5 Ways to Deal with Body-Image Anxiety in the Summer
There's lots to love about the summer months, but it can also trigger body image anxiety in many of us
If you are being held back by low body image, find a therapist here
Summer. A season many - if not most - of us look forward to every year. Warm weather and long, sunny days, inviting us to spend more time outside, relax and enjoy. Unfortunately though, summer, with the lighter clothing and greater body exposure it brings with it, is also the time, when body judgement, anxiety and shame can reach an absolute peak. This can easily remove all the feelings of joy, freedom and carefreeness that are the true essence of summer, and replace them with dread and extreme, desperate attempts to change our bodies, in preparation for ‘bikini season'.
And that is such a shame. So let’s explore together how we can deal with the challenging thoughts and emotions about our bodies this summer, so that they don’t end up robbing us of our precious moments -for yet another year..
1) Shift your attention from the outside to the inside
The first thing I encourage my clients, who struggle with negative body image, to do is to begin intentionally shifting their attention from the outside - how their bodies look - to the inside - how they feel. Instead of looking at your body from the outside in, as if you are an external observer of an object, and pick apart those parts that you dislike, try experiencing your body from the inside, by paying attention to the sensations that are present in it at any given moment.
Instead of judging how big or small an area of your body is, sense into this area and notice whether it feels warm or cold, soft or sharp, tense or relaxed, etc. Becoming familiar with our ‘inner landscape’ by sensing into the body, rather than merely looking at it with an examining gaze, can help us gain an experiential understanding of the fact that our bodies are living, breathing beings that continuously communicate with us, rather than lifeless objects or defective machines in perpetual need of fixing.
2) Express gratitude towards your body
When you are preoccupied with thoughts about what is ‘wrong’ with your body, from an appearance perspective, it is very easy to become fully oblivious to how much is ‘right’ with it, how much is actually working well and what your body does for you on a daily basis - keeping you alive and (more or less) healthy, allowing you to move through and experience life, connect with other people, and so much more.
A lot of that we take for granted, so developing a practice of intentionally expressing gratitude for what our body does, rather than how it looks, can be an extremely helpful way to respond to and counterbalance habitual dissatisfaction with it. To put that into practice, every time a judgemental thought about your body comes up, think of and/or write down three things you are grateful to your body for - and really feel the gratitude and appreciation inside.
3) Tune into your senses and focus on pleasure
Summer is a natural feast for the senses. Nature is in full bloom, colours abound, light too, summer foods and beverages are available for our enjoyment…and yet, if body anxiety is present, you can barely experience any of that, as you are preoccupied with body loathing thoughts and emotions. In that moment, you are over-focusing on your body’s flaws, as if looking at them through a magnifying glass, at the exclusion of everything else that goes on around you. From that place, even if you are in the most beautiful surroundings, you cannot truly experience them, as you are not wholly there.
Here, another shift is called for; that of getting out of your mind and into your body - and into your senses, in particular. This summer, make a conscious effort to truly notice and feel all that you receive through your senses at any given moment. Sense into the warm, soft sand beneath your feet, as you walk on the beach, rather than pulling your belly in. Revel at the cornucopia of colours - orange, pinks, golden and reds - at a sunset, rather than counting your bites at dinner time. Savour each bite of a juicy summer fruit, or your favourite ice-cream alike, and fully appreciate the taste, notice the sensations in your mouth, be 100% present to the experience. When we allow ourselves to fully, consciously appreciate and interact with our environment, inner and outer, in this way, it is much harder to get caught up in our mental turmoil.
4) 'Fat feelings': What am I really feeling?
Let’s make this very clear: there is no feeling called ‘fat’. ‘Fat’ is not a feeling. Fat is a neutral word that describes a specific body type and size - it is neither positive nor negative. However, in our culture, being called or perceived as ‘fat’ has turned into one of the worst things that can happen to someone. Hence, we fear it so much. But since ‘fat’ is not a feeling, what is it that we are actually feeling, when we (think we) feel fat? Well, many things! A whole range of challenging emotions can be interpreted as ‘feeling fat’, including fear, anger, sadness, loneliness, anxiety, etc.
Such emotions can feel overwhelming, especially when we don’t have effective ways to deal with them, or if we have been avoiding them for a long time. Simultaneously, our solution-oriented minds much prefer having something specific and tangible to focus on, such as losing weight, instead of dealing with the real emotions that are, by nature, more abstract and ever-changing. So, believing that your weight/shape/size is the problem immediately presents a seemingly easy - though not at all real or lasting - solution to a problem that is much deeper and, above all else, internal.
More often than not, behind a ‘fat feeling’, there is some form of feeling ‘not (good) enough’. This comes from a fear of being neglected, ridiculed or humiliated for parts of ourselves and our bodies that we have been taught are not acceptable. Finding the source of those feelings and beliefs in our history and experiences, and bringing healing and acceptance to those places within that have felt the neglect in the first place is the real solution here -not losing weight.
For all the above reasons, any time you feel ‘fat’, take a moment to ask yourself this critical question:
‘What else am I feeling? / What am I really feeling?’
And then offer yourself some support around the real emotion. You can do that in several ways, some of the most effective of which, in my experience, are: mindfulness practices, EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), writing/journaling and expressive movement.
Note: Initially, you might need support from a qualified practitioner in order to do so - please know that this is absolutely normal and common, and do not hesitate to reach out and offer that to yourself. Learning how to manage your emotions is nothing less than life-changing, and it will have a positive impact on every single area of your life, including your relationship with your body.
Having said that, even just identifying and naming the emotion that you are really feeling, when you experience discomfort in your body, is powerful in itself, as it immediately takes the focus away from the body as the source of the struggle and affirms what is really going on.
5) You don't owe anything to anyone - neither does your body
I would like to close with this important reminder: being outside in the summer (and at any other time, for that matter) is not meant to be a performance. Wearing clothes appropriate for warmer weather and enjoying what everybody else does is not a right that you have to earn by attaining and maintaining a specific body shape, size or appearance - it is your birthright, it is yours for the taking. We constantly receive messages implying that bodies that do not fit into certain beauty ideals should not even exist or, at least, should not be visible, until they do fit in - which is how the bikini-body diets and extreme weight loss attempts gain ground. For women especially, this type of pressure is immense and overwhelming.
However, let’s all take a minute to think critically and ask ourselves: Who said so? Who decided that this is the way it is supposed to be? Who is really policing our bodies?
This is a big shift in perspective and one that, to truly sink in, requires some consistent exposure to body-positive and body-affirming messages, to counteract the cultural brainwashing we have all been (and continue to be) subjected to, our whole lives. To support this process, I warmly recommend the classic book ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’, by Susie Orbach, and encourage you to actively seek and learn from body-positive activists and teachers, online and offline -we are fortunate enough, at this point in time, to have a wealth of such resources available.
I hope you have a beautiful, pleasurable and freedom-filled rest of your summer!