It's normal to fantasize about a "better" version of yourself. As more heroic, smarter, powerful, successful, generous, kinder than you are. (Or more cutthroat or vengeful than you are.) These fantasies can serve as ideals of who we want to become -- and thus can be blueprints, showing us how to get from how we are now to who we want to be in the future.
At this time of year particularly, who among us has not fantasized about having a great "summer body"? Does this fantasy serve as a blueprint for how to get there? Almost invariably not. That's because for most people the ideal of a summer body is as attainable as becoming Batman. That is, it's not realistic for the vast majority of people. (It's also not necessarily the best use of time, effort and money to "sculpt" your body to be a certain shape, but that discussion is beyond the word count of this post; read Keli Goff's post for more on that topic.)
So I want to talk about fantasizing in a different direction -- about being comfortable with the body you actually have. Yes, it would be good if you exercised regularly, ate healthily and didn't overeat, and you even may do these things; but they don't guarantee you a summer body. The point is that it doesn't make sense to feel okay about your body only if it looks a certain way. Who knows if it will get that way? But most importantly, not feeling okay about your body as it is now leaves you feeling badly about yourself. And that's a yucky way to feel (yucky -- that's a technical term).
Take back the summer and accept your summer body as it is now. Instead of being critical about your body, try to view your body as your friend; like all friendships, you'll have your ups and downs. There will be things you like and things you don't like about your body, just as there are things you like and don't like about your friends. Just because you wish (parts of) your body looked different doesn't mean you have to be ashamed of your body.
Focus instead of the joy of moving your body through space, of the sense of your body as useful. When you go to the beach or pool (notice that I said when and not if), focus on the pleasure of the sun or breeze on your skin, the coolness of the water, the feel of your muscles as they move your body through the water. These experiences feel good and you don't need to be a particular shape to experience them.
Here are some other types of exercises to do to improve your relationship with your body.
It's the Thought That Counts
One important step to declaring a truce toward (or even feeling positively about) your body is to become aware of the negative things you tell yourself about your body. For instance, when dressing or undressing, a woman may look at her breasts in the mirror and think that her breasts are too __________ (small, big, droopy, high, uneven and so on). The adjective "too" is the give away, implying that there is a right way to look. (Okay, there are ideals in each culture about the best way to look, but they are ideals -- not attainable by most people.)
Instead, try to think of your body in nonjudgmental ways -- without adjectives that are implicitly critical. Here are some examples:
- "I have smallish breasts that tend to droop"
- "I have sandy-colored hair, with a receding hairline that starts about two inches from the top of my forehead"
- "My belly is large and the flesh jiggles"
- "I have a red pimple on my nose"
- "I have crow's feet around my eyes"
Notice that these examples are purely neutral descriptions and don't make judgments. It can take a while to get the hang of using neutral language about your body, particularly if you're very critical of your body. Try writing down some descriptions of your body as a whole, and different parts of your body -- ones that you like (or least don't hate) and ones that you don't like. Then look carefully at the words you've used, particularly the adjectives, and cross out (or delete if you did this on a word processor) the critical, disparaging words.
- be drawn to the parts of your body that you like least (and you'll probably have judgmental, critical thoughts pop into your head), or
- avoid the parts of the your body that you like least -- you'll look anywhere but there.
If you fall into the first category, try looking at those body parts, but now substitute the neutral language that I described earlier. Spend five to 10 minutes really looking at those body parts. At some point, you should have an experience that resembles repeating a word or phrase over and over again -- it starts to lose its meaning. In this case, your discomfort with that part of your body should start to lessen as the "negative meaning" you've attributed to that body part lessens.
If you fall into the second category, make a point of looking at the areas of your body that you usually avoid, following the instructions in the previous paragraph.
Much as you might wish otherwise, you've only got one body, and the shape of it now is the shape of you now. Be here now. If there are activities you're waiting to do or places you want to go when you body is in "better" shape, don't wait. Do it this summer.
A Word About Exercise and Eating, Rights and Responsibilities
Accepting your body as it is doesn't mean that it's okay to be (or become) a sloth, or that it's okay to eat lots of junk food or even lots of food -- more than your body needs.
You have the right to enjoy your body, whatever its current shape. Part of what this means is to get past treating your body as an object (to be criticized or admired). Get inside your body so that feels more like a part of you -- a part that is useful and makes you feel good in your body (rather than feel good about your body). So exercise -- it is many and varied forms -- is a good thing because it allows you to feel your body's sense of agency -- your body in action. Consider any of these activities: taking a brisk walk, lifting weights, mopping the floor, painting a wall, going for a jog. Each and every one of these activities can leave you with a sense of your body feeling useful, strong, empowered and handy. Such activities, if you focus on the actions of your body while doing it and afterward, can leave feeling grateful for your body and what it is able to do. And that's part of the "responsibility" to your body -- to treat your body reasonably well.
Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., ABPP is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Stanford, Calif. Rosenberg specializes in treating people with eating disorders, depression and anxiety. She often writes about the psychology of superheroes and has co-authored several psychology textbooks, including "Abnormal Psychology" and "Introducing Psychology: Brain, Person, Group." To find out more about Dr. Rosenberg and her work, read her Psychology Today blog and visit her on Red Room. For Dr. Rosenberg's brief, easy-to-read guide Improving Your Relationships with Your Body, click here.