In researching how to teach my students to have a better body image, I taught myself as well
I was fired from a ballet company because I didn’t have what the director called a “classical body.” When I offered to lose weight, the director said something I will never forget. “No matter how much weight you lose, you’ll still have that same body.”
I spent my entire career in ballet and on Broadway struggling to appreciate the way I looked. I thought my butt was too big, I hated the shape of my thighs, I thought my chin was too pointy, and I counted every single calorie.
Getting dressed for a class or audition was centered solely around hiding the parts of me that the industry told me weren’t ideal. And often, how skinny I felt at any moment dictated my mood.
This wreaked havoc on my self-esteem. My body insecurities worked their way into my dancing and not only did this make me unhappy, but it also caused me to lose jobs. Not because of my body — because I wasn’t dancing as well as I could.
For much of my life, I was stuck inside a body that I hated. And, unfortunately, there was no getting around it. In my mind, I was trying to drive in the Indy 500 with a Toyota Corolla and the only way to get a race car was to torture myself and hope I’d earn enough money to pay for multiple surgeries to shave down my thighs, remove my lower ribs, and make God-knows-what-other-crazy-alterations.
Even when I embarked on other professions that had nothing to do with the size and shape of my body, I still struggled with my body negativity. It was not until I decided to include a section on body image in one of my classes that I realized I had created a habit of judging my self-worth by how thin or in shape I was.
So, I dove feet first into the deep end of research on body image, body positivity, body neutrality, and how the way we feel about our bodies affects so many aspects of our lives. It was eye-opening.
First, as I began to research body image, I found that I wasn’t the only one who disliked my body… by far. According to an article in Ipsos, 79% of Americans are unhappy with the way they look. This survey said that more women are unhappy than men, but the overwhelming majority of people surveyed just plain didn’t like the body they’re in.
Additionally, the advent of social media has only perpetuated the obsession with perfection in the way we look. Apps that smooth out our skin, make us thinner or even add makeup can present an image that is not accurate. And when we are inundated by friends and acquaintances who seem to always look perfect, we can sometimes see ourselves as lacking when we do a comparison.
The good news is that there are a few exercises that can help those of us who aren’t happy with the way we look feel a little bit better. Here are two exercises that have helped me begin to accept and sometimes even appreciate my body.
For most of us, our bodies have faithfully served us well throughout our lives. Our hands are agile enough to type words that communicate our thoughts and feelings to the world, our legs obediently carry us to wherever we want to walk, and our strong arms gently hug our loved ones. When is the last time you’ve expressed gratitude to your body for its service?
One of the most powerful exercises I found that boosts my body image is a gratitude survey. It’s easy to do and it can help you reframe the way you think about the skin you’re in. Here’s how it works.
Grab a piece of paper and a pen. Starting with your head, mentally work your way down your body and write down one body part at a time. As you write down each body part, think of one action that body part helps or has helped you perform that has provided you happiness. After you write that down, move on to the next body part.
For instance, my nose helps me smell the fresh spring flowers. The wrinkle next to my mouth is there because I have slyly grinned so many times in my life. My shoulders can carry my son so he can feel tall. My chest has freckles from many weekends at the beach. Etc.
Rather than thinking that my nose is too pointy, my shoulders are too wide, my chest has too many freckles, and that I need to price out filler for my wrinkle, I reframe my thoughts about those body parts.
Then, after you have identified the positive actions with which your body has helped you, take the time to verbally thank your body. “Thank you, fingers, for helping me type these words so that this article might help someone else.” The more you can personify your body parts, the more difficult it becomes to chastise them for not being perfect.
And, the more you practice gratitude, according to the Greater Good Science Center, the happier you become. In an article in their publication, Joshua Brown says, “Indeed, many studies over the past decade have found that people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier and less depressed.” Count me in for a ticket on the happier and less depressed train.
Even aspects of our bodies that our society views as negative can be reframed in a more positive way. Pudgy tummies may have once carried a child. Grey hairs may signify wisdom and long life. And laugh lines exist because we may have had many years of smiling.
When I take the time to do a survey of my body and show my appreciation for it, I feel better about myself and I am a little less likely to go to a mental negative space.
As a former professional dancer, it is ingrained in me to mentally size up how other people look. I have caught myself involuntarily looking at a complete stranger and thinking, She should really get her lips done. Or, doesn’t she know those pants are cutting in an unflattering place? (I know, I know — you all hate me now, but this is something I’m actively working on improving about myself.)
I suspect that if many people are completely honest with themselves, they probably do this every now and then (or a lot) as well. Additionally, a study published in the Journal of Psychological Science asserts that we do make judgments on others based on their body shape.
Medical News Today recounts this study’s findings by saying, “Overall, the study found that participants associated heavier body models with negative personality traits, such as laziness and carelessness. In contrast, they tended to associate lighter bodies with more positive traits, such as self-confidence and enthusiasm.”
So, if you’re judging people based on their bodies, don’t judge yourself for doing the judging. I have found, though, that reframing that judgment is helping me develop a more positive attitude toward other people’s appearances as well as my own. I discovered an exercise that has been helpful in furthering this process. I like to call it stranger compliments.
When I am out and about, I challenge myself to really take in other people, one person at a time, and find something about them that I would compliment. This aspect has to be something related to their body or their countenance. She has a nice handbag, isn’t helpful.
Instead of mentally trying to figure out how I would “fix” a person’s appearance, I try to find something that is positive about it. Now, when I see someone new, I challenge myself to think things like, he has really expressive eyes. Or she has a kind smile. And every now and then, when it’s appropriate, I even verbalize those thoughts. It usually makes someone’s day.
The point of this exercise, though, is not to make other people feel better. It is to change the way we think. If we learn not to mentally rip apart other people’s appearances, we can begin to break that habit with ourselves as well. And when we stop the body negativity replay that happens in our own heads, we can lead a more happy and fulfilled life.
Over the past few months, I have implemented the two exercises above to help me feel a little bit better about myself. By creating a sense of gratitude for the hard work my body helps me do and by finding positive aspects of other people’s bodies, I have begun to turn my personal body negativity ship around.
Listen, I’m not there yet. I still look in the mirror every day and wrestle with my brain to try to generate a positive attitude toward my body. Dancing professionally was both a rewarding experience and a little bit of a traumatic one as well. It definitely spurred a negative relationship with my body.
As I continue to educate the dancers of the next generation, I am working diligently to stop that cycle of negativity. And I have found that the best way to truly do this is to start within.
In sharing this story with you, I hope to also help others begin this process. When we change ourselves and our mindsets, we can then begin to change others, and then, eventually, our society will hopefully change as well.
No matter how much weight I gain or lose, my ballet director was right — I will always have this body. I might as well learn to love and appreciate it.