Photo by Fares Hamouche on Unsplash
Welcome to the second blog in this series on feeling better about your “self”. In the last blog: suefirthltd.com/building-self-worth-why-its-worth-it/, we looked at the importance of building from a foundation of solid self worth. Today, we’re going to step it up a level and consider self-image. What do I mean by self-image? In general, self-image encompasses what you think about your appearance, your abilities and your personality. Because that’s a lot to get through in a single post, I’m going to focus specifically on the appearance part of self-image – how you see yourself, both in isolation and in comparison with others.
People who have a strong self image are comfortable in their own skin. Sure, they have “fat days” or days when they look in the mirror and curse the inevitable effects of time on their face and bodies. But in general, they acknowledge that we are all different, that everyone has a different build and genetic makeup, that we all age, and that our bodies change during the course of our lives.
The fact that people who have disabilities or disfigurements can have a very positive self-image (and conversely, that there are plenty of unhappy, beautiful, surgery junkies) shows that feeling good about yourself does not equate to meeting an objective ideal of attractiveness. For a laugh – why not go on YouTube and check out some of Jimmy Kimmel’s mean tweets, www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLs4hTtftqnlAkiQNdWn6bbKUr-P1wuSm0 where celebrities read out unkind tweets that usually focus on some flaw in their appearance or their voice. The fact that the most famous people can be subjected to abuse about their appearance shows that a) some people will bully anyone and b) you can never be fully approved of or validated by everyone, however beautiful or well-known you are.
There are many reasons why we may not have a positive self image. One common cause of feeling very judgemental about our appearance is having a parent who was very critical of their own looks. Maybe your mother was always on a diet and complained about her weight, or was put down by your father for her funny hair or nose. Or you might have been directly criticised about your appearance or compared unfavourably to a more conventionally attractive sibling. There’s nothing like being known as “the clever one” to make a child feel ugly.
Appearance is also one of the first things a bully will pick on. Perfectly normal looking people can think of themselves as “fat” or “wrong” after someone (who, looking back, is often no great shakes in the looks department) picks on them. Although I suspect things are pretty bad for teenagers now (rating their self esteem by the number of “likes” they get from an Instagram selfie), bullies have always focused on insults aimed at people’s weight or ugliness as a cheap and easy knock down. Unfortunately, the voices of these bullies can be integrated into your self-talk and you end up bullying yourself.
A great antidote to self-shaming talk is mirror work. This can feel a bit weird if you’re not familiar with the concept, but in truth you’ve probably spent a lot of time talking down to yourself in the mirror without realising it. The key to turning it around is – as is often the case – consciousness. Here are some tips on mirror work, along with some other suggestions on working with what you’ve got.
- If you’re used to rushing past mirrors or just using them to check your teeth or apply your makeup, slow down, stop and really look at your reflection. Even if you have all sorts of negative or judgmental thoughts whirling through your mind, acknowledge them, and then let them go. You are who you are. You have the bone structure, the height, build, hair type and skin colour that you have. Sure, you can make various cosmetic changes (more on that later) but you are who you are – right now. So you might as well get comfortable with the person in the mirror because they’re always going to be with you.
- Try and listen to the things you say to yourself when you look in the mirror. Whose voice do you hear? It is yours, a parent’s a school bully’s?
- Try and focus on something you like about yourself and affirm it. Don’t choose something that feels untrue for the moment (eg if you really hate your sticky-out ears, maybe focus on saying something nice about your body), because saying “I love my ears” is just too big a mental leap and your consciousness will react against it. If you can’t pick out an element of your appearance you like, just say something kind to yourself like “I am learning to accept myself just as I am”, “I am willing to learn to like how I look”.
- Do things that make your body feel good. Your body isn’t just for looking at – it’s for using and inhabiting. Find some exercise that works for you, and enjoy the feeling of movement and ease. Feed it foods that make you feel good. It’s hard to hate your body when you’re feeling full of the feel-good endorphins you get from regular fresh air and exercise.
- Work with what you’ve got. At the risk of sounding cheesy, be the best you you can be. This doesn’t mean trying to become a carbon copy of someone else. But if you’re not happy with your clothing, work out what might suit you (maybe enlist the help of a friend or a professional if budget allows) and make some changes. You can look better or worse depending on how you wear your hair, your clothes, etc. You don’t need to get all Gok Wan and Trinny and Susannah if you don’t want to, but there’s nothing wrong with deciding that you’d like to improve things.
- If you find it genuinely impossible to look in a mirror or say anything nice to yourself, you may have deeper issues (and potentially body dysmorphic disorder) that would be better served by talking to a professional. You could either go to your GP in the first instance, or approach a counsellor with experience in this area.