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From Critique to Compassion: Building Body Confidence and Connection

Updated: Jul 10

Written by: Natalie Pirolli, MS, RDN, LDN, RYT | June 19, 2024

woman holding a love yourself note

It is officially summer! It's time to enjoy the longer and warmer days, backyard BBQs, fire pit nights, walks on the beach, and summertime treats like in-season produce (think: corn, summer squash, watermelon, peaches), ice cream cones, and a porch or poolside rosé (or two). 

But with all the summer fun, there can be some anxiety or dread about putting on our summer clothes. (Yeah, it is all fun and games until it's time to pull out a bathing suit or pair of shorts you haven't worn in 10 months). It's unfortunate that sometimes the pressure to have our "summer body ready" can taint or even outshine all of the positive things that come with this time of year. If you're struggling with your body image or dreading wearing less clothing in these warmer temperatures, keep reading to learn more about what you can do to help build a better relationship with your body.

To start, here are 5 things to know that can help shift our mindset toward a more positive body image:

1. Weight fluctuation is normal

We tend to put on a few pounds in the winter as we may be eating heartier meals, celebrating the holidays, and spending less time active outdoors. Additionally, hormonal changes like decreased serotonin and vitamin D levels (both of which may result from reduced sunlight exposure) can affect our mood, appetite, energy levels, and motivation.

Weight fluctuations are also normal in general depending on our age, stage of life, stress, and about a million other factors like which phase of a woman's menstrual cycle she's in, water weight shifts, and more. Sometimes these fluctuations ebb and flow and we notice that after an increase (or decrease), our weight settles back within its usual range. And sometimes, our weight may be increasing because it needs to, i.e., we’re pregnant, or we’ve been below our set point weight/the weight at which our body functions best and are now meeting our nourishment needs.

2. The clothes are meant to fit us, not the other way around

Have you ever felt the need to change your lifestyle or take any drastic measures to fit into shoes that were 2 sizes too small? Probably not. If we try on a pair of shoes that are too small, we just go ahead and find the correct size that fits comfortably. Yet for some reason, with clothes, we're much harder on ourselves and willing to be uncomfortable in something that no longer fits us, or take great measures to fit into a size we once were or would like to be. 

Wearing clothes that are too tight is like putting a negative body image playlist on repeat in our heads—it's a constant reminder of our unease. If none of your summer shorts are feeling comfortable right now, do yourself the kindness of getting a couple of pairs that do. (Or any clothes; I use shorts as an example because I did this a few summers ago and it was liberating. Both mentally and physically!) This also helps to remove the pressure of fitting back into our uncomfortable clothes.


3. No one is aware of your body as much as you are

Sometimes it feels like all eyes are on us and they are focusing on one thing: "flaws." Our insecurities or the parts of ourselves we try to hide can feel like they're on full display (our minds just work in cute little ways like that sometimes!). Reminding ourselves that the majority of people are focused on themselves and not actually noticing or giving us much thought (i.e., our appearance, mistakes, "flaws", insecurities, etc.) can be a helpful reminder when we find ourselves being hyperaware of how our body looks or any other insecurity.


4. You are so much more than how you look in a bathing suit

And if people are noticing your body, that is not all they're noticing and it's not all you contribute. On social media, I often see the quote "Your body is the least interesting thing about you,” which serves as a helpful reminder that there are so many other wonderful things that make us who we are. Think about it, what makes you you? Try to describe yourself without describing your appearance (think of personality traits, passions, interests, talents, etc.). If this is difficult, try to think about how a friend or loved one would describe you.

The truth is that people will not remember us for how we looked in a bathing suit but for who we are and how we make them feel. In our weight- and appearance-obsessed society, this can be difficult to accept; it's hard not to tie our self-worth to our weight. Taking time to identify our core values and needs also allows us to understand ourselves better and see what is most important to us. Feeling more connected to ourselves can then help us to be more compassionate with ourselves and others.

5. Focus on what makes your body feel good

"It's hard to care for something you don't like” is another phrase I often think of with body image. How can we truly take care of our bodies if we don't like or respect them? While it is hard to jump straight from having a negative body image to accepting our bodies or having body positivity, taking better care of our bodies and doing more of what makes them feel good is a great step to help us get there. Wear what feels comfortable, nourish yourself with nutritious and delicious foods you enjoy, move your body in ways that feel good, incorporate positive stress-relieving activities, and make time for relaxing, laughing, stretching, hugging—whatever brings you joy.

This can also work as a “fake it til you make it” approach. The more good we start doing for our bodies, like thinking about and honoring our needs, prioritizing our health and well-being, incorporating different forms of self-care, and so on, the more we will start to appreciate them and see the good in them.


Some additional steps we can take to help improve our body image:

1. Avoid Fad Diets

I encourage you to avoid jumping directly to a fad/restrictive diet or intense workout regimen to "fix" your body image. As we know, these provide very short-term changes if any changes at all, and wreak havoc on our stress, hormones, and physical and mental health. You might “achieve” weight loss in the form of water-weight or muscle loss, but typically not true weight loss (fat loss). This sets us up for yo-yo dieting and more weight fluctuations, with an increased potential of gaining more weight than we originally lost. This cycle also sets us up for disappointment and worsening self-esteem and self-worth. Plus, changing our body's weight/shape usually doesn't "fix" or get to the root of our issues (more on this below).

So at all costs, avoid those quick-fix diets. Instead, consider working with a registered dietitian who can help you reach your health and nutrition goals in a safe and sustainable way.

2. Practice Embodiment

Body image is just that—the mental image we have of our outer appearance. This image can be easily skewed by our mood, self-esteem, unmet needs, and more. Just knowing this can be enough to challenge our negative body image thoughts, but to take it a step further, spending time inside our bodies can help even more.

We tend to spend most of our time outside or detached from our bodies; we're thinking about how it looks from the outside or maybe not thinking about our bodies and how we feel at all. When we’re inside our body (practicing embodiment) it allows us to strengthen that mind-body connection and feel more in tune with ourselves and our needs. We can do this by noticing how our feet feel walking or standing on the ground, noticing the sights and smells around us, the tastes and textures of our food, and keying into our other senses. Other ways to practice embodiment include progressive muscle relaxation, dance therapy, yoga, deep breathing, and mindfulness exercises.

The more we incorporate embodiment practices the more we start experiencing life from the inside out (i.e. from the perspective of being in our body vs. constantly seeing ourselves from the outside).

3. Develop a Gratitude Practice

Sometimes we get so bogged down by what’s going wrong, we can lose sight of what’s going right in our lives. This tendency to focus on the negative (negativity bias) can make it hard to see any good in the world, never mind in our bodies. The good news is, practicing gratitude helps us more easily see the good that is all around. Expressing gratitude for our bodies is one great way to kick off this practice.

You could start with a body scan—going body part by body part and saying thank you for what it has done for you today. For example, “Thank you feet, for keeping me grounded and balanced. Thank you legs for allowing me to keep up with my toddler” and so on. You could write a letter to your body expressing gratitude for all it does and has done for you, like being able to walk and run, grow a little human, digest nutritious foods, etc. 

We don’t often think about all that our bodies do for us and how hard they work to keep us healthy and alive. Taking time to recognize this can help when we're feeling down about our bodies. And an added bonus: when we start practicing gratitude in one area of our life, it makes it easier to see the good in other areas as well. 

4. Reframe "I Am" Thoughts

We tend to identify with our thoughts and feelings. “I am anxious. I am bloated. I am fat. I am gross.” Simply identifying these perceptions as thoughts instead can be extremely effective, for example, saying “I’m having the thought that I’m fat” or “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I’m anxious.” This creates some separation between us and the thought, keeping us from identifying with it. It also allows us to pause and realize our thoughts are just thoughts, not necessarily reality, and gives us time to think before we react instead of taking our feelings/thoughts as facts and impulsively reacting.

Additionally, it gives us space to follow up with curiosity or notice patterns, for example, “I’m noticing that I’m feeling bloated a lot lately” or “I wonder why I always have the thought that I’m 'fat' after enjoying dessert?” or "What do I mean by 'gross?' This seems to come up when I'm tired at the end of the day." This can provide us with some insight into our thoughts and how to challenge or reframe them.

I know this one sounds a little silly and will absolutely feel foreign at first but you may be surprised to find how this simple practice becomes very powerful over time. 

5. Check In: What Else Is Going On Right Now?

Negative body image thoughts are often triggered by other emotions or experiences. Usually “I hate my thighs” is rooted in a deeper feeling or need that may, in fact, have nothing to do with our actual thighs. When we’re feeling down about our body it can help to check in and ask ourselves “What else is going on right now?” Sometimes it could be that we are physically uncomfortable—our clothes are too tight or we’re cramped on the commuter rail. Or maybe it’s something deeper, for example, when we’re feeling down about our body, we might find that we’re actually feeling a lack of confidence in ourselves at work, or in our relationships. We can follow up with asking “What will help? Is there something I need?” which could be comfier clothes, some air, or in the latter example could be asking for help or making a list of what you’ve accomplished at work, making a list of what makes you a good partner, or checking in with your partner about your feelings.

We can use our body as a scapegoat for what we’re really struggling with and don’t want to face. We might be trying to avoid feeling upset about something in our life and take it out on our bodies instead. But trying to avoid a feeling or anticipating a feeling can actually make us more anxious, uncomfortable, and upset than if we just let ourselves feel it. (Have you noticed that trying to avoid crying/feeling sad is much more uncomfortable and consuming than just letting the tears come down?)

When I do this exercise with clients it often leads to some pretty interesting discoveries. You might be surprised to find how feelings of stress, anger, fatigue, being out of control, or even things like fullness and GI discomfort can actually trigger negative body image thoughts. Or how unmet needs such as trust, security, or connection could be at the root of our feelings or thoughts. We can learn a lot when we check in and explore!

Body image work isn't one size fits all. These are just a few ways to go about it, but of course, it is helpful to do what works best for you. If you're looking for support with your relationship with food and your body, or have any questions for me, please don't hesitate to reach out.

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