Loving Our Bodies As They Are
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Okay, enough updates. Let’s get to today’s topic of loving our bodies as they are. Think about having a physical pain. Do you love that part of your body in that moment? Probably not. But being angry at our back or knee or shoulder doesn’t help it heal and it has a direct impact on our emotional well-being when we’re angry or hateful toward our own bodies.
Many people around the world have body image issues that prevent them from truly loving themselves or from accepting themselves as they are. Just looking at the number of cosmetic surgeries performed each year tells us part of the story. Globally, about 25,000,000 people had procedures in 2019 alone and the number of cosmetic procedures for men has increased more than 273% and 429% for women over the past 18 years. While some of these could be medically related, and some may be career related in these youth-worshipping times, most are done because we’re not happy with the way we look. The most common procedures in 2022 so far are nose jobs, breast augmentations, Brazilian butt lifts and tummy tucks. The most growth in popularity in cosmetic surgery procedures includes eyelid surgery, liposuction, and body contouring.
I’m not saying that there is something inherently wrong with getting plastic surgery, but if we don’t love ourselves before we start tinkering, the tinkering may not provide the outcomes expected, especially from a psychological point of view.
In addition to our body image feelings, in a typical year here in the U.S., we have a 7% chance of experiencing a serious injury and a 40% chance of experiencing a serious illness. That means about half of the population will go through a challenging physical problem per year. Keep in mind that these numbers don’t even include Covid 19 related illness, as the statistical reports were issued in 2020. I couldn’t find reliable worldwide statistics other than deaths resulting from injury or illness and frankly, we won’t care about loving ourselves if that is the outcome. But we can assume the stats will be close for developed countries and probably much worse for developing countries.
Basically, we want perfect bodies. The right size and shape, highly toned, an exact color which is quite subjective, and for our bodies to be able to perform exactly as we want or need them to when we want them to. This desire doesn’t usually match reality and when we become ill or injured, it can cause a major rupture in our mental health because we don’t know how to deal with it.
Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, cofounders of Mindful Self-Compassion state,
“Individuals who are more self-compassionate tend to have greater happiness, life satisfaction and motivation, better relationships and physical health, and less anxiety and depression. They also have the resilience needed to cope with stressful life events such as divorce, health crises and academic failure, and even combat trauma.”
We can apply self-compassion in a mindful way toward our bodies. Let’s take cosmetic surgery. I haven’t had any, at least yet, but as an aging person, I get the appeal of trying to look more like you feel versus the life experiences that spread across your face over time that can make you look much older than you feel. Then there are the hereditary factors that we all have. For example, my wonderful grandmother that I recently wrote about related to the camper incident. A beautiful, loving person, but she did not have an attractive nose. I’m talking really big. Now I was lucky in that I did not inherit that nose, but what if I had? Rhinoplasty might be quite appealing if that were the case. Where mindful self-compassion comes into this is that if I had the whopping nose and decided to change it, the psychological outcome would depend on my level of self-love with the big nose.
If I feel good about myself, love myself, then rhinoplasty would be a bonus or a perk. But if I feel bad about myself in general and the nose is just a glaring reminder of my lack of value, fixing the nose isn’t going to fix my self-esteem. First, I have to accept the nose I have, appreciate the wonder of DNA, and love myself even if I have a big nose. Then I can have the icing on the cake, a more delicate-looking nose without impacting my psychological health.
What if the problem is injury or illness? That can generate a lot of frustration or anger. I am going through that now and I do get mad. I’m waking up between 10 and 20 times a night in pain and usually by the 4th or 5th time, I’m downright angry. But even at 1am, I catch myself because my body is trying to tell me something. There is something wrong and it wants to make sure I am paying attention. And I am, but it’s a slow healing process, so I have to accept that being mad at basically myself, doesn’t serve me. I need to practice self-compassion for my predicament and even send love to the body parts that are screaming.
That may sound funny, to love a body part that feels as though it’s betraying me, but studies show that it helps. We aren’t just a bunch of individual parts. We’re a whole being with an integrated system, so if I’m having thoughts of “I hate my knee, or I hate my hips,” I’m sending a signal to my brain that I hate myself. If you have a heart condition, or kidney problems, or even cancer, hating those body parts does not heal you. Neither does reinforcing the thought in your mind that your body is betraying you. It’s not. Again, it’s your body trying to tell you that something is wrong and that you need to take action, but before you can address it effectively, you need to accept what is happening and then apply self-love first.
Think of your condition or pain or unattractive body part as a small child. If that child was in distress, what would you say to the child? Or think of a good friend who is suffering. You’d probably be very compassionate. Being mindful toward ourselves helps us to see that our body is in distress and we can better support it through self-compassion than anger.
When I wake up in pain, and adjust my attitude when needed, I can massage what is hurting, be grateful for how well that part works when it is healthy and feel compassion for myself that I am struggling. I can remind myself that it is only temporary. I send loving thoughts to that body part. After that, I am able to return to sleep until the next round, but that’s a much better alternative to getting mad which turns on the stress response. Once that’s activated, there’s a pounding heart, tension and a lot of negative thoughts racing through the mind that absolutely prevent returning to anything like restorative sleep.
Mindfulness has been shown to reduce physical pain. Exercises that help people to focus on their mind and body in the moment without judgment experience reduced pain and improved relaxation. This has the added benefit of reducing depression and anxiety symptoms.
Mindfulness can also help us have more compassion for others when we’re struggling. I have a new found respect for those with arthritis or catastrophic injuries or degenerative diseases where they must be in constant pain that is unfortunately not temporary. I use these brave souls as models. If they can endure that, I can endure this.
With respect to changing parts we don’t like, self-compassion is again important. Before you head to the cosmetic surgeon, take that all important pause to ask yourself why you want to make the change and even more importantly, how you feel about yourself as you are. If you think you feel good about yourself, then move to the next question. What will changing this body part mean to me? If the answer is about you and how you feel about yourself, you’re probably going into it from a mindful perspective. If the answer is related to how others will feel about you, you may want to take a longer pause.
The key to all of this is really acceptance. If we can love ourselves as we are, be self-compassionate with ourselves when things go wrong, and remain mindful as to what is happening and what actions we need to take, we can resiliently bounce back from pretty much anything.
If you’re struggling with pain or discomfort, take some time this week to practice self-compassion. Treat yourself just like you would treat a loved one in the same situation. Practice loving and appreciating the part of your body that’s suffering. If you’re considering plastic surgery, feel love for the part you want to change because it has served you in some way over the years and be sure to ask yourself those questions before proceeding.
If you’re pain-free and everything’s working fine, be grateful.