One of my patients, who we’ll call Melissa, spent months avoiding the beach, even when her persistent friends repeatedly invited her. After gaining 15 pounds, she had decided staying home was better than the prospect of facing Instagram photos of her body in a swimsuit.
But after noticing that staying home only seemed to increase her shame and misery, Melissa accepted the possibility that hiding wasn’t helping. In therapy, we began tracking all the ways she hides (her uniform of black, loose-fitting clothes) and practiced focusing on ways Melissa could show up – in life, and at the beach.
Finally, despite initial protests, Melissa said she would be willing to go to the beach.
“I guess I might be able to go if I offer to take pictures instead of pose in the pictures,” she conceded. “Is that showing up?”
I warmly hoped she’d reconsider being in the photos. But armed with a plan, Melissa enjoyed her summer days at the beach far more than the time she spent in her “comfort zone.”
We all move through the world inundated by prescribed notions about what our bodies should look like. With such powerful messaging, it's easy to internalize the idea that our bodies somehow reflect on us as a whole. We often feel that by failing to shape our bodies into whatever mold we’ve learned is acceptable, we’ve failed as humans.
In preparation for summer, we pinch and suck in, huff and puff, or shrink and cry, believing that each ripple or pound makes us less lovable, less desirable, less the person we “ought” to be. But chasing down a magic number on the scale will do little to permanently alter our happiness or sense of self-acceptance.
Too rarely do we stop to ask ourselves why, health aside, our bodies matter quite so much. We accept, as if immutable, the premise that the shape and size of our bodies holds meaning—suggesting how “good” we are, or how “worthy.” And so let’s consider this question: Why must our bodies – in all their divine, functional glory – hold such power over our sense of self, let alone our enjoyment of a glorious day?
With beach season upon us, the first step towards confronting our bikini body hang-ups is to dismiss our mental body policing. Here are some strategies to move toward accepting your body and enjoying your summer:
If you’re gearing up for a day in the sun, preempt the urge to fixate on “problem spots" by practicing body-positive mindfulness. Consider doing a 5 to 10 minute meditation in which you focus on compassionate thoughts (i.e. “May I be happy”) and hone the skill of letting go of habitual judgments.
When you find yourself fixating on physical flaws, consider funneling that energy into alternative pursuits that bolster your sense of competence. You’re less likely to sink into body dissatisfaction when reminded of the many substantive ways you make an impression in the world.
If you’re lounging at the beach and find yourself thinking about your body “flaws,” reorient toward something active and/or social. Whether it’s bumping a volleyball, swimming leisurely laps or playing a poolside board game, engaging will remind you of the many ways your body (and mind) serve you.
If you’re alone, listen to the ocean waves, or watch those sandy toddlers build their towering sand castle. You may find that these goings-on remind you of the infinite sources of joy and gratitude that are more worthy of your energy than that patch of cellulite you’re lamenting.
3. Keep good company
Carefully consider the company you keep. Do you have certain friends who routinely engage in “fat talk”? Be sure to protect yourself as you would a daughter or a friend. You are fully entitled to tell a friend that his or her body-focused, critical comments negatively impact you, and to ask that he/she refrain from judgmental talk in your presence. Perhaps your closest group of friends can agree to stamp out “fat talk” altogether, creating a safe and supportive environment rather than one that encourages comparison and negative self-talk.
Spend more time in outfits that feel revealing to you. Try wearing your “forbidden clothes” like prints and colors, skirts and shorts. When you lean into these initially uncomfortable outfits, you build courage and realize you deserve to feel comfortable and seen.
5. Remember: You are not your body
With such societal fixation upon body ideals, it can be easy to forget that the physical “thing” we present, and use to move through the world, does not define us. We can choose to hide ourselves, buying into the idea that our bodily flaws are negative reflections of ourselves as a whole. Or, we can decide that they are just our bodies, cellulite and all. And not “just” bodies at after all; they are what enable us to move through the world, hug the people we love, put pen to paper when inspiration strikes, and occupy the space to which we are all entitled.
We don’t think less of those we care about if they look nothing like supermodels or wear Spanx. Why not offer ourselves the same compassion?
Jennifer Taitz is a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York City. She is the author of End Emotional Eating: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Cope with Difficult Emotions and Develop Healthy Relationship to Food. Visit her website drjennytaitz.com or find her on Facebook and Twitter to learn more.