHE see when she looks in the mirror. It might seem silly or crazy to you to imagine that a gorgeous fit woman would ever feel insecure. But likewise, your own insecurities might seem silly or crazy to someone who is less fit than you.
- Remember that you’re undoing a lifetime of face and body scrambling. It’s not going to happen overnight. Practice. Be patient. Have compassion. Keep going.
I am passionate about helping women learn to love their bodies, but loving your body as a woman in our culture isn’t easy, as you know.
That’s why I created the Body Image Alchemy Blueprint:
to help women explore and address the actual blocks that get in the way of truly loving and accepting yourself. If you want to love and accept your body no matter how it looks, but don’t know where to start, this course is for you.