How Self Awareness Improves Body Image

By Liah Rozenman

How and why chronic negative body image arises (or can worsen) over time is accounted for due to multiple factors: messages we get when we are young from caregivers and our community in the form of we see, hear and read. We get additional messages through advertising, the entertainment industry, fashion industry, social media, and so on. Entire movements, like ‘body positivity’, have arisen to address the suffering that body preoccupation or self-objectification causes. This blog contributes to the discussion of “what do we do to improve body image?” by exploring intentional engagement of mindfulness and awareness to improve body image.

Body image is a multi-faceted concept that refers to individuals' perceptions and attitudes about their bodies, particularly but not exclusively the appearance.

Awareness is taken from the Tibetan word “Sheshin” which means a knowing presence towards what arises. The word awareness refers to the ability to “pay attention in the present moment, on purpose, nonjudgmentally.” When working with body image, we are cultivating a non-judgmental presence that can observe the sensations in the body in addition to the thoughts about the body. When we are working with an object of mindfulness like the breath or the body, cultivating this view of acceptance (awareness) is crucial to distinguishing critical thoughts about the body from what the actual experience of sensation is in our body. This distinction is what improves body connection and body image.

Unfortunately, it is common for people to see their appearance through a comparative lens or a deficit lens. For example, “I am not ______ enough”. Fill in the blank with any descriptor that comes to mind; notice perhaps an emphasis on smallness, thinness, sex appeal, or other specific beauty standards. Another example is thinking, “I don’t have _______ like she/he does”. These frameworks eliminate what is unique and valuable about one’s appearance causing emotional pain. However, these types of thoughts are frequently automatic, and feel “natural” or “normal”.

When we consider our body image, that is, the subjective view we have of ourselves, we benefit from observation of the filter through which we perceive our bodies. Without first noticing that there is a filter present (our thoughts), we would not be able to engage creatively with this filter and transform it—enter the role of awareness in improving our body image. If you were to journal body statements arising for you throughout the day, you might discover what kind of filter has been taking center stage. We can practice using our awareness to observe the full range of experience that occurs in our bodies including: physical sensations, mental imagery, emotions, feelings, and thoughts.

How do we move from the essential question, how does my body compare to such and such a standard? to the actual definition of body image—how are you feeling in your body at this very moment? Is there a physical sensation that you notice? What does it bring up?  What are you aware of in and about your body in this moment?  What does this bring up for you?  What abstract words would you attach to the image you have of yourself?  The concept of embodiment provides one way to access answers to these questions.  Mind-body therapies are those which involve the active use of the body during the therapeutic experience including but not limited to the creative arts therapies, such as drama therapy and dance therapy, or meditation and guided imagery practice or yoga therapy. The body in a form of action provides in-the-moment information about bodily experience.

The simultaneous feeling and observation of an embodied experience, is in part, what is meant by the term “mind-body integration.” Of notable importance for this discussion are findings across research studies (Daubenmier, 2005) indicating that increased body awareness and responsiveness are linked to decreased self-objectification and, as a result, greater body satisfaction. Research has also shown a significant correlation between mind-body therapies and improved wellness as well as decreased stress (Muehsam et al., 2017).

Another focus concerns thoughts around values. Our awareness can distinguish our true and authentic values. This can help improve body image as well. We may ask ourselves: What are my body image values? Do I accept and embrace the idea that people’s worth is based on their appearance? If not, what is my code of ethics or morals around body image? What do I want to believe and live by? If you could write an original statement to use as a guiding statement what would it be? When experiencing negative judgments of your physical body, awareness can begin to discern if this aligns with our actual, true values or not.

If you engage this line of inquiry and discover that your body image values are in fact aligned with what media and advertising industries around us have exhaustingly perpetuated, then rest assured, you are not alone, nor is this the end of the road. On the contrary, welcome to the start of a transformation. Mindfulness of ingrained narratives and body beliefs is the first step in changing them

There is no secret short cut to improved body image, no switch waiting to be flipped into a land of body positivity. As with any important and worthwhile hero’s journey, it involves a commitment to learning how and why your body image evolved as it did. Cultivating a mindfulness and self-awareness practice towards the body and our true values allows us to naturally keep what works and leave behind what does not. This practice allows for more opportunities to become more at home in our body and connect with our real values.

For more information on Liah's 6-week body image group click here

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