The problem isn't you. And yet, most women think they need to change their bodies in a quest to meet ideal standards set by the beauty, diet and wellness industries.
These multi-billion dollar global industries cash in on making us feel like we need to look a certain way. In the old days, it was about aesthetic. These days, it's dressed up as health. But the ideal has stayed the same: thin, white, polished, shaved, smooth, pert, youthful.
If you're bombarded every single day by images and messages telling you that you should be a certain way, it's bound to get to you. In fact, this document tells us that, "The average American is exposed to over 3,000 ads every single day and will spend two years of his or her life watching television commercials." And this piece of research explains how social media leads to body dissatisfaction.
So, what can you do? We talked to five women who are sticking their fingers up at those beauty standards. Finding ways to enjoy the body they're in, they've found confidence and self-love.
Here, they share tips on learning to love, appreciate and be kind to their bodies.
1. Focus on what your body can do
This theme comes up again and again in our Body Stories: swimming, surfing or paddling in open water has shown us what our bodies can do. It makes us feel strong and capable. By focusing on what we can do, not what we look like, it helps us learn to love our bodies.
"My swimsuit is my super cape. It’s bizarre: it’s the most stripped bare I could be (in a legal way!) in public and you can see everything when I’m in my swimsuit," says Ella. "But as soon as I put it on and get in the water I am reminded of how great my body is. I focus on breathing; I focus on what my body is capable of. I think muscle memory is amazing: I could not swim for weeks but I know that when I get back in the water my body will remember how to breathe and move. My muscles will wake up, and yes they might hurt, but they’ll move as they’re supposed to. On dry land I often feel heavy, clumsy, cumbersome. In the water I feel graceful and light."
2. Say kind things to your reflection
Have you ever looked back on a photo of yourself when you were younger and thought, if only I looked that good now? Have you also looked at that photo and remembered with regret how self-conscious or unhappy you were with your looks at the time? Adya uses those memories to remind her to be kind to herself now.
"When I look at pictures from two years ago, I know I didn’t like how I looked at the time," says Adya. "But when I see them now I think I looked absolutely fine. I know that a lot of older women have that kind of reflection as well. What I've learned from all my older friends is that, actually, what you have now is great. And what you had before was awesome. And what you will have in the future is even better. So, I treat it as a mental practice, telling myself that what I see in the mirror is good."
3. Pay more attention to your positive thoughts
It's easy to dwell on the negative bits because we're conditioned to want to improve ourselves. We're also taught not to boast, and that means we don't pay much attention to the positives. But what if we flipped that around?
"Now, when I look at myself in the mirror and I see my scars on my breasts, gallbladder and c-section scars and I see my c-section overhang, I just look at my body and I accept it for what it is," says Ellie. "So, I don't really have masses of negative stuff. And when I do, it's just a thought, it just flits in and flits off again, and then I'm like, oh, I've got nice eyes or let's just put my clothes on and go and start dinner, go onto the next thing. I suppose the negative thoughts don't outweigh the positive ones, but also, and I don't know why this is, I give more credence to the positive ones."
4. Join a community of like-minded women
There is nothing more life-affirming than being part of a community of like-minded women. As you look at their bodies in all their wonderful variety, you realise that how you look doesn't really matter. And that is so liberating.
"It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to swim with other people. I was really conscious of the way my body looked. I have had muscles cut and large pieces of my stomach removed so I have scars, no muscle tone and I’m a bit wobbly here and there. I felt ashamed of my body and I didn’t want anyone to see me," says Tracie. "When I did it was just incredible. It is such a tonic to be with like-minded people who don’t care what you look like. On those first swims I remember hearing the other girls chatting and laughing with each other as I walked down to the beach to join them. There was so much camaraderie and fun. The sense of community amongst the women I swim with is life affirming. I feel like I belong."
5. Check your judgements
We all judge others from time-to-time - it's human nature. But, by checking ourselves when we have these thoughts, we can learn to be less judgemental and that will help us judge ourselves less harshly too.
"We as grown-ups have a responsibility to young people today, particularly but not exclusively to girls, to show them that beautiful isn’t what they see on a curated, filtered phone screen. Beautiful is a lust for life. Beautiful is freedom from the shackles of media driven expectation. Beautiful is taking up the space you deserve. Beautiful is running into the sea in your pants. Or without your pants – whatever," says Vix. "Beautiful is being open to what real beauty is. The less we judge, the less we feel judged. As parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts we have to choose the words we use around our children carefully. A flippant comment about a girl’s weight can weigh heavy for a lifetime if it hits at that critical moment of development. If we won’t wear the shorts, what message are we sending to them? Wear the shorts, show her that she can too. Without fear of judgement… for sure there will always be people who judge but know that their judgements speak volumes about them and their insecurities and have absolutely nothing to do with you and your lovely shorts!"
6. Be the change you want to see
If you look and act like you love your body it will start to rub off on others and yourself. It's a mindfulness practice where you choose the values by which you want to live, make an intention and plan to live alongside those values. For example, the women who take part in our Body Stories say that they find having their photos taken in swimwear a real confidence-booster.
"I come from a conservative Muslim background and I was always taught to cover up. If I wore something that was revealing I would feel really uncomfortable. Even now I’m not used to it. It took me a very long time to feel comfortable in a swimming costume," says Rabiah. "I was involved in a swimwear shoot through SwimDem with Stylist Magazine a year ago. Someone showed my mum the photos and she reacted badly because I was in a swimming costume in a magazine. She didn’t understand and thought I should be covered up. I tried to explain “it’s body positive, it's good to see normal bodies in a magazine”. That’s why I did it and I’d do it again. But it’s hard. I’ve continued to swim and continued to wear costumes because it’s so important: representation really matters... Who you see in adverts and the media is so important... Growing up I didn’t see other people like me in swimsuits, so if I have the opportunity to be that for someone else, then I would want to."
7. Find support through coaching or by joining a group
Coaching, therapy and workshops or body positive groups are really powerful ways to change your mindset. We love @antidietriotclub @drjoshuawoolrich and @iam.annaanderson on Instagram.
"I’m saddened by how many women are unhappy with their bodies and the impact this can have on their wider life. It’s not just about looking in the mirror, feeling sad and getting on with the day. Poor body image can affect every area of a woman’s life; relationships, career, social life. I use my skills to help women transform that connection and make peace with their body, and by default, truly accept themselves, so they can do all those things they are holding themselves back from," says Claudine. "Life is too short to wait until you’ve lost the weight or dropped the dress size before you allow yourself joy and pleasure. I find the term ‘body positivity’ has been slightly twisted by the diet industry and some “influencers”. Instead I prefer ‘body kindness’ and ‘body acceptance’"