Warning: This article mentions self-harm and may be triggering for some people.
I’ve recently had some tattoos added to my upper arms. I love them – dragons, books, peonies and symbols that commemorate my parents.
But before I got them, I had to come to terms with the fact that to show them off, people were going to see my arms. And that was a problem. You see, when I was much younger, I hated my body so much that I used to cut myself. So I have several scars on my left arm that I’m constantly covering up.
But I’m tired of hiding. It’s Australia, and it gets so bloody hot in the summer that I don’t want to wear long sleeves all the time. Plus, I wanted to get new tattoos, and my arms were the perfect canvas. So I had to accept that people might stare.
My story isn’t unique.
Sadly, many adults, teens, tweens and little kids 😥 have body image issues. And they cause us to do all kinds of things – from wearing baggy clothes, to excessive exercising, cosmetic surgery, unhealthy eating, comparing ourselves to others, becoming isolated, hurting ourselves – and everything in between.
So it’s time to love the bodies we’re in, and accept the diversity of bodies around us. Because they’re amazing, beautiful and wonderfully unique.
What is body image?
Basically, it’s how we see our bodies, and how we feel and think about them. It can be positive, negative or neutral. And it can fluctuate. One day you may feel really great about your body, and the next, really down on it.
Living with a musculoskeletal condition can affect the way we see our body. These conditions, the pain and fatigue they cause, as well as the medications we take to manage them, can affect the way we move, our joint structures, our weight, fitness, skin, hair and nails. And SARS-CoV-2 – the pesky virus that keeps on giving – hasn’t helped things. Over the past couple of years, many of us have experienced changes in our appearance that we may not be altogether thrilled with.
But we need to accept that our bodies change, and they’ve been changing since we took our very first breath. They change as we age, as we develop health conditions, as we take different meds, as we injure ourselves, as we exercise, lose or gain weight, get piercings or tattoos, go through puberty and menopause, as we change our hairstyle and our fashion sense…as we embrace change.
Not accepting these changes, and our bodies as they are, only leads to unhappiness. It can also cause low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, disordered eating, isolation and relationship issues.
“You have been criticizing yourself for years, and it hasn’t worked.
Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” Louise L Hay
1. Be kind and accept your body as it is
This is a big one, and can be really, really difficult. Especially if you’ve had body image issues for some time. But consider this – if someone said that your bestie was ‘fat’ or ‘plain’ or ‘has horrible hands’ or ‘terrible skin’ – you’d immediately defend them. So why is it ok to say these things to yourself? Be your body’s friend and advocate, not its enemy.
“And I said to my body softly, ‘I want to be your friend.’
It took a long breath and replied, ‘I have been waiting my whole life for this.’” —Nayyirah Waheed
2. Practise every day
It takes time to change the way we see ourselves. When you wake up, and before you go to sleep, think about something you love about your body. It doesn’t have to be related to appearance – we’re so focused on that – but it could be your sick dance moves, or the way your body enables you to play a musical instrument, or walk the dog, or laugh out loud.
Write these onto post-it notes and put them on the fridge, the mirror, in the car. And read and repeat them when you need a little extra boost.
“Your self-esteem won’t come from body parts.
You need to step away from the mirror every once in a while and look for another reflection,
like the one in the eyes of the people who love you and admire you.” – Stacy London
3. Appreciate the differences
We’re all different, and that’s the way it should be. How boring would the world be if we all looked the same? Differences are beautiful.
“You are allowed to be both a masterpiece and a work in progress,
simultaneously.” – Sophia Bush
4. Be a good role model
Kids pick up on our behaviours and attitudes, and they learn from them. So avoid criticising yourself or others in front of kids. Instead, say nice things about your body and how you appreciate what it can do.
“As a child, I never heard one woman say to me, ‘I love my body’.
Not my mother, my elder sister, my best friend. No one woman has ever said, ‘I am so proud of my body.’
So I make sure to say it to my daughter because a positive physical outlook has to start at an early age.” — Kate Winslett
5. Surround yourself with positive people
It’s easier to be kind to yourself and love your body when you’re with positive people. Those who also accept and value their bodies for how amazing they are, rather than how they look. People who are critical of themselves and others are tiring, and feed our negative self-talk. So if your friend or family member is constantly berating their looks or weight, gently explain to them that you’d prefer not to discuss appearances. And move the conversation on to other, more enjoyable topics.
“I say I love myself, and they’re like, ‘oh my gosh’, she’s so brave. She’s so political.
For what? All I said is ‘I love myself, bitch!’” — Lizzo
6. Ditch the influencers and body shamers
And any other online platforms or magazines that promote idealised and unattainable body images. They just exacerbate negative feelings. Instead, find media and socials that show diverse images, and appreciate the differences.
“We come in many different shapes and sizes, and we need to support each other and our differences.
Our beauty is in our differences.” – Carrie Otis
7. Replace the time you spend criticising your appearance with happier, more enjoyable activities
Being mean to yourself can be a major time-suck. And it’s exhausting! We have enough things making us tired without adding something as pointless as belittling ourselves. So whenever you feel like you’re about to go on a self-hating tirade, do something else:
- walk in the park and listen to the birds
- breathe deeply and be conscious of every breath
- listen to some arse-thumping music and dance
- call a friend
- take down the Empire in Star Wars Battlefront
- cook a yummy meal
- get your hands dirty in the garden
- have sex!
And make sure that while you’re doing these things, you’re in the moment, not in your head.
8. Don’t compare yourself to others
We’re all different and have different genes, lifestyles, health issues and backgrounds. These things all play a part in how we look. I’m from a family of relatively short people. The only way I’m going to be tall is with the addition of very high heels 😉. I also know that I’ll always wear glasses, have fine hair and be covered in tatts. It’s my make-up and lifestyle, and it’s part of what makes me, me. And that’s ok.
“Step away from the mean girls and say bye-bye to feeling bad about your looks.
Are you ready to stop colluding with a culture that makes so many of us feel physically inadequate?
Say goodbye to your inner critic, and take this pledge to be kinder to yourself and others.” — Oprah
9. Remember that images on socials are the highlights
It’s rare for people to put up images of themselves when they’re looking their ‘worst’. How many pics have been taken before the ‘right’ image was selected, filtered, touched up and then posted? They’re carefully curated to make a person look a certain way. So don’t get sucked into the madness.
“Your body. Your diet. Your life. It isn’t perfect. It never will be. But it’s real. It’s honest.
It’s beautifully flawed. And totally magical.” ― Nicola Jane Hobbs
10. Nurture your body
Feed it healthy, tasty food that makes you happy and satisfied. Move it regularly and often. Refresh it with good quality sleep. Pamper it with massage, warm baths, lotions and potions and hugs.
“You can’t hate yourself happy. You can’t criticize yourself thin. You can’t shame yourself worthy.
Real change begins with self-love and self-care.” — Jessica Ortner
11. Get help
Sometimes we need help to change the way we think about ourselves. This could be from a really good friend who you can talk openly and honestly with. Or it could be a professional. Just know that help is available if you need it. You don’t have to feel bad about yourself. Read our article ‘Support for mental and emotional wellbeing’ for more info.
And if you want to change something like your weight or fitness level for health reasons, rather than trying to match up to society’s ideals, you can get help with that too. So you can lose/gain weight safely and become more active. Talk to your GP for information and support.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else
is the greatest accomplishment.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
12. Be patient
Changing the way you think and feel about your body will take time. So be patient with yourself. And acknowledge that there may be times when you’ll stumble and start thinking badly about yourself. But you can use any of these strategies to pick yourself up again. We’ve also included lots of great resources in the More to explore section for you to check out.
My scars, and the kick-ass tattoos nearby, are just outward representations of part of my journey. So even if people notice them and stare, I can feel proud that I’ve survived. And while I’m still very much a work in progress, I’ll continue to work on loving myself and striving to be a good role model to those people around me. At the end of the day, that’s something I can control, not other people’s perceptions of me or society’s ever-changing ideals of the ‘perfect body’.
If this article has raised some issues with you or you feel like you need help, contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 for 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention.
Contact our free national Help Line
If you have questions about managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (email@example.com) or via Messenger.
More to explore
- Butterfly Foundation
The national charity for all Australians impacted by eating disorders, body image issues, and the families, friends and communities who support them.
- 8 ways to manage body image anxiety after lockdown
The Conversation, 2021
- Battling our bodies: Understanding and overcoming negative body images
Center for Change, 2014
- Body image and self-esteem
Nemours Teen Health, 2018
- Body image
National Eating Disorders Collaboration
- Body image
- Body image, self-esteem, and arthritis: 23 candid confessions (Plus: tips for feeling better about yourself)
Creaky Joints, 2020
- Body image, self-esteem, and mental health
- How to love your body: 20 small ways to start, even when it’s hard
- Mental health tips for coping with body image issues
- What is body image?
Medical News Today, 2020
- What to know about a negative body image and how to overcome it