If there's one thing that's become clear to me over the last few years, it's this: Nearly every woman I meet, work with, or assume is perfect probably struggles with her body image. No, we don't all have eating disorders or even disordered eating habits. But, unfortunately, every woman I've ever taken the time to ask has admitted she has an issue with at least one part of her body, face, or appearance.
Personally, I came to the disordered-eating party a bit late. I had managed to mostly fixate on disliking other parts of myself (see: my personality) until I was 24, when I took a job working the night shift as an editor at a different website. I suddenly found myself under increasing amounts of stress, and (just for extra credit!) in a half-baked relationship with a guy who withheld his affection.
My body understandably freaked out. My stomach felt bloated and tense all the time. When I went to the doctor, she suggested I go gluten-free, which did help somewhat, but created a new problem. Cutting something completely out of your diet can be dangerous, and for me, it led to a cycle of restricting foods that fell into the "bad" category, only to binge on all my "good" foods when I got off work in the middle of the night.
Food became the cause, the reward, and the punishment; the funnel through which I attempted to pour control over a job and relationship that left me feeling increasingly disconnected from my body.
Now, just two years later, I view the path to regaining a healthy relationship with my body as one of the most important challenges of my 20s. Therapy, a new job, and a new relationship have all been essential ingredients. But the real work? I've been teaching myself — deliberately, and in small ways, every day — to love my body again.
Recovering from an eating disorder, body dysmorphia, or any kind of ongoing body image issue is no small task, and professional help should always be sought. But if you're looking to supplement that help with some small, tangible exercises, I highly recommend using these practices as jumping-off points.
Meditate For Just 10 Minutes a Day
For me, meditation has truly changed everything about my relationship with myself. I resisted meditating for a long time because I thought I was failing at it if my mind wasn't completely empty. But as I've learned more about meditation over the past year, I found out that those thoughts are actually an essential part of the practice. By simply sitting with yourself and focusing on your breath, you are forced to become friends with the voices in your head (and yes, we all have them).
Often, without even realizing it, we have a downright abusive relationship with ourselves. We tend to bark orders, judge, and degrade ourselves (sadly, especially as women). By just sitting and attempting to reconnect to the present moment through our breath, we become reacquainted with our mind and learn to drive it, rather than the other way around.
It's nearly impossible to hate someone once you truly get to know them. Meditating has helped me foster a kinder relationship with myself, so that when my mind inevitably goes to self-hating places, I actually notice it, because that voice doesn't sound like the friend I've come to know.
To begin, try this exercise: Sit cross-legged and upright. Place one hand on your heart, and the other on a part of your body you tend to fixate on (for me it's my stomach). Close your eyes and try to cultivate a feeling of love and acceptance — just love and acceptance — for that part of your perfectly imperfect body.
When you feel done, open your eyes, stare softly straight ahead, and try to focus on your breath for just five minutes. Don't alter your breath or get mad at yourself for having inevitable thoughts and feelings come up. Just think of the thoughts like popcorn; notice them popping, but don't run off with a whole bag of them. Just try to keep coming back to your breath.
If intense feelings surface, try to feel where they are in your body. (Where do you feel pain or fear? For me, it's also in my stomach.) Let whatever feelings you're having wash over you fully, if only for a moment. Don't push the uncomfortable away. Instead, let yourself feel whatever it is you're feeling, and then, simply return to your breath.
It's that simple, and that difficult. Do this for five minutes in the morning and five minutes before bed, and trust me, interesting things will begin to happen.
Confront Your Own Image
When I was feeling my worst, I'd often cast my eyes down when passing a mirror, just to avoid my own image. (Oh, and then I'd beat myself up for being so idiotic, which was super productive.)
One day, when I was really fed up with my mirror-avoidance, I got a crazy idea: What if I made a video of myself on Photobooth and described, to my own face, what I saw? What if I turned the inner mirror monologue out?
Here's all I did: I turned on Photobooth's video camera, and looked at myself as I was speaking and recording. The result was super weird and kind of cool (who doesn't like seeing what they actually look like when they talk?), and shockingly, it was also empowering.
I told the camera what I saw, and what I did and didn't like. The results were surprising: What I thought I hated (my stomach) was actually not what I found myself disliking in real time. Of course, I found plenty of other things to dislike just as strongly, as well as some surprising parts of myself that I found fundamentally okay, even kind of adorable. I realized, once again, that no matter what I "fix" there will always be more parts of myself to change.
By giving voice to my inner critic and making myself basically say it to my own face, a funny thing happened: That critic lost a little of her power. She finally had her chance to say her piece out loud, and though she's never one to shut up completely, she was able to step aside for the rest of the night.
