Updated: Dec 11, 2019
Ten questions to help you show up for yourself with curiosity and warmth as you move through the pain of bad body image.
Katie Peterman, Psy.D.
If you are feeling bad about your body today, you are not alone. It can feel disheartening to continue to experience moments of body shame or dissatisfaction when you have been working hard to heal a disordered relationship with food and body. Please know that it is not your fault that you feel this way. Our culture places high demands on how our bodies should look and what we should be doing to make them more acceptable. Not many people are spared from bad body image moments. These moments are an understandable reaction to the weight stigma that surrounds us. As painful as they are, moments of body shame provide us with an opportunity to strengthen our resilience and healing. We can start to show up for ourselves differently during these times than we did in the past.
Below are 10 questions you can ask yourself when you’re having a bad body image day to help you move through these difficult moments and get back to living a life that is rooted in your core values. It should be noted that not every question will be helpful for every person in every situation. Pay attention to what resonates with you and feel free to leave the rest.
1. What am I feeling right now?
When we pause and tune in, we can notice what emotions are underlying our self-criticism. If you’re having trouble putting words to your emotional experience, going through a list of some emotion words can be a helpful place to start. Are you feeling disgusted or ashamed? Angry, helpless, or disappointed? Sad, lonely, grieving? Scared, surprised, or overwhelmed? Maybe you’re feeling a combination of different emotions. See if you can notice where you feel this feeling most strongly in your body. What does it feel like? Does it have a shape or color or sound? Remember that all feelings are temporary. See if you are able to be present without judgment, as the emotion crescendos and falls, and passes through you.
2. What would I be thinking about if I wasn’t focusing on my body?
As disturbing as bad body image moments are, they are an opportunity to get curious. When we start obsessing about our body’s problems, it can be a signal that something deeper is actually going on that needs our attention. Have you ever felt fine about your body in the morning and then loathed your body that same evening? We know intellectually that our bodies cannot change that much over the course of a few hours. So what’s happening when we go from feeling fine about our bodies to suddenly wanting to crawl out of our skin?
Diet culture leads us to believe that we will find happiness, health, confidence, and love by achieving the culturally-deemed “ideal” body. Many of us learned early on to seek refuge from life’s challenges in striving to fix our bodies. Sometimes, our bodies can become the target when there are bigger, more distressing or less straightforward problems we are facing. Focusing on trying to fix our bodies might provide distraction or give us an illusion of control in the midst of life’s struggles and uncertainties. Instead of feeling lost because we no longer find meaning in our career path, we focus on trying to attain a lower number on the scale. Instead of feeling embarrassed and angry because a friend shared one of our secrets, we are overcome by a desperation to wear smaller pants. Unfortunately, we will not find sustainable peace or the answer to our problems in the pursuit of a different body size or shape.
Once you have greater awareness around what you are feeling and what the real problem might be, you have the chance to deal with it directly. This might mean seeking out others you trust and talking about it, or writing it down. It might also mean having an uncomfortable conversation or making a plan to shift something that isn’t working in your life. Or it might mean just being there for yourself in a nurturing way as you feel what you feel without having to do anything.
3. If there was nothing about me or my body that needed to be fixed, what would feel good to me today? What would I like more of or less of?
Listen to what comes up with curiosity. Listen to learn the best way to care for yourself today.
When changing our size and shape is our main goal, we become reliant on external “rules” and we lose touch with our inner knowledge of what we truly need. Removing the focus of changing our bodies can help us sense our needs and wants with more clarity. Perhaps there is something you are craving that you have not been prioritizing. Some examples could be: slowing down, quality time with people you care about, a little pampering, adventure, a challenge, movement, rest, learning something new, a creative outlet. Are there ways you can give yourself what you’re needing, or take steps toward moving in that direction today?
4. How can I treat my body with respect today?
It can be very tempting to turn to another restrictive plan in these moments. Try to resist this urge. While this may bring a sense of relief or hope in the short-term, it can perpetuate harmful behaviors and it gives fuel to the voice saying that your body is not good enough and needs to change.
Jumping right into body acceptance might feel like too big of a leap, but aiming for body respect often seems more in reach. What are some action steps you can take today toward treating your body with respect? Some possibilities might be nourishing yourself adequately and wearing clothes that feel comfortable.
5. Who is benefitting from me thinking my body is a problem?
Naming the systems that have lead to our body shame can be a powerful way to detangle ourselves from the oppressive beliefs and expectations we’ve internalized. The multi-billion dollar diet industry promotes a very narrow definition of beauty and profits off of us feeling like we need to fix ourselves. When we direct our anger where it belongs, we can focus our energy on diet culture being the entity that needs to change - not our bodies.
Hearing other voices that challenge the mainstream paradigms of beauty, health, and worthiness can be very helpful in these moments. They can remind us that there is a larger truth than the one that is constantly marketed to us and often regurgitated by family, friends, and coworkers. Please see our resources page for our favorite podcast and book recommendations.
6. What am I making this mean about me?
Pay attention to your thoughts and what you’re saying to yourself. Underneath our criticisms about our bodies are often assumptions about what these physical attributes mean about us. For instance, we may have a belief that our size means we are less likable. Once we realize the meaning we are making, we can more consciously work to widen our perspective. What else might be true? Is there a more balanced and accepting way of seeing this? What do I want to make this mean?
7. What other qualities about me, aside from my body, are valuable?
List several of your valued traits outside of body appearance. What do you appreciate about yourself? Perhaps think back to what others have told you they appreciate about you that you feel to be true. Remember: You don’t have to be the most extreme version of something to own it as part of your identity. You can be funny and also sometimes make jokes that fall flat. You can be hardworking, and also have days when you do nothing productive. Try to challenge perfectionistic thinking and allow yourself to acknowledge your strengths.
8. How would I talk to someone I love who was experiencing this?
Allow yourself to imagine how you might talk to a friend or beloved child who was feeling the way you do in this momenyt. This can often elicit more warmth and kindness than what we would typically offer to ourselves. See if you can try to turn to yourself with the same compassion.
9. Are there words I need to hear right now?
Having a mantra can be the anchor we need to ride out these difficult moments. Repeat it over and over in your mind, write it down, or put it into your phone as a “reminder” every hour.
Some ideas of mantras might be:
“This will pass.”
“My body is my home."
“May I accept myself as I am.”
“Bodies are meant to change.”
“This is my one, precious life.”
“I am so much more than my body.”
10. What else have I gained in addition to weight?
It is not uncommon to gain weight once you start to heal disordered patterns that were keeping your weight suppressed. When feeling down, it can be easy to glamorize memories of times when you may have been occupying a smaller body. Try to see beyond the momentary “highs” and remember what it was truly like day-to-day, hour-to-hour, meal-to-meal. How were you really feeling? Were you preoccupied with numbers? Were you terrified of any small change that might make you gain weight? Were you missing out on social opportunities due to having to stick to a rigid regimen? Were you still not feeling good enough?
While it is often necessary to grieve aspects of a past body or the fantasy of having a particular body, it is also important to acknowledge what has gotten better as you have started to make peace with your body and food. Are you experiencing more pleasure with your food and in your life? Are you learning about your worth and identity outside of your body? Are you getting in touch with what you truly value and what you have to offer this world? Are you experiencing less guilt and more mental clarity? Can you enjoy your time with friends and your partner more now that you are not as preoccupied and regimented? The possibilities are endless.
Try to shift your attention away from how your body looks and focus in on what you can experience in your body in this life when you can be fully present. Your body is your vehicle for connection, pleasure, and expression. As Mary Oliver says in her poem, The Summer Day, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”