Written By: Sarah Kolman RN, MA, CHPN, INHC
‘Tis the season in North America for the annual barrage of messages about getting our bodies “beach ready,” or reminding us that, “bikini season is just around the corner!” There’s a reason this messaging is so common: it resonates with consumers. Gyms, diets, coaches—there is no fitness niche that is immune, because so many people want to look better and feel better in their bodies!
I tell my clients that it is one thing to have fitness and performance goals, and it is another thing to connect your body image and weight to your self-worth. I support fitness goals, but I work diligently with clients to loosen the death grip of body shame and judgment.
Compulsive habits like over-exercising, calorie restricting, withdrawing from social gatherings, obsessing with how our body looks, stepping on the scale multiple times a day, constantly looking in the mirror to nitpick every imperfect detail (or, on the flip side: avoiding mirrors and cameras) develop. What folks with body issue challenges may not know is that this way of thinking can have an even bigger impact in terms of managing their health.
In addition to excess weight, my clients often experience a variety of other symptoms and body functioning they wish was different, like hair loss, acne, joint inflammation, bloating, fatigue, and mood swings, to name a few. It’s all too easy to feel frustrated, believing that our body is damaged or working against us. But even though the experience of physical symptoms is real, negative self-talk is a 100% mental game—and we get to decide how we talk to ourselves. We become what we think! If our inner critic is saying we look disgusting in a swimsuit and our hair looks awful, well, then, that’s our reality. Have you ever seen a full figured person on the beach wearing a revealing swimsuit and they appear super confident and content with themselves, like they are owning all they have? I’ve noticed! And, I usually say, “I want what they have!"
We are drawn to and inspired by people who can own their worth, beauty, and body and carry themselves with love and acceptance. It isn’t the body we typically want….it’s the confidence, love, worthiness, and happiness we yearn for. The thin model “sells” those attributes as if those ways of being are living in that body—but most of us know that weight and body size are not connected to contentment. Contentment is an inner job.
Beyond boosting our self esteem, we should understand that taming our inner critic has a powerful impact on our body’s ability to cope with disease. The connection between self-perception and physical symptoms is very real.
A harsh inner critic, that insists reality be different, triggers the autonomic nervous system—our fight or flight (stress) response. This can lead to being in a chronic state of stress in which cortisol is constantly being pumped into our body and wreaking havoc on our immune system, microbial profile, cardiovascular system, and hormonal balance. You name it, stress impacts it! The Centers for Disease Control agree, claiming that 90% of illness is caused by stress. Some experts even say that stress is America’s number one health problem. If your body is already up against any kind of disease, a loud inner critic is only going to exacerbate your symptoms, and set you up for further disease in the long haul. So, what can we do?
Tame the inner critic
Give your inner critic a name—choose someone you can’t take seriously. Whether it’s a celebrity or someone you know in real life, the more ridiculous the better! This will help you separate your negative thoughts and perceptions from the truth. When I picture my inner critic as an annoying, outrageous caricature that I can easily picture, I can hardly take anything it says seriously.
Check yourself before you wreck yourself
Stop and ask yourself: is this thought really true? Sure, I might think I should have a thinner, fitter body, but is the statement, “I should have a thinner, fitter body” really true? Then, try turning it around and see if it doesn’t allow you to accept yourself better: “I shouldn’t have a thinner, fitter body right now.” Because, whatever is happening now, is okay. It’s right, because it is. You still get to have performance and fitness goals, but you can also accept where you are right now. The Work of Byron Katie has been a helpful method for me to learn how to change my thoughts and perceptions and to actually accept what is–instead of fighting against reality. Change your thoughts and perceptions and you will literally change your world!
Get clear about your motivation
The motivation behind your health goals matters! We naturally gravitate toward a model of thinking in which believes if I have “x,” and I do “y,” then I will be “z.” In the case of weight loss: “I need a hot bod that looks amazing in a bathing suit. I will cut out fats, sugar, and anything that tastes good for like 6-8 weeks to get there. Then, I will be content, free, confident, and lovable—marry a sexy beast with a fancy house and live happily ever after!” The problem is, and we know this deep down, what we have (whether it is physical weight or material things like cars, houses, lots of money), doesn’t make us content, lovable, enough, worthy, confident, etc. So, we get swooped into a never ending cycle of pushing ourselves to “have” something that actually never translates into the thing we are truly yearning for. This is why we yo-yo diet. When we zero in on our true motivation, we get to see that who we are, how we are, is an inner job and isn’t reliant on what we have (or what we look like). Here’s the amazing thing: when we align ourselves with who we want to be, what we do and what we have shifts. We start to treat our bodies differently, making healthier food choices and not coping and numbing through unhealthy behaviors. Ultimately, our bodies follow suit and we can see and feel the shift in our shape, performance and overall wellness. So when we shift our internal being, what we have often changes and shifts to be in alignment.
Focus on whole health
It is ingrained in us from a young age that if you look thin, you are healthy. It’s important to question this cultural value. As someone who spent many years as an unhealthy thin person, I can attest to this firsthand! I often work with clients who come to me for weight loss, and it’s amazing to witness the shift as they learn to become aware of health and healing on a deeper level. Consequently, their tunnel vision on weight loss alone dissolves. Focus on health as a whole—and don’t forget to nourish yourself with fulfilling relationships, spiritual practice, satisfying work, restorative sleep, and physical activity.
Feed your body well
Body image issues often come with a strained relationship with food—have you ever told yourself any of the following? “Fats are the enemy.” “Food is not on my side.” “I’m allergic or sensitive to everything!” “I shouldn’t eat this, it will make me fat.” Being in this mental tailspin distracts us from nourishing our body with healthy, whole foods. Many of my clients see food from the lens of…”this food will turn into fat in my body, unless I burn off all the calories.” Food is so much more than calories—food is fuel and it has the power to heal! Choose foods that are fresh, high quality, and local if possible, and try to eat with a mindset of gratitude and mindfulness. Avoid highly processed foods that cause inflammation and poor body functioning. Feeding ourselves well also supports a healthy mental state, and it looks different for everyone. My ideal diet might not work for you, and vice versa. Sure, get some advice from the external world (media, the internet, a friend, or neighbor), but ultimately listen to your inner wisdom and pay attention to your body to know what it needs. Fueling your body with healthy food is a much more likely way to support contentment and joy than the magic bikini bod.
With these tools in mind, relax in your body with more confidence and love this summer—embracing your body for what it is, imperfections and all.
Sarah Kolman RN, MA, CHPN, INHC is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World. Learn more at www.this-one-life.com.