The Surprising Secret to Loving Your Body
Before I reveal his worst flaw, let me say a few words in defense of my father. He's a kind man. Loving. But he was raised by a critical Protestant mother, and he himself has a tendency to criticize. When I was 9, he found it amusing to occasionally point out that I hadn't lost my baby fat. When I was in my 20s and lean, he still said it, until I finally told him how much it irked me. He apologized, seemingly contrite, then said it again the next day.
Perhaps you've also been wounded by a loved one's thoughtless words: In a new SELF.com survey, 47 percent of women said the meanest body comment they'd ever heard came from a family member -- far more than from strangers, friends or a romantic partner.
I'm no longer a child, obviously, but whenever I think of my dad's words, they gnaw at me. "Your parents lay the foundation for your self-image, because they're your first primary influence," says Susan Albers, Psy.D., author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. There's a biological reason these close-to-home comments are so painful -- and memorable: Your brain is programmed to recall negative experiences more easily than it does pleasurable ones to help ensure you'll avoid these unpleasant feelings in the future. Specifically, findings show that the amygdala, the brain's fear center, triggers the growth of new neurons at traumatic moments, which may make memories of them hard to shake. Years later, they can color how you see yourself, starting a habit of automatically putting your body down. "The hurtful comments from a parent, like 'my chunky little girl,' are meant to be affectionate, but they stick with us, and we replay them again and again," Albers says.
You can't trade in your relatives or -- face it -- expect them to change. But surrounding yourself with nurturing friends and being conscious of how you all talk about weight can help you make peace with your body and even learn to love it, regardless of the number on the scale, a study from The Ohio State University in Columbus finds. Researchers there asked 801 women ages 18 to 65 if they felt accepted, bodywise, by those in their inner circle, then cross-checked the results with each woman's bodymass index. What they found: The key factor for feeling bodylove wasn't a woman's size. "It was whether her social network appreciated her body," says Tracy Tylka, Ph.D., a coauthor of the study. "Women who feel accepted like their body more." They also have a greater appreciation for their physical abilities and eat intuitively -- they chow down when they're hungry and stop when full. "That makes sense," Tylka says. "If you feel good about your body, you'll be more apt to trust it."
The trick is finding pals who promote a let's-love-ourselves vibe. In the SELF poll, though nearly half of women said family members got the prize for meanest body comment, 18 percent said the worst they'd heard had come from a friend. That's too bad, especially as body talk seems to take up so much of our girlfriend chatter. Case in point -- 68 percent of SELF readers say weight and dieting come up often with friends, at least once during every or every other get-together. (Thankfully, only 5 percent say that it's the main topic.) In an online study done at Northwestern University, researchers found weight-related conversations were even more pervasive: Ninety-three percent of subjects said they engaged in fat talk. "It's so common that most of us don't give it a thought," says study author Rachel Salk.
Interestingly, 86 percent of the women in Salk's study said fat talk was most often initiated by a friend who wasn't overweight. "Some women admitted to bringing up feeling fat because they needed reassurance, though they didn't necessarily believe it when they got it," Salk notes. "There may also be a perception that other women will like us better if we say something self-deprecating." All this weight-focused back-and-forth may lead to long-term body anxiety. "It can reinforce the idea that weight is a key part of a woman's identity, more so than things like smarts, sense of humor or creativity," Salk says.
Fortunately, it's relatively easy to put the kibosh on body bashing. In another experiment, Salk instructed some of the women to challenge fat talk by saying, "Oh, come on! You're not fat. We all say things like that, and there are so many better things to talk about!" When they did, others in the group felt less body dissatisfaction.
It's bad enough to put yourself down. But if you're gossipy about how others look -- a pal's weight gain, a star's obvious surgery -- you're also likely to feel worse about your own shape. "If you and your friends criticize others, it's natural to worry that your friends secretly criticize you, which increases the chances you'll feel insecure," says Joan C. Chrisler, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Connecticut College. In the SELF poll, 75 percent of women admitted to being competitive with friends about weight, 40 percent said they were jealous rather than worried when a pal had gotten too thin, and 30 percent confessed to feeling a teensy bit smug when a friend put on a few pounds. We've all experienced schadenfreude, but compare and contrast with caution: Research from Kent State University suggests that if you measure yourself against someone who looks better than you, such as a celebrity, you'll end up feeling less happy about your appearance. That goes for online comparing, too. Israeli researchers found that young women who described themselves as spending a lot of time on Facebook were more apt to have a worse body image than less avid Facebook users. Those (well-curated) photos can create a standard of beauty that may feel tough to live up to.
I'm a comparer myself, but the older I get, the more I consciously avoid fat talk and friends who favor it. I'd much rather be with people who want to have fun and be healthy, like my running buddy, Susan. When I'm on the trail with her next to me, it's hard not to love my body for the miracle it is. The other day, I was complaining about a comment my dad had made about my body (again), and Susan listened quietly. "I can see how that would hurt," she said, "but it sounds as if he's more clueless than unkind. Don't let it bother you." It didn't take more than a second to see that she was right and that she was a friend I wanted to keep for life.
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