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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 all types of thoughts and feelings that may preoccupy the mind. But for many of us, the critical lens through which we view ourselves is not an accurate reflection of how everyone else sees us. Even so, it’s common for many of us to struggle with body image issues regardless of our age, size, or body shape.

In a 2014 study of American adult women, 47% of participants reported experiencing body image dissatisfaction. The figures are similar for males: In a survey of 50,000 adults, 41% of men thought they were too heavy and 16% said they avoid wearing a swimsuit in public.

To mend this fraught relationship, many of us have with our body image, we might find that meditation and certain mindfulness activities can help. With practice, we can learn how to adjust the way we interact with negative thoughts to improve both how we feel about and treat ourselves.

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Key takeaways:

  • When a person has a positive body image, they feel comfortable, loving, and accepting of their body

  • Meditation can help improve body image by increasing compassion and teaching us how to navigate negative and judgmental thoughts

  • Try 11 meditations for a healthy body image

What does it mean to have a healthy body image?

When a person has a healthy body image, they feel comfortable, loving, and accepting of their body. It may also mean that they have a sense of compassion for their body and all it does for them on a daily basis.

Every time 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 we see 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. Whether we have a positive or negative self-image can vary depending on our experiences, moods, and emotions.

Research shows that a negative body image is linked to a number of mental and behavioral health conditions, such as body dysmorphic disorder, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa. It can also influence self-esteem, mood, how we interact within our environment, and our ability to fulfill our roles at work, socially, and in relationships.

Conversely, a positive body image can play a role in developing increased self-esteem, self-acceptance and a healthier relationship with food and exercise. Both accepting and appreciating the way we look can be a challenging and ongoing process. One way we might try to work toward body confidence is by cultivating more self-compassion through meditation.

Meditation for body image

As we navigate the thoughts and feelings we have about our bodies, the biggest obstacles are often exactly that: thoughts and feelings. Our harsh inner critic, judgmental thinking, and that “not good enough” storyline can often feel so loud and perhaps even defeating at times that we can’t see much else. In our first steps towards body positivity, we might address and reassess our relationship with those thoughts. That’s where meditation can help.

When we practice meditation, we begin to see through the nature of thought altogether — our tendency is to get caught up in negative chatter, until we realize how illusory thoughts are. We are the ones who give thoughts weight and meaning, so meditation teaches us how to let thoughts come and go, without becoming entangled in our self-created storylines.

When a thought arises in the mind, we can note it without necessarily interacting with it; the more we do this, the more space we create in the mind for not only the ebb and flow of thoughts but also for self-acceptance, giving thoughts no credence or power.

Research has shown that loving-kindness meditation (aka compassion meditation) can have a particularly positive impact on body image. While all mindfulness-based meditations will, by the very nature of the practice, cultivate a softer, more spacious, kinder mind, this specific meditation places a deliberate emphasis on one purpose: directing well-wishes and goodwill first to ourselves and then, as a ripple effect, to others.

In one 2014 study, participants experienced a significant decrease in body dissatisfaction and an increase in both self-compassion and body appreciation after practicing compassion meditation for 3 weeks.

“The intervention may have decreased participants’ tendency to criticize their bodies by teaching them to treat themselves kindly rather than judgmentally,” the researchers note. “By lessening the constant stream of negative self-talk and relating to oneself with greater tenderness and care, participants appeared to develop a more accepting stance towards their bodies.”

When we use meditation to garner more self-compassion and better navigate our relationship with judgmental thoughts, we can also learn how to shape our self-image from that place of quiet confidence versus external sources such as media or societal beauty ideals. And as we untangle ourselves from these outside influences, we can ultimately cultivate a stronger sense of self-worth over time.

Mindful activities for body positivity

In addition to meditation, 2 everyday mindfulness activities may be helpful to cultivate a healthy body image:

  1. Look for ways to practice gratitude.

Those of us who often struggle with comparison — perhaps to people we know or beauty standards we see portrayed on social media — may find a gratitude practice to be particularly helpful. Research shows that those who regularly take time to appreciate what they have are less likely to compare themselves to others, a benefit that can greatly impact body image.

A daily gratitude practice can be as simple as starting a gratitude journal, where we draft long-form paragraphs, bullet-pointed lists, or even creative drawings. For something a bit more structured, we might also try listening to a guided gratitude meditation to help bring the mind to a place of personal reflection. Don’t be afraid to keep this gratitude practice quick and easy.

  1. Consider adding mindfulness to meals.

For many of us, our feelings about our bodies often get tied up in our relationship with food. If this rings true, it may be helpful to try mindful eating. This practice can help us bring awareness to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that drive our food choices, ultimately leading to more intentional decisions and a greater appreciation for our bodies and for the food we eat.

Research shows that when people eat more mindfully, they’re better able to control their urges to binge-eat, overeat, or to eat for emotional reasons. This way of eating doesn’t focus on variables like weight or monitoring calories. Instead, we bring our attention inward to listen to the internal cues and sensations that our bodies give us to decide how much, what, and when to eat. It also teaches us to be present with all of our senses without judgment.

Try 11 meditations for a healthy body image

Interested in trying meditation for body positivity? The Headspace app offers subscribers several courses and single meditations that may help to cultivate more acceptance, tap into self-love, and become more mindful, including:

  • Self-love meditation. Tap into the love that’s always available to you.

  • Acceptance course. Learn to let go of resistance and find acceptance.

  • Appreciation course. Discover a renewed sense of gratefulness for life.

  • Self-esteem course. Move toward a less