All of us struggle to some degree with body image issues, and this is something I have battled with ever since I was a little girl. I grew up in an extremely loving household, whereby I was always told I was beautiful by my mum, dad, sister, other members of the family, and even friends. However, equally, these people were always concerned about weight and body image – it felt like a natural part of life growing up. It dominated conversations between my mum and aunties, my dad would comment on weight gain/loss, and most of my friends (myself included) would frantically count calories, workout obsessively, and continuously worry about how we looked.
When I was at primary school, I developed a lot faster than most of my friends. I had a lot of what was termed “puppy fat”. As a result, I was bullied both on and off the playground. I began to feel like I was different to most of the other girls my age; and boys would pick on me because of my weight. My earliest memory of feeling insecure about my body was when I was 7 years old. I was so embarrassed by my body that I was the only one in my class to ask to get changed for P.E. around the corner from everyone else so that none of my classmates could see me - only to have the other class come out and laugh at me!! “Fatso”, “sumo” and “chubby”, were just a few of the names I was called throughout my primary years!!
By the time I got to secondary school, I had lost weight (that is, I had grown out of the “puppy fat”). But as we all know, going through puberty is a whole other ball-game! Teenagers will always find something to pick on you about - your hair, your clothes, your shoes, your make-up! Along with this, music channels, beauty magazines, girl bands, American television programmes like Friends, and Sex in the City, were all extremely popular when I was a teen; then came the rise of social media! All of which were a constant stream of social messages that reinforced all the ways my body was not good enough.
To this day, I still battle with body-confidence issues.
Ironically, I have chosen a career in an industry fraught with conflicting messages about health, beauty, self-love and acceptance! Sometimes I feel that the thing I come to for help (Yoga), is the same thing that can at times perpetuate my self-doubt and self-deprecating thoughts about my body.
An article on DoYouYoga quite rightly points out that “for years, mainstream yoga publications, websites, and clothing companies, have carefully crafted a very specific image of what yoga looks like… Pictures of very thin attractive, flexible, and almost exclusively Caucasian women are being disproportionately featured in advertising and promotion for yoga. Very rarely do you see an “average” or “regular” sized person doing a simple yoga pose”… “Society creates this impossible image so companies can make money off your insecurities about yourself and your body—insecurities that this type of marketing helped create in order to sell their products”
It seems that the way the western world works is to perpetuate the idea that “you are not quite enough” – if you change something about yourself, if you “transform” in to something different, something better, then you will be worth more, loved more, more successful.
So from a very young age, one of the first things I believed about my body was that it was “fat” and I needed to change that. Thus, at the age of 14, I turned to yoga as a means of losing weight and toning up.
But I learnt so much more about myself and the practice of Yoga along the way.
I have enlisted the help of an article on the Yoga Journal website to articulate the ways in which Yoga can help you and I remember that we are perfect just as we are.
Firstly, it is important to note that basing your self-esteem on how you look is a sure fire way to create a negative body image. The unrealistic social expectations of how we should look cause a range of “heavy” feelings, such as discontent, embarrassment, insecurity, worry, shame, and an obsession with controlling weight, food, and exercise. Over time, these feelings lead to unhealthy beliefs about our self-worth. We will never be able to live up to the unrealistic photo-shopped ideal, so it is time to stop comparing ourselves physically to others, and focus on our values and gifts, such as being courageous, having a great personality, contributions to the community, and service to others.
Here is a list of ways in which Yoga can help to heal negative body image and low self-esteem.
1) One of the first tenants of yoga is ahimsa (nonviolence) — do no harm to yourself or others. The media creating unrealistic images of beauty is harmful to us, and it is up to us to set those images aside, and to love and be kind to ourselves. We are beautiful as we are.
2) In our physical asana practice, we need to focus more on what we can do and less on trying to be perfect at it. Mainstream media will continue to post picture perfect images, but we need to change the aesthetic and broaden the idea of what yoga looks like.
3) Yoga teaches us gratitude. We need to start being grateful for our wonderful bodies in all their glory, and thank them for all of the incredible things they do for us. As we work through our physical practice we can tune in with the ways in which our bodies help us balance, twist, sideband, backbend, and forward fold, and we can build a new awareness of our body’s power.
4) Yoga helps us change our mind-set so that we can see beyond our limiting beliefs about ourselves and turn them in to possibilities. It is so easy to focus on what’s “wrong” with our bodies, fixating on what our bodies can’t do. This negativity hardens our once playful and curious selves. Yoga poses can help us shed that hardened layer and create a safe space to “play.” No one is grading us on whether we can balance on one leg or not! Yoga encourages us to witness the self-talk that makes us doubt our body, and shift to language that embraces a curious spirit, approaching our poses from a playful mind-set versus one of perfection or ideals.
5) Cultivating this witnessing presence in our practice means that we are able to simply observe what comes up, without judging or criticising. Then we can begin to watch our bodies with compassion versus disdain.
6) Yoga teaches us to remain present. When we are caught in negative thinking about our bodies, we are not present. Instead, we are trapped in the past or future, comparing ourselves to how we looked last year or how we want to look next month. Feelings of guilt and shame often show up, causing us to lose connection with the present moment and making it even harder to feel confident in our bodies. Through breathing practices and yoga poses, we learn to practice presence - turning to our body to help soothe our mind. This is an essential tool in helping us calm spinning thinking about body image and other anxieties. Yoga helps us live in the moment and be content with exactly who we are.
7) Yoga helps us to clear the mental clutter that may have been suppressing wisdom and insights about why we struggle with body image. Such wisdom can get buried under the weight of shame and guilt and other feelings, or self-sabotaging behaviours. When we practice yoga, we are able to observe (not judge) the messages and lessons our inner wisdom gives us about our past experiences and habitual reactions and behaviours. This gives us the opportunity to both validate why body image issues exist and identify—or at least begin to consider—what might help us move away from body despair toward body affirming experiences, both on and off the mat.
8) During our practice it is important to remember to stay focused on what makes our bodies feel good. We are our own teachers, and our bodies are all unique and different from one another, so we need to learn to modify the postures so that it feels good for us. If your body doesn’t look just like the cover of Yoga Magazine, what does it matter?!
So there we have it. Yoga, with its tenets of peace, self-compassion, and acceptance, is a path to softening and even transforming harsh beliefs about our bodies. Through the path of yoga, we practice harmony within, and strengthen our relationship with our body.
Yoga has helped me massively on my path to healing these deep-rooted body image issues. But that demon still lurks within. So as I explained last week, just like Yoga, improving our perspective of our body is a life-long commitment that takes practice, determination, and patience. We must be committed to changing the way we think about ourselves, and “catch” ourselves whenever we have a self-deprecating thought, and replace it with a loving thought that nourishes us. Repetition, consistency, and time are essential to lasting healing.