It’s nearly impossible not to have opinions about your body. These opinions are part of what makes up your body image, which is strongly influenced by our culture’s definition of what an attractive body looks like. You can have a positive, negative, or neutral body image. There are many ways to work on having a better body image, but have you ever thought about how spirituality could help? Read on for three spiritual practices for improving your body image.
Who You Are: Body vs. Soul
All people are spiritual beings by nature. There is divinity in everyone, because everyone is connected to one another by a universal higher power. You have a body and you have a soul. When we refer to your soul, it’s referencing the part of yourself that is godly. It’s the part that you can’t tangibly see, except through how it shapes your actions. Your soul is what makes you, you.
Your body makes up another part of who you are. It is not in opposition to your soul. Several religious traditions emphasize ignoring or overcoming the body in favor of the spirit, or the soul. While this attitude can help people improve, ignoring your body is ignoring a part of you. The idea of overcoming your body implies that there’s something wrong with it. The most spiritually sustainable relationship to have with your body is one of appreciation, where the body and the soul work together. For example, instead of criticizing how you look in a swimsuit, you can appreciate your body for its ability to swim.
The important thing to remember is that you are more than your body, because of your soul. It’s common to reduce people down to just their bodies, which can lead to harmful judgment. When we judge people by their bodies, we are neglecting the most important part of them: the essence of who they are, their soul. Are souls fat or thin? Are they muscular or weak? No, they simply are. The same principle applies to judging your own body based on how it looks.
The Impact of Comparison on Body Image
Body image is your overall perception of your body, particularly related to its attractiveness. It includes your thoughts, opinions, and attitudes towards your body. Your body image changes throughout your life, and it often does not match how your body actually appears. There are pervasive cultural norms that dictate what a body “should” look like, and it’s difficult to avoid comparing yourself to these (often unattainable) norms. This comparison is a major factor influencing your body image.
A natural response to comparison is to then make a judgment: about yourself and what you’re comparing yourself against. For example, if you score lower on a math test than your friend, you may judge that you are not as smart as your friend is. This judgment will harm your self-esteem. It’s the same with body image. If you see a “perfect” body in an advertisement (which has been digitally edited so that the body itself is not real), you’re likely to compare your own body to it and notice all of your flaws. This leads to a negative body image, and it’s backed up by this study.
This then raises the question: What if you score higher than your friend on the math test? What if your body looks better than the body in the advertisement? Will that give you a positive body image? No. It’s not that easy. It might make you feel a bit better in the moment, but it most likely will not last—because you’re still labeling your body as good or bad based on how your body looks in comparison to something else. This comparison almost always leads to negative body image in the long run.
Body Positivity and Body Neutrality
Having a positive body image involves the belief that your body is always good and always beautiful, no matter what. Continuing the test metaphor from above, having a positive body image would look like praising yourself for the score you achieved, and praising your friend for their score, too. When you see that advertisement portraying an unrealistic body, you can practice body positivity by not instantly identifying all your body’s flaws. Instead, you can express gratitude to your body and remind yourself that your body is beautiful.
The body positivity movement claims that everyone deserves to have a positive body image. It asserts that all bodies are beautiful, regardless of size, shape, race, gender, and physical abilities. Kendra Cherry narrowed down its main goals to the following:
● Challenging how society views the body.
● Promoting the acceptance of all bodies.
● Helping people build confidence and acceptance of their own bodies.
● Addressing unrealistic body standards.
Some people have begun practicing body neutrality as opposed to body positivity. A neutral body image is a middle-ground between positive and negative body image. In our test metaphor, it would mean not even comparing your test score to your friend’s at all, and not judging yourself (either positively or negatively) for your score. It would mean you see that advertisement with an idealized body and you don’t label your own body (or the one in the ad) as good or bad in response. You make nonjudgmental observations about your body and focus more on what your body does than what it looks like.
Body positivity and body neutrality don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Practicing body neutrality can help you love your body and develop a positive body image. At different times, one may be more useful than the other.
Body Image and Social Media
When it comes to trying to gain a more positive body image, one of the first things to examine is the media you’re consuming. TV shows, advertisements, and social media significantly influence what is considered the perfect body. Apps like Instagram have a strong emphasis on pictures, which encourages you to focus more on what bodies look like. You’re much more likely to engage in negative comparison when you’re seeing a new picture every few seconds.
In addition, body image is tied up with commercial interests. Sometimes people post pictures of their bodies with the promise that if you buy a certain product, your body can look like theirs. This is dangerous ground, especially since so many of us consume social media so casually—it can have a huge impact on your body image over time. As you’re scrolling, ask yourself these questions:
● Does this image/account encourage me to fixate on my own or [others’] appearance?
● Does this image/account spark body anxiety or feelings of shame?
● Am I engaging in self-comparison as I view these images?
● Does this account seek to profit from my insecurity by selling solutions to fix my “flaws?”
● Are these images promoting or reinforcing distorted ideals of what bodies and faces should look like – either through digital manipulation or featuring only one body type or “look?”
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, consider how you can limit seeing these types of posts—whether it’s by an unfollow, a temporary mute, or training yourself to not zoom in or spend too much time looking at them.
Three Spiritual Practices for Better Body Image
Our relationships with our bodies are pretty confusing. We either define all of our worth based on how our bodies look, or we forget we have bodies altogether because of the stresses of everyday life. Both of these situations can be cured through spirituality. Your spiritual wellness practice can transform your relationship with your body, leading to a more positive body image.
We’ve come up with three spiritual practices to help you reconnect to your body and gain a better body image. These include mindfulness, breathing exercises, and prayer.
1. Mindfulness. Mindfulness is about observing what’s happening in your body and mind and not passing any judgment on it. If you’re stressed, mindfulness isn’t supposed to empty your brain of that stress. Rather, mindfulness helps you tune into that stress and respond calmly. In the same way, you don’t need to ignore the parts of your body that you don’t like; you can mindfully recognize them and let them exist. Your body sends you signals, often in the form of emotions. Mindfulness helps you tune in to those signals, your emotions. When you recognize and respond calmly, you’ll find that you feel better. You’ll be more connected to your body in a way that is not focused on how it looks.
2. Breath. The breath is your most constant, reliable resource, and it comes from your body. Breathing exercises essentially utilize your breath to sensitize yourself to what’s going on with you. Breath forges a connection between your body and your soul. It’s a nice reminder to slow down. It’s hard to forget you have a body when you’re tuned into your breath. If you’d like to try it out, the Skylight app has three Breathwork exercises. They’re short, guided meditations that focus on connecting to God and yourself through breathing, and you can do them anytime.
3. Prayer. Prayer connects you to a higher power. When you talk to God in prayer, you can ask them to help you love your own body: to stop comparing it to others’ and to appreciate it for what it is instead of criticizing it for what it isn’t. You can ask for help tuning into your soul, to remember that you’re more than a body. And you can even ask for a more positive body image. Your higher power can help you on your journey to loving and appreciating your body. When you pray, make sure to spend some time listening and noticing what thoughts or impressions come to mind. That’s often how your higher power will talk to you.
You might practice one or all of these already, but perhaps you’ve never done them in the context of body image. Try it out in your wellness practice and see how spirituality helps you have a better body image. You can appreciate and honor your body and soul through these ways of meaningfully and mindfully connecting to yourself.