I would rather get a root canal than try on a swimsuit. I wish I were thinner. Everyone’s going to stare at my “bat wings” in a sleeveless dress. If this sounds familiar, you are far from alone. No matter your age or weight, if you’re a woman living on this planet, chances are you’ve let similar sneaky self-critical body thoughts creep in and steal your joy.
In fact, a whopping 91% of women admit to hating their appearance. But there is another thing we women have in common: the ability to shut down that nasty inner voice, to learn to appreciate our body in all its glory and to restore our confidence—even during bathing suit season.
Here, three top women experts share their empowering ways to boost self esteem, embrace your body as it is and love all that you are.
Shift Your Focus From Appearance To Experience
After years of being bombarded by judgements about our appearance by the media and culture at large, it’s time to finally flip the script, says sociologist Kimberly Dark author of Fat, Pretty, and Soon to be Old: A Makeover for Self and Society. “Questions we ask ourselves, like ‘Why can’t I lose weight?’ and questions that are asked of us, like ‘Why don’t you just eat less?’ are unfair and unhelpful. Instead, what if you asked yourself a simple question: What brings me pleasure in my body?
Dark says these deceptively powerful words helped turn her self-shame into self-acceptance. “Asking yourself, ‘Where is there joy in my body right now?’ helps you relish experiences, from belly laughing with friends to feeling the cool grass on the soles of your feet.” She explains that this question is the most powerful antidote for an inescapable social pressure called “internalized objectification,” where women judge themselves through the outside lens of the culture that shames their appearance.
Get To Know Your Body Through Mindfulness
Before we can pinpoint pleasure in our own skin, we must reconnect with our physicality—after all, it’s easy to feel alienated from bodies society teaches us to hate. That’s where the power of meditation comes in, says Dark.
“Mindfulness is about learning to inhabit our body, by grounding ourselves in the moment.” If you’re intimidated by the m-word, don’t be. “Just take five to 15 minutes for conscious relaxation to breathe deeply or even just feel your feet on the ground or your butt in the chair,” she chuckles.
Or, if you prefer a more active meditation, consider easy stretches. “This is a great way to become intentional with your physical self because you’re creating shapes—you’re instantly conscious of sensations and little details like where your big toe is on the ground,” she laughs.
Indeed, rather than be daunted by mindfulness, give yourself permission to define it on your terms. “So many people say they can’t meditate because their mind wanders, but that’s what it’s supposed to do! Meditation is one of the only things we do where ‘failing’ is how we get it right,” declares Dark, adding that when you notice your mind drifting, gently bring it back to the soothing sensation of your lungs filling and deflating.
Turn An Appreciative Gaze Outward
“It’s your voice of self-doubt that says, ‘How do I look from this angle?’ What if I sit like this or stand like that? What if I wear these clothes—will I look thinner?’” says Dark. We’ve been so socialized to read off this script that these statements are automatic and unconscious. “Because women spend so much time focusing on what other people want from us, it takes us a long time to figure out what we want and what’s interesting to us and what brings us happiness, other than being an attractive object to others.”
Creating a new, empowering narrative starts with turning your gaze outward. “Just tell yourself, ‘I’m not going to judge others on their appearance,’” Dark advises. Of course, you would never do this on purpose, but because we’ve all internalized what society tells us about weight and aging, we often unconsciously judge people.
Looking for things you appreciate about them both outwardly and internally from their sense of style to their kindness, will help you turn that gentle gaze back toward yourself. “When we look at other women with more appreciation, suddenly, we realize, ‘Oh, this means me too!’” and we see our own bodies, that we were taught to hate, with more compassion.”
Feel And Release Emotions
While the journey of reconnecting with and rediscovering “body joy” can be incredibly empowering, it can also bring up mixed emotions, even triggering shame. “Suddenly enjoying the breeze on your face or sunshine on your back is a beautiful thing, but when you breathe deeply, for example, you might also feel the tight waistband against your stomach and struggle with self-hatred, as you tell yourself that you’re supposed to be thinner,” Dark recalls.
If such difficult emotions arise, don’t try to push them back down, because they’ll only pop back up stronger than ever. Instead, harness self-compassion by reminding yourself that these unfair, mean-spirted critiques are coming from society—they’re not fair, they’re not justified and they’re not what you should be saying.
A better way to speak to yourself? “Start with a neutral statement that’s easy to for you believe and internalize. For example, you might say, ‘My thighs are strong.’ Or ‘I love having my grandchild on my lap.’” Your task, notes Dark, is not to judge yourself but to judge the critical messages society is sending you and question them. Is it true that if your waistband is tight, you’re a terrible person? Of course not! Simply pushing back on these messages will help you return to what brings you joy and pleasure, so that you can see your body as a tool designed to help you experience life to the fullest.
Start A Bathing Suit ‘Renaissance‘
Bathing suit season feels like a test we have to study for, declares Dark. “But once you realize this is harmful and unhealthy, you’ll be able to tell yourself something so much more empowering: ‘I’m entitled to soak up the sun and swim because I’m a living, breathing person—these are healthy pursuits for any human being and I deserve to put on a bathing suit, enjoy the beach and feel the cool water on my skin.”
That doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to be completely free of self-doubt and ditch your cover-up in favor of a bikini—but simply being honest with your emotions ensures you’re moving in the right, self-affirming direction.
There’s another surprising and wide-ranging benefit to enjoying a kind of bathing suit renaissance: Doing so means you’re inspiring others. “Every moment we are vibrant and self-possessed on the beach or at the pool, we’re acting as role models for every little girl or every woman who feels fragile.” Your self-compassion, in other words, triggers a positive ripple effect, signaling that we all deserve to enjoy our bodies this summer and every season of our lives. Or as Dark poetically puts it: “Our dignity can heal others, and we can shift from reacting to a negative society that judges our bodies, to creating a positive one that celebrates them.”
Other Ways to Feel More Joyful About Your Body
Acknowledge your grief: After we begin talking to ourselves kindly, a surprising emotion often bubbles up: grief. “I often hear women say: ‘I spent 20 years obsessing about how I look—I wish I had spent that time on other things,’” reveals counselor Hilary Kinavey, author of Reclaiming Body Trust. “We tend to bypass this messy grief process, but it’s so helpful to acknowledge it by reminding ourselves that we were conditioned into believing that our bodies weren’t valuable—it’s not our fault.”
She says there are concrete, physical rituals you can do to help move the grief process along. “I have clients who give up their scales or even make art out of them. Grief is an ongoing process, she observes, “but it’s necessary to creating a deeper relationship with yourself and creating the conditions for change.”
Discover your own style: Along with making us judge our bodies, society gives us many reasons to beat ourselves up over the natural aging process. But expert Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., author of The Making of An Old Soul: Aging as the Fulfillment of Life’s Promise says there’s a freedom to getting older. “All self-love starts with the truth, so when I look in the mirror and see thinning eyebrows, of course I’d like to get my eyebrows back,” she says with a laugh.
“Yet as I got older, I started seeing the gift in caring less about what others think. I stopped dying my hair and stopped trying to live up to someone else’s idea of what I should look like.” For the first time in her life, she says she developed her own style. “At the time, when headbands weren’t that popular, I experimented with them and now they’re my trademark. Anything from painting your nails a vibrant color to wearing a pretty scarf makes you feel great about yourself because style is ageless.”
Use Instagram this way: We all know the dangers social media poses as a catalyst for unhealthy comparisons, but Kinavey says it be a powerful confidence-booster if used the right way. “Consider dedicating an Instagram feed to people who look like you,” she encourages. “Research shows this has a huge impact on own body appreciation.”
Whether you do this via Instagram or the old-fashioned way through a kind of vision board of women where you cut out images of women like you are who are happy and confident in their bodies, you’ll likely feel more empowered. “Just seeing women like you widens your perspective and helps you embrace all that you are.”
Embrace your whole self: Our bodies are only one facet of who we are, and a mere “surface” aspect at that. The path to lasting self-esteem, therefore, is to honor all your many dimensions. “Consider finding an object or talisman that represents the depths of you,” suggests Kinavey. “I have a candle my grandmother gave me that holds special memories and reminds me of who I am beyond all the surface stuff.”
Some of her clients frame pictures of themselves as kids to remind themselves that they were always worthy of love and how far they’ve come in life. “It’s really important to curate your world around body trust, and that starts with trusting yourself and appreciating all the facets of who you are.”
Meet Our Experts
Kimberly Dark, author of Fat, Pretty, and Soon to be Old: A Makeover for Self and Society, teaches sociology at Cal State, San Marcos. More at KimberlyDark.com.
Hilary Kinavey,co-author of Reclaiming Body Trust and co-founder of Center for Body Trust, is a licensed counselor, trainer and educator. CenterforBodyTrust.com.
Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., is the author of The Making of an Old Soul: Aging as the Fulfillment of Life’s Promise. Visit her blog, Older, Wiser, Fiercer, CarolOrsborn.com.
Kristina Mastrocola is a Senior editor at Woman’s World and FIRST for Women magazines. She writes and edits stories on a range of topics including health, practical household hints and psychological wellbeing. She earned her B.A. in English from Vassar College. In her spare time, she enjoys playing with her cat Puccini, devouring documentaries on human origins, and talking about Neanderthals with anyone who will listen.