"One day I decided that I was beautiful and so I carried out my life as if I was beautiful. It doesn't have anything to do with how the world perceives you. What matters is what you see."
- Gabourey Sidibe
Most of us can recall a time in our lives where we became aware of our perception of our own self image and attractiveness. Whether we began to perceive ourselves as attractive or not, there is often a comment that was made towards us that shifted our perception dramatically. A coach, a parent, a friend can either complement or criticize how we appear and it has the potential to fundamentally shift the way we see ourselves. Why one comment or one person's perception had such a profound impact is simple.
When we are growing up, our survival depends on mostly external factors. After infancy, we are forced to become hyper alert to what is happening outside of our internal world. All our basic needs are met by adults in our external world, therefore it's natural to grow that awareness. Later, as we grow older, the school system reinforces that perspective by telling you who you are depending on your acclimation to formal education. If you pay attention to the teacher and accomplish good grades, you are smart and rewarded. If you are too distracted by your internal landscape (i.e. daydreaming), you are labeled as inattentive. This theme is pervasive in our school system. Aside from academics, at this same time, our learning about who we are and how we appear to others also initially lands on us from the outside.
How many people were told by a classmate that they were pretty or ugly. How many people were made fun of in elementary or middle school for a body part, at just the time we are trying to fit in. How often did that comment received on the playground or from a bully land so hard within us that we continued to believe it from childhood into adulthood.
To add insult to body injury, so to speak, when we begin to consume media and television we are inundated by messages about body images. Some are direct and others are insidiously subliminal. Girls see consistent images of particular body types on all sorts of media and begin to compare their bodies to these pictures. If larger bottoms are what is being highlighted, then they believe they should have larger bottoms. Unfortunately, the size of our gluteus maximus has more to do with genetics than what we can order online.
As young people are consuming social media earlier in their lives, this begins the plummeting of self esteem at a younger and younger age. Although this is more significant for women, it also challenges young men. More and more adolescent boys are falling victim to eating disorders displeased with the way they perceive the appearance of their bodies. Muscles and broad shoulders become the unachievable benchmark that adolescent boys begin to covet. Further, whether boys begin to feel too "skinny" or too "large" they feel inadequate that will impact their body image for years to come.
Finding more significant ways to acknowledge our self worth, that goes beyond body parts, is crucial to shift this ingrained paradigm, and it takes time. Whether we are speaking to our children or to ourselves, beginning to offer that inner part of us kind self talk about the ways we appreciate it.
Three things you can do to shift your or your child's inner dialogue regarding body image:
1. Notice Strength. Say out loud... "I feel strong today". Or if speaking to your child honor their strength like "I imagine it feels good to be strong enough to climb that tree".
2. Focus On Inside. When you notice you are focused on beauty, instead challenge yourself to ask about someone's personality, or character. Is their personality and integrity honorable. Included here is focusing on your own internal world!
3. Complement others on their personality or character. Most of the time people will say, "oh your hair looks so good". Or "oh you look great... did you lose weight"? Instead, offer appreciation for someone's generosity and kindness.
Although we can't change how we have been impacted by body shaming or messages in the past, we can consciously decide to shift the manner in which we talk to ourselves and others. This cascade of new information will shift our thinking over time if we are willing to commit to a kinder and more loving relationship with the body that carries us through the world.