6 Ways to Flip Your Body-Shaming Script

We can place part of the blame for body shaming on the media: you have to have visible ab muscles, super-toned yoga shoulders, a skinny waist and other social media-manifested benchmarks such as the “thigh gap”.

But constant evaluation and judgment is also just how our brains process the world around us, and it might take some work to get to a place where that process doesn’t erode our self-esteem.

According to Holly Parker, Ph.D., a psychotherapist, Harvard University lecturer, and author, “Brains are like 4-year-olds hopped up on candy. They run around posting labels on everything they see. They come up with all kinds of things, and some are going to be accurate, but other thoughts won’t serve us and might not even be true.”

Which isn’t to say that body shaming is behavior we should accept as inevitable. Body negativity can contribute to depression and eating disorders in addition to low self-esteem. It plants a seed that encourages people to feel worse about themselves. And it has consequences beyond just feeling bad about yourself; it spreads into other domains of your life.

Here’s how to change the conversation the next time you have a negative exchange with yourself.


1. Focus on the Tangible

An easy way to ruin your day is to focus on what you “are” rather than on what you can do. How strong is “strong enough”? You’re not “athletic enough” or “fit enough” — compared to whom?

If you find yourself doing this, write down your successes instead – no matter how small. Remind yourself that you just got promoted at work, scored an internship you wanted, have a black belt in karate or went for a 15-minute walk. Chances are nothing on your list will have to do with the size of your jeans.

For example, if increasing your strength is important to you, set a goal more specific than just “get stronger.” Try adding an additional pound of weight to your workouts each week. When you hold plank 30 seconds longer than you did a week ago, celebrate that.

2. Put Thoughts in Their Place

It isn’t easy, but it’s helpful to reframe our thoughts, which takes away some of their power to make us feel bad about ourselves.

“When we notice something, our mind tells us a story about it,” Parker explains. “We have a choice about whether we buy into those stories, but what’s interesting is that we don’t realize it. Our mind tells us that what we think is the truth.”

To help people reframe how they view the thoughts that enter their minds, Parker suggests visualizing that you’re walking through a grocery store and looking at all the products. “Do you buy everything? No,” she says. “You might pull something off a shelf, look at it and then put it back. Try thinking about thoughts in same way.”

3. Separate the Thought From the Judgment

Most of us are wired to accept our negative thoughts without question but scrutinize and doubt positive ones, Parker says. So when you look in the mirror and think, “I’m gross,” it can feel like you’re stating a fact, but you’re not. Being mindful helps you realize you’re making a judgment, not stating a reality.

Acknowledging, “OK, right now I’m having this THOUGHT that I’m gross” feels differently than just thinking, ‘I’m gross.’” It helps us pull back and have some perspective on the thought – and be more accurate in how we assess ourselves.

4. Don’t Ignore Negative Self-Talk

It might sound counterintuitive to tell people to not banish body-shaming thoughts from their minds. But Parker says that advice to do so isn’t helpful because when people try to push thoughts away, they come back more forcefully.

If someone feels sad and another person tells him or her to stop being so negative, it can make them feel worse and unheard. Rather than trying to silence that negative voice, acknowledge that the thought came up.

“I don’t tell people to lie to themselves or have a Pollyanna attitude that everything is great,” Parker says. “Changing how they talk to themselves is about promoting more accuracy and self-compassion, because negative labels or statements can feel like facts when they’re not.”

5. Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

I know what I just said about acknowledging negative self-talk, but you need to stop worrying, “Why don’t I look like Beyonce/Taylor Swift/(insert celebrity here)?”

For one thing, celebs, Instagram influencers, and even your Facebook friends who post “thinspiration” selfies on the reg, have learned how to position themselves in photos just right, so you’re seeing them at their absolute best. Factor in Photoshop, filters and editing, and you’ve got a recipe for body envy.

If you find yourself feeling sad and inadequate scrolling through your social media feeds, you might want to unfollow some of the “gymspiration” types. And if you subscribe to magazines or catalogs that consistently feature models that make you feel inadequate, cancel them.

6. Be a Friend to Yourself

Imagine if the negative voice in your head was a tiny person sitting on your shoulder or someone walking behind you all day.

“When I ask patients, ‘How would you treat this person?’ walking behind you, it provokes a strong reaction. If they get really mad, chances are, they’re not being kind to themselves,” Parker says. “Because we tolerate talk from ourselves that we would never tolerate from another person.”

Another trick I use is to question whether the unkind thought you just unleashed upon yourself was something you’d say to your grandmother: “Would you call your grandmother fat for having another slice of pizza?”

It isn’t easy to retrain the brain to be compassionate and reasonable after a lifetime of media and social pressure about how we look. Instead of always following the path of self-doubt, it can help to envision taking another fresher, different path instead. Stepping away from some of the stories our mind tells us is hard, but we CAN create new paths, or new ways of thinking.

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