Be Naked More
Oh, God, I can just feel my roommates cringing. No, not naked in the kitchen or living room (unless you live alone, in which case hello naked cooking), but in your own bedroom. Since I've started sleeping naked, not only do I sleep better (your temperature is better regulated), but I've also starting appreciating my body more. When I wake up, I do some naked yoga and stretch in front of the mirror. Laugh all you want, but it's a great way to greet the day; moving, breathing, and confronting my own beautiful, healthy body. I highly recommend it. If you live with a partner, don't be shy — they will love it, too.
Make Self-Love Dates
Hey, you're already naked right? This is one we women somehow often forget to do, and believe me, it has repercussions. Just think of it this way: Almost every guy out there masturbates regularly. You think the fact that they walk around the world like they own it isn't connected?
While I'm not much of a morning person, I do believe that making time to connect to your own body in that way (even if you are having sex regularly) is crucial to having a healthy relationship with your body. If you only have orgasms with a partner, you will, on some level, always need to have someone on the outside affirming that you're sexy and lovable. Masturbating helps you connect with what you want, and how damn fine you really are. Make a date with yourself, and if it helps motivate you, consider it exercise — it gets your heart rate up, flexes plenty of muscles, and has numerous mental and physical health benefits.
Try a Writing Exercise
I've found that even if I write for 10 minutes once a week, it can really help me tap into what's actually going on. If words don't start pouring out of you right away, try this simple exercise to focus on body image:
First, imagine your inner food critic. She's the voice that tells you that you shouldn't have eaten that second piece of cake, or that says you look ugly when you're brushing your teeth, or that you would have a partner if you only lost 10 pounds.
Give the pen to her, and write out everything she thinks about you and your body. Keep the pen moving for five minutes and don't edit or stop writing. When you think you've run out of nasty things to say to yourself, just keep going until time is up.
When you're done, hand the pen over to your "inner best friend" and write for five minutes. Your inner best friend is the kindest part of yourself — and not necessarily the voice you should always channel — but she is the other extreme. Keep writing in her voice until time is up.
So, for example, while the food critic might have written "You know you can't eat that because when you let go you start getting fat," the sweetheart writes "Eat anything you want! You will still be loved with 15 more pounds."
Giving voice to both of these extremes may help you meet somewhere in the middle, where your actual opinion lies. Do this exercise with care and some caution, and remember: The critic is just that — a critic.
Don't Make Plans On Sunday For a Month
I got this idea from my friend Natalie, and I liked it so much that I try to do this every weekend now. You're probably wondering what not making plans has to do with body image. Well, for me, one of the hardest things about recovering a healthy relationship with food has been learning to listen to when I'm hungry again. I found that during my period of restricting and binging I had lost touch with what I really wanted.
Not making plans on Sundays has helped me get back in touch with what I actually want, rather than what I think I should want. When I wake up without plans, I actually ask myself: What do you feel like doing right now? Whereas in the past I would have already formed a list of errands or social obligations for the day, now I just do whatever it is I genuinely feel like doing.
Sometimes it's sleeping another hour. Sometimes it's running errands. Sometimes it's cooking brunch or simply laying in the park all day. I try to follow each urge, moment to moment, and simply act in accordance to what I want to do, without judging myself. It's incredibly liberating and relaxing and has not only made my weekends a hell of a lot more fun, but has also helped me communicate with myself on a much more honest level.
View This As a Communal Struggle
I saved the most important tip for last. Yes, meditating and all of the work you can do on your own is crucial. But one of the most suffocating aspects of struggling with body image is that we all think it's our own dirty little secret. If you're anything like me, you probably even feel stupid, guilty, or embarrassed of having these "trivial" thoughts to begin with. You may even feel that if you don't have a full-blown eating disorder you don't deserve to talk about the ups and downs of your relationship with food and your body.
In fact, you must talk about it — not just for yourself, but also for other women. Talking to your friends about body image and asking about their own experience is crucial for destigmatizing what I believe is still very much taboo: Most of us are, on some level, struggling with this.
I'll never forget one day last year here at Bustle, when we had our first company headshots taken. Looking at the digital images that day, I felt particularly awful about the way I looked. But instead of just keeping it inside, I admitted to my coworkers Meredith and Alex that I was feeling bad — and they chimed in with relief that they had been feeling annoyed about their pictures too. The joy we felt at sharing how we were actually feeling was palpable. So, naturally, we decided to take a whole bunch of flattering selfies on (once again) Photobooth.
I felt not only beautiful, but also empowered: We had taken our own image back.
Talk to your friends about this stuff and you'll quickly find that they, too, are probably struggling to figure out what a healthy relationship with their body looks like. After all, things have gotten mighty tangled: Because the language of female perfection has in many ways shifted from "being skinny" to being "healthy," it can often feel as if we're the only ones for whom "being healthy" doesn't actually feel very healthy at all.
Every time we give another woman permission to talk about her experience openly, we reclaim a little power from a society that tells us we should just grin and juice cleanse it.
And that, much like my reflection in the mirror, is a beautiful thing.
Images: Tumblr, The New Yorker