Emotional Health

Take Control of Your Self-Image:
Feed the Good Wolf

Worse, we judge ourselves against impossible standards. Not only do we use a level set by the world’s most “perfect” beauties—e.g. Angelina Jolie, but also, nowadays we measure ourselves against photo-shopped images of them that have been enhanced and retouched. And when photographers manage to snap pictures of celebrities caught without makeup, these are published in national magazines with a mixture of scathing criticism and schadenfreude.

All this helps support our critical attitudes towards ourselves (and others), and sets up impossible goals that we still struggle to meet against the odds. While millions of people weigh more than the ideal, very few accept themselves as they are and many who are average fight to lose weight even though their bodies revolt, endeavoring to be as slim as actresses and models. Yet even professional women like the latter observe extremely strict protocols of diet and exercise to keep themselves unnaturally thin.

The first step toward undoing the destructive, stubborn embrace of self-critical attitudes is learning to identify them. This is what I call “ringing the bell.” When you have thoughts or feelings like these, instead of letting them go as business as usual, take notice. Question your thoughts. Say to yourself, “there I go again, sabotaging myself in ways that are unnecessary and cruel.”

By bringing attention to these habits, you can begin to loosen the automatic responses that undermine you without you even noticing them. At first, you may not be able to prevent these feelings, but by bringing attention to them, you can begin to explore the negative thought constructs that keep them going.

So, using the example of negative body image, you can begin by questioning the underlying premise. Ask, “why do I insist on comparing myself to 25 year olds who are “professional” beauties?” Many of us do this even though it is in contrast to our fundamental values. You might be very far from someone who thinks the most important thing in life is to be attractive, and you may not respect such values in others, so why do you treat yourself as if you do? Think about what you respect and like about others, and what kind of person you really aspire to be. Many women have bought into cultural standards they don’t really approve of without even realizing it.

Secondly, look at yourself with a kinder, more nuanced lens. Think about what really makes a person attractive—a warm smile, a good heart, or a sense of being comfortable with yourself. In combating the negative constructs, practice regarding yourself with an attitude of someone who loves you, and appreciate the characteristics that make you unique.

Again, on the physical level, instead of counting the ways in which you fall short, look at your best points and think about how to accentuate them. French women, who are famously good at this, are taught from an early age to appreciate their unique traits. They look for colors that suit them, styles that bring out their good points, and celebrate themselves as women throughout the life cycle. And the results pay off—France is one of the few Western countries where older women are considered sexy and alluring. And a study comparing the rates of eating disorders in women showed that while they are increasing slightly in France, the incidence is still significantly lower than the US and Canada. The prevalence in non-Western countries was even lower.

Of course, negative body image, while encouraged and exacerbated by our culture, is often embedded in a whole structure of critical and judgmental feelings we have about ourselves. But by ringing the bell, i.e. challenging these thoughts, you can take the first, crucial step toward loosening their hold on you. Do not accept these thoughts as reality, but see them as what they are: ideas. Attitudes and ideas can be remarkably stubborn, but they are not proven facts. Instead of trying to change yourself into someone you are not, try to change your thinking so that the person you are is someone you like. Take charge: feed the good wolf and tell the bad wolf to slink away and get out of your mind.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.