When you look at your body in the mirror, where does your gaze go? If you’re like most women, your eyes are instantly drawn to the parts of yourself you want to change, the parts you hate. You zoom in on your “trouble spots.”
Maybe you suck in your belly or use your hands to lift or tighten something that’s sagging, and you curse your body for looking the way it does. Why can’t you just look different? Ugh.
If this nasty little ritual sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Most of us really don’t believe others who say we look fine (or great!). And we allow negative thoughts about our appearances to dictate how we act. We choose to dress certain ways, behave certain ways, and pursue certain careers and relationships, all based on how we think we look. That behavior is so common we hardly even recognize how messed up it is.
We go around repeating phrases of sugarcoated self-loathing, blindly supporting each other in this habit.
Think about how often you hear people say things like, “Ugh, I really need to get back in shape” when noticing a part of their body that jiggles or wobbles. We all nod and agree to pretend not to notice that what they’re really saying is, “I wish I were different,” or even “I disgust myself.” We go around repeating phrases of sugarcoated self-loathing, blindly supporting each other in this habit. We support each other in the belief that the problem is our bodies.
But the problem isn't your body. Don’t get me wrong, getting into shape is awesome. I’m a big fan. Plus the process teaches you a whole helluva lot about yourself.
But obsessing about what you want to change (or how) keeps you from dealing with the real problem. The real problem is how the brain translates what it sees and how you’ve trained it to translate YOU.
The Tricks Your Brain Is Playing on You
Your brain is constantly putting together a picture based on all the clues and information it receives via your senses and feelings. Hormones, which respond to your emotional and mental state, affect that picture. For example, right after sex, as you lie there flooded with oxytocin and dopamine, your partner appears beautiful to you, right?
Or let’s say your ex is now dating a (supposedly) hot blonde girl. As you stalk her on Facebook (no judgment), your brain will shuffle around her image so that she doesn’t look attractive to you at all. Your mind will find ways of confirming that she looks like a bitchy idiot who wouldn’t be very pretty without all that makeup.
Your brain is constantly using context clues and how you feel about stuff to put together the picture you see.
If you had seen this girl under different circumstances, though, your brain would have put together a totally different image. If she shyly approached you at the office hoping for some advice, she would have probably seemed very pretty.
The point is, your brain is constantly using context clues and how you feel about stuff to put together the picture you see.
What We See When We Look in the Mirror
Most women have unconsciously trained themselves to search for—and find—every single flaw on their face and body. Over the course of years (especially the formative ones during puberty), many girls and women will look in the mirror and tear themselves apart. Eventually it becomes such an engrained habit, such an automatic ritual of self-hatred, that our eyes inevitably go straight to those flaws every time we see our reflection.
We have practiced this skill for so long, so well, and so often that sometimes we can no longer even see what other people think is pretty or sexy about us. We’re not intending to be rude when we disagree with compliments paid to us; it just seems so obviously untrue.
What we train for determines the results we see. We’ve been training our whole lives for low self-esteem and negative body image. But that doesn’t mean we’re stuck: Since we trained our brains into this mess, we can train them out of it.
8 Tips to Train Your Brain to Love Your Body
1. Look at the positive.
When you look at your face and body in the mirror (or photos), purposefully direct your gaze toward the things you like about yourself—and linger. Say nice things about them and let yourself imagine how other people admire them too.
2. Take in the big picture.
Let your eyes skim lightly over the rest of your face and body, without pausing and thinking about what you want to change. You’re more than a jumble of body parts. You’re a whole person, and you deserve to be taken in as one.
3. Acknowledge you have a choice.
Will you find yourself slipping back into negative habits? Of course. But remember you have the choice: Will you give in to the old habits or choose a new pattern?
4. Impress yourself.
Crush it at work, get strong at the gym, learn a neat skill. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as you think it’s impressive. Focusing on what you can do, instead of what you look like, is a huge part of re-training the brain.
5. Explore your body.
Make a playdate to… masturbate! (Yup. I’m going there.) You’re worth exploring, so take your time. Notice the lines and curves of your body. Imagine what a lover (past, future, or even imaginary!) must see when they look at you. Admire and explore yourself from that POV or any other that lets you see yourself as just right.
6. Work to stop comparing yourself to other women.
We each have our own gifts to offer, and another woman’s beauty or success does not take away from your own. You would never compare a rose and daisy and conclude that since one was beautiful, the other was ugly.
7. And remember they're human too.
Even the most “perfect-looking” woman has a rich, chaotic emotional landscape, filled with her own insecurities, struggles, and distorted self-perception. It might seem silly or crazy to imagine that a gorgeous, fit woman would ever feel insecure, but your own insecurities might seem silly or crazy to someone who is less fit than you.
8. Remember that you’re undoing a lifetime of face and body scrambling.
It’s not going to happen overnight. Practice. Be patient. Have compassion. Keep going.