In my intake process, I ask potential clients what it is that brought them to coaching. Knowing and understanding your “why” is very important to the process because in order to succeed you have to revisit it, often. Something that comes up more often than it should is this: “I saw myself in a family photo and I was disgusted with myself”.
Heartbreaking, right? Look, I’ve been there. I get it.
In Canada today, between 80 and 90% of women and girls are unhappy with the way they look. That leaves 10-20% of our female population actually satisfied with their appearance. Body image struggles matter. The impact on our mental health is obvious but I want to share some of the very real challenges our negative body image produces:
Unhealthy dieting: Girls are starting to diet younger than ever before, sometimes starting as early as 5 or 6 years old. I have heard girls playing at the park when there with my daughter, discussing carbs like they’re little monsters out to get them. I’ve also heard moms discussing their diets and long lists of foods they “can’t” eat in front of kids at the park – which literally breaks my heart. Every single one of my clients had a chronically diet-obsessed caregiver whose endless food restrictions left them fearing food as their bodies changed with puberty.
Taking drugs to lose weight: I’m part of a number of FB groups the discuss dieting. The PCOS group I’m part of is particularly problematic because the vast majority of these women are taking medications that have some clinical history of assisting in fat loss – but not independently. It goes without saying that many of them claim the meds don’t work but none of these women is discussing things that actually produce weight loss like producing a caloric deficit. They discuss fat burners – which have zero evidence of efficacy, and appetite suppressants. None of these things is without side effects and some producing long term heart damage, like medications like clenbuterol which is taken as a fat burner. The crazy things about people who take clen is that the role of this drug is to increase your heart rate artificially. Something you can do on your own with movement – and movement actually strengthens your heart.
Depression: I don’t have to tell you that depression and body image are connected. Depression causes us to see most things through a negative lens and our bodies are not excluded. We find fault in ourselves everywhere we turn. People who struggle with depression are often even more susceptible to comparison as they see others around them seemingly successful and happy – but, they feel the opposite. This is very easily internalized as an intrinsic flaw. Which, of course, it is not.
Disordered eating: One out of 10 girls and women develops disordered eating behaviours such as anorexia, or bulimia. I’ve discussed my own experience with anorexia and you don’t need me to tell you that these diseases can have serious long-term health consequences. I’ve known many women who’ve died from their eating disorders. I’ve said many times before that my having recovered from an eating disorder doesn’t make me an expert and please understand that I am not suggesting that low self-esteem is the cause of eating disorders but there is certainly a connection.
Unnecessary surgery: Any surgery brings risk. More and more healthy women with normal body shapes are getting cosmetic surgery. This includes breast implants, collagen injections and liposuction to name a few. This is something I’ll discuss in an upcoming post because I, too, have breast implants. It’s no secret that I struggled with low-self esteem and one of the decisions I made at a time in my life when I had the least self-worth was to get breast implants. This is definitely a decision I would not make today. Every surgery has risks and death is one of them. Of all the ways I could die and leave my babies behind, cosmetic surgery is NOT one that is worth the risk for me.
So, the damage done by negative body image is massive, obviously. But, what I want to do today is focus on the way we SEE our own bodies. Most of us spend a lot of time focusing on our appearance in an effort to minimize our perceived flaws. We see articles about this all the time. “What hairstyle suits your face shape”, or “what dress line minimizes your waist” and don’t even get me started on shapewear. But, the thing is, cameras often catch us when we’re not looking or focused on posing or shifting our bodies so they look the way we want them to. Which is completely reasonable because we SHOULD be living life at the moment and not constantly walking the planet fixated on how we might look in a photograph at any moment. Even red carpets are a moment in time.
So, we ARE going to be photographed in real moments and wouldn’t it be nice to look at those photos and appreciate the moment that was captured rather than how our stomach looks in the moment captured? Well, that’s what I want to discuss today.
My own moment of awareness about my body when I was overweight was a photo taken by my boyfriend at the time. I was in college, working 35 hours a week while attending school full-time and I coped with food. In this photo, I was wearing a red sleeveless knitted top and a denim skirt. My hair was ON POINT for the time. We were in Montreal at the botanical garden and I was sitting on a rock. I thought I would love this photo so I asked him to take it.
This was back in the days of photo processing so a week later when I saw the photo I was mortified. I knew I didn’t like my body (because I really never had) but I was devastated at what I saw. That was the day my eating disorder began. I would weigh 75lbs less in 6 months and would be hospitalized a few years after that. I struggled with disordered eating my entire life but that was a pivotal moment.
Now, my experience is obviously an extreme one but the reality is that MANY people struggle with their body image. I put out a question on social media and the responses I received are impactful. I wanted to share some of them with you.
Here’s what I asked: How do you feel about seeing yourself in photographs? I don’t just mean posed ones, edited ones, or selfies. I mean the ones you didn’t know were being taken in real moments.
These were the responses:
“The photographer at my wedding 29 years ago took some beautiful ones. That’s it. That’s the last time I liked candid photos of myself.”
“I generally feel quite negative, and try to avoid looking at them.”
“I don’t look at them. I remove myself from any photos I’m forced to be in”
This one really got me and I wanted to save it for last because it makes a profound point: “I don’t mind at all. But I have no photographs of my mother because she didn’t like having her picture taken (and I know many whose mothers felt the same). This has been going on far too long – mothers are erasing themselves from their families’ collective memory. And for what?”
Wow, right? That comment really got me thinking. Our photos really aren’t just for us. We don’t live forever and when we’re gone, what’s left? Our photos. That’s it. Maybe YOU don’t want to see your photos but you are love to your kids and THEY want to see those photos.
So, let’s stop erasing ourselves.
I want to share some thoughts with you to consider when you’re looking at those photos of yourself and having a moment of self-loathing.
- Remember that we are overly critical of ourselves. There have been a number of studies on this and women consistently see themselves as 2 sizes bigger than they are. It’s often said that the camera adds 10 pounds and whether that is true or not, we are often incapable of seeing our bodies accurately – camera or no camera.
- We focus on our flaws. My focus would always go to my abdomen when I was struggling with this. In fact, even when seeing my bodybuilding competition stage photos I was incapable of seeing anything but my abdomen. I always had the biggest quads on stage but was never satisfied because I was fixating on comparing my abs to others’.
- NO one looks great all the time. Every single person has “good” and “bad” photos. Last year I was invited onto the radio show, “The Goods” with Dahlia Kurtz to speak about my efforts to have the pride flag raised in Arnprior, Ontario. My husband and I laugh because, during the interview, he took several photos of me. When we looked at them later they were — entertaining. I was leaning over toward the microphone so my posture was terrible, and my mouth was wide open in all the photos, eyes closed in most. ZERO of them made it to social media because I looked like I was fixing to attack Dahlia on the other side of the table. I consider myself pretty photogenic but they were not my best. I am aware I don’t normally look like that and they were a moment in time. A very animated moment. And just like those were not my best moments, EVERYONE has those moments. Even some of the most beautiful humans on earth. Tabloids love to print those images, don’t they?
- There is a reason you’re having such a strong reaction and it isn’t the reason you think. Media is largely responsible for this. Even in line at the grocery store, we’re exposed to reminders that we’re supposed to be perfect. Magazines that line the checkout aisle have fitness models, looking gorgeous and strong gracing the covers. They worked SO hard for that shoot – but that isn’t discussed. In fact, I didn’t realize that until I was in the physique world. Those photo shoots are done a few days after a competition when the model is dieted and her muscles carbed up. She didn’t just roll out of bed after a night on the town and uber into the studio with a bag full of lululemon. Trust me, I’ve done it and it was miserable. In addition to that, we see headlines on tabloids that read “10 actresses who let themselves go” or “who had the worst bikini body”. I mean, we’re being groomed to judge ourselves. So, this isn’t on you. Don’t own it.
- Focus on the moment. My husband recently took a photo of me sitting on the sofa next to our daughter, where she was resting her head on me and I was looking over and down at her. I’m 43 and that means my skin is beginning to loosen on my neck. So, the photo shows that. It was very honestly the first thing I noticed. That’s just an old habit. I decided instead to focus on the moment. In that moment, my body was that baby girl’s soft place to lay her head. To her, my body is love. If I focus on that, I can’t see flaw – just love.
Ultimately, though it doesn’t always feel like it, we get to decide how we feel about what we see. Unfortunately, we have a lot of negative messages to contend with and it is NOT an easy task. But, we have to do this work. Remember, our kids see things we don’t think they see. They can feel how we feel about our bodies. Feeling good in our skin is not something we just get good at one day and it will not be gifted to us magically. It takes action.
Stephen Covey is an author who wrote the book *seven habits of highly effective people. He famously said “Love is a verb. Love – the feeling – is the fruit of love the verb or our loving actions. So love her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her.”
That’s good advice, don’t you think? This has been the foundation of my work on myself. I’m not always successful but I am always trying. So, get in those family photos. When you’re having one of those moments with your family and you think “wow, I hope I remember this forever” – tell your partner to take a photo. When you see it, commit to seeing the moment and not your perceived flaws. See that woman in that photo and, as Stephen Covey said: love her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her.