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Boost Your Body Image With Self-compassion | CrunchyTales

Self Compassion: When Midlife Body Revolution Starts With Kindness (Not Counting Calories)

6 min read

How do you feel about your body? What comes up for you when you think about your midlife body, wrinkles, stretchmarks, muffin top, menopausal weight gain? If you’re like most midlife women, your body image – the thoughts and feelings that you have about your body – probably isn’t great. 

You’re not alone. A study published in the Journal of Women and Aging found that only 12.2 per cent of women ages 50 and older say they are satisfied with their body sizeWhat’s the solution? While you may think it’s changing your body by dieting or working out, there’s a simpler, easier way to shift your body image that doesn’t require transforming your body at all. It’s called self-compassion.

That’s right, be nicer to yourself. Not only will it improve how you feel about your body, but it will also improve how you feel about yourself!

Studies show that higher levels of self-compassion are associated with lower levels of stress, depression, and anxiety and higher levels of happiness, optimism, and connectedness. My research involving over 500 women across the world also found that practising self-compassion for only an hour a week improved body dissatisfaction fast, in as little as 21 days

Ditch the inner critic! Self-compassion is your superpower for resilience, happiness, and growth. Here is how to use it effectively.

What is body image?

Body image is the subjective picture or mental image you have of your own body. It also can include how you think other people see you. 

Like the weather, body image can fluctuate daily or even hourly. For example, you may leave the house loving your outfit and appearance. Then later in the day your body image may plummet when you look in the mirror or scroll your Instagram feed and compare your looks to another woman who you think is more attractive than you are. 

According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, there are four aspects of body image:

  • Perceptual body image

This involves how you see your body and can be very different from how you actually look. For example, models and dancers who tend to be thin often have poor body image and view themselves as much heavier than they actually are.

  • Affective body image

This is the way you feel about your body in general along with weight, body shape, and specific body parts. Affective body image can range from happy and satisfied to disgusted and dissatisfied.

  • Cognitive body image

The beliefs you have about your body and the way you think about and assess your body. Body image cognition can impact how much you focus on your body shape and weight and the actions you take to hide or alter your body.

  • Behavioural body image

This occurs when you dislike how you look and intentionally isolate yourself or engage in unhealthy behaviours like over-exercising or undereating with the aim of altering your appearance.

Why body image dips at midlife

We don’t outgrow bad body image in midlife. In fact, it’s so prevalent in women that researchers have described it as “normative discontent.” A 2012 study published in the Journal of Women and Aging of 1,800 women over fifty found that almost 64 per cent thought about their weight every day. Forty-one per cent checked body size or share daily or more, and 71 per cent were currently trying to lose weight. Seventy-nine per cent felt that their body shape or weight played a moderate to important role in self-concept. 

There are numerous reasons that body image tends to plummet at midlife. With each trip around the sun, our bodies naturally age and move further away from societal beauty ideals which tend to emphasize being young and thin. 

As we age, we experience numerous physiological changes like thinning and greying hair, and an expanding waistline due to the hormonal fluctuations associated with menopauseage spots, and wrinkles. While these changes are normal and can be celebrated and embraced as signs of a life well lived, they can also be perceived as “unacceptable” in terms of what is revered by society. Our culture and the media promote an unrealistic beauty ideal that is impossible to maintain as we age. 

To make matters worse, women are taught that the most important thing about us is our looks. As a result, when we no longer feel that our looks are acceptable because we don’t resemble the thin, youthful ideal self-esteem crashes. Even if we take great care of our bodies, are impeccably dressed, and have a standing appointment at the salon, in a culture where beauty is synonymous with youth, we can feel unattractive and worse, invisible. In addition, negative stereotypes of midlife women which portray us as emotional, and irrational can make us feel bad about ourselves and the negative effect can impact how we feel about our bodies. 

SEE ALSO:  The Unperfectionist

As one woman shared in a study on body image published in the Journal of Women Aging: “You wake up one morning and your face is sagging. You develop an inner tube around your middle that wasn’t there before. Your skin turns dry. The earlobes get longer, and the nose gets bigger. Your breasts droop. You start sprouting whiskers. Cellulite seems to spread everywhere. Bruises and veins start to cover your legs.”

How self-compassion can help you love your body again

Negative body image is a huge issue not only because it impacts so many people, especially women, it can negatively impact physical and mental health. Negative body image is associated with depression and anxiety and impacts mood, self-esteem, and how you function personally and professionally and a common factor in the development of eating disorders. Many midlife women are either using dangerous behaviours to try to emulate the thin ideal or engage in binge eating when they experience body shame

Fortunately, there is a way to counteract those negative cultural messages and improve our body image: self-compassion. It’s an attitude toward yourself where you treat and relate to yourself the way you would a good friend. 

According to self-compassion researcher and pioneer, Kristen Neff self-compassion has three elements

  • Self-kindness 

With self-compassion, you treat yourself with kindness rather than judgment. When you notice you are suffering or feeling inadequate instead of being mean to yourself you talk and soothe yourself in a warm, loving manner. 

  • Common humanity

When things go wrong, you’re suffering, or you make a mistake you realize that this is a normal part of being human. Shit happens. Suffering is part of life, and everyone fails and makes. As a result, you don’t feel so isolated and alone. Common humanity can help you understand that everyone experiences physiological changes as they age. 

  • Mindfulness 

With mindfulness, you notice when you are suffering and rather than ignoring or over-identifying with your pain you notice how you are feeling. After you become mindful you practice self-compassion by giving yourself what you need. With mindfulness, you notice when painful thoughts (e.g. I’m old and unattractive) and emotions (e.g. I feel fat and unlovable) arise. Instead of ruminating or ignoring your thoughts and feelings, you hold them in balanced awareness. Like a mother comforting a sick child, you ask yourself: “What do I need?

How to practise self-compassion 

Self-compassion is a practice which means you do it regularly. It’s like going to the self-compassion gym. To strengthen your self-compassion muscle you treat yourself kindly, forgive yourself when you fail, and give yourself what you need when you are suffering

You can use different practices to strengthen your self-compassion muscles. Formal ones involve listening to and learning self-compassion meditations. There are also informal practices that you can incorporate into your life. For example, make a list of all the ways you already care for yourself. When you notice you are stressed, suffering, or experiencing negative body image pull out the list and choose an activity to do. You can also think about how you would talk to and treat a good friend in a similar situation and then act that way towards yourself. 

One beautiful way to practice self-compassion that also helps to reverse negative body image is to create a toolkit of ways that you can improve how you feel physically.  Examples include stretching, going for a walk, eating a healthy meal or snack, taking a nap, or doing self-massage.

A take-home message

As you practice self-compassion, you’ll discover an alternative way to love and value yourself that has nothing to do with your size, shape, or appearance. Life is precious, and so are you. Choose self-compassion as a gift to yourself, and discover the strength and love that blossom within.

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About The Author

Dr Ellen Albertson | The Midlife Whisperer

Dr Ellen Albertson | The Midlife Whisperer

Dr Ellen is a psychologist, registered dietitian, board-certified health and wellness coach, podcast host, Reiki master, and self-compassion teacher. Known as The Midlife Whisperer™, she helps women have the energy, confidence, and clarity to make their next chapter their best chapter. A bestselling, award-winning author, and inspirational speaker, Dr. Ellen is an expert on women’s well-being and sits on the medical board of The National Menopause Foundation. Dr Ellen has appeared on Extra, the Food Network and NBC World News and has been quoted in Psychology Today, Forbes, and Eating Well. She has written for SELF, Better Homes & Gardens and Good Housekeeping. Her latest book is Rock Your Midlife: 7 Steps to Transform Yourself and Make Your Next Chapter Your Best Chapter! She brings over 30 years of counselling, coaching, and healing experience to her holistic practice and transformational work. She lives on the Champlain Islands of Vermont with her high-tech, raw-food-loving partner Ken and her tree-climbing Border Collie Rosie.

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