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Meditation for a healthy body image

When it comes to how we show up in the world, our perception of our own body can generate numerous thoughts and feelings that have a tendency to preoccupy the mind. Often, how we see ourselves in the self-critical mirror is not always a reflection of how everyone else sees us. Nevertheless, body image issues are commonplace. According to a 2016 study which surveyed more than 12,000 adults, 6 percent of men and 9 percent of women reported feeling “very to extremely dissatisfied” with their overall appearance and 15 percent of men and 20 percent of women had the same dissatisfaction when it came specifically to their weight. On the flip side, 28 percent of men and 26 percent of women said they were “very to extremely satisfied” with their overall appearance — leaving a large chunk of us somewhere in the middle. The truth is that anyone and everyone can struggle with thoughts about their body, regardless of their age, body size, or body shape.

What is body image and what does it mean to have a healthy body image?

When we look in the mirror, or even just picture ourselves in our minds, and make assessments about our bodies, we are forming our body image. We form this image based on what is reflected back to us, how we feel in our body, how we think about our body, and the behaviors we engage in as a result of all those feelings.

We start forming our body image at a young age. Whether we have a positive body image or a negative body image depends on a number of things. When we are young and impressionable, everyday experiences, combined with parents’ attitudes, can leave a mark on how we see our bodies down the line. On a daily basis, how we perceive our own image can ebb and flow depending on our experiences, moods, and emotions.

Trying to cultivate a healthy body image is essentially trying to reach the point where you are accepting of how your body looks and able to separate your appearance from your self-worth. You’re not putting your life on hold because your body is not what the media, or even family and friends, deem as perfect. To that extent, body image and self-esteem are connected. Because a healthy body image involves not attaching your worth to your physical self, by working on our self-esteem, or how we value ourselves, we can improve our body image.

According to The Body Positive, a national organization aimed toward ending the harmful consequences of negative body image, part of creating that positive experience for ourselves is practicing intuitive self-care and cultivating self-love. A body image meditation practice can help us unlock and create female and male body positivity.

The impact of meditation on body image

The road to having a positive body image, or body positivity, can be difficult, but not impossible. If you have trouble loving your body, incorporating a self-esteem and self-compassion practice into your daily meditation routine might help. In 2014, researchers asked a group of women to include a self-compassion meditation in their routine for a brief 3-week period. During that time, they discovered that participants’ body dissatisfaction decreased significantly, while they cultivated high levels of self-compassion and body appreciation.

When it comes to meditation, a key skill you learn is the ability to pay attention to, and then let go, the numerous thoughts and feelings that you have over your body. Through the lens of mindfulness, thoughts are just thoughts, whether positive or negative. Meditation teaches us to observe the mind and what it tells us about ourselves, however to avoid getting caught up in that narrative. With practice, we learn to observe the thoughts and feelings that arise, see them, and let them go. Gradually, the less we engage with this kind of body image-thinking, the less power such thoughts and feelings have over us.

Types of meditation that can help promote a healthy body image and self-esteem:

  • Meditation for compassion (loving-kindness): Loving-kindness is a type of visualization meditation practice where you focus your mind on a person or several people and direct kindness toward yourself as well as another person or people in general. Practicing self-compassion helps us learn to love ourselves and our bodies, in the present moment, no matter our size and shape. Self-compassion also extends to self-care. And with self-care, our goal is essentially that we are feeling healthy mentally and physically. This invites us to be kinder to ourselves about how we look. And learning to show compassion for others can help you to increase your ability to show compassion for yourself. A 2015 study showed that just three weeks of using the Headspace app increased compassion by 21 percent.
  • Guided imagery: Guided imagery, a practice in which you utilize your senses to build images in your mind that feel real to your body, can help you discover what it feels like to have a healthy body image. You can practice guided imagery by constructing images around body positivity. Think about loving your body. What does that look like and feel like to you? How are you taking care of your body, physically? How are you taking care of your mind and what effect is that having on your body image? (Headspace meditations do not include guided imagery, however you can find more information about them on this page.)
  • Guided meditation for self-esteem: Self-esteem is how we view ourselves and what we tell ourselves about who we are. Having a positive body image and high self-esteem are related. In order to improve our body image, we learn that our value as humans is not based on appearance. By strengthening our value of ourselves, or our self-esteem, we get more comfortable with our full being and increase our confidence, therefore leading to a healthier body image. Meditating to improve self-esteem doesn’t just aim to replace negative chatter with positive chatter, but take all your thoughts as they come and train your mind into building quiet confidence from within. For subscribers, the Headspace app offers a 30-day self-esteem meditation course that focuses on changing your perspective around negative chatter.

  • Mantra meditation: A mantra can be anything from a syllable to a word or a phrase. Repeating a mantra can boost self-confidence, much needed for a healthy relationship with your body. What is something that you tell your loved ones but never take the time to tell yourself? What does your mind need to hear in order to feel at peace with your body? Take some time to focus on this mantra. (The Headspace app includes several types of meditation, however it does not include mantra meditation, however you can find more information on this page.)

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Try this 10-minute happiness meditation

Meditation for happiness: Because body image is dependent on external factors like our moods and emotions, being in a general state of contentment can improve our relationship to ourselves. The Headspace app offers a Happiness course (available to logged-in subscribers) which focuses on tapping into an underlying sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. In reconnecting with that feeling, you can start experiencing more happiness and allow that state to help you develop a healthy body image.

A 10-minute happiness meditation voiced by Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe

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A body image meditation toolkit

Body positivity isn’t a one-size-fits-all journey. Because there are so many variables that make up our individual relationships with our bodies, we have to ask ourselves what is missing from our personal relationships to our physicality. Do we need to focus more on nurturing our bodies physically? Do we need to focus more on nurturing our mindsets to catch up with our physical selves? Or do we need a little bit of both? The techniques mentioned above can help enhance different moods and feelings that have a positive effect on body image, however for those in need of strengthening their relationship with their physical self, there are a few additional tools.

If your poor body image stems from an unhealthy relationship with food, mindful eating might be a helpful practice to take up. Mindful eating encourages us to transform our relationship with food by being in tune with our bodies and focusing on how we eat and why we eat. When eating mindfully, we pay attention to the food that enters our body, and engage the senses in order to truly savor meals and figure out what feels nourishing to your body.

If you are looking to manage your weight, including meditation in your weight loss journey helps strengthen the mind-body connection and lets us analyze problematic eating patterns and behaviors. Mindful eating is one part of meditating for weight loss, but there are other techniques focused on stress and emotional eating that may help.

Lastly, there is a link between negative body image and eating disorders. If you are currently dealing with an eating disorder or have dealt with an eating disorder in the past, it is essential that you speak to a healthcare professional before incorporating mindful eating or any other weight loss meditation techniques into your practice.

Watch this 2-minute video on how to be kinder to yourself

How Headspace can help you cultivate a healthy body image practice

The Headspace app offers multiple 30-day meditation courses (available to subscribers only) that can help you deepen your relationship with your body and reframe negative mental chatter. Courses such as the self-esteem meditation course and the happiness meditation course will help you reconnect with those feelings and strengthen the connection between your body and mind. Sign up for free and begin experiencing the benefits.

READ NEXT: How to start a morning meditation practice

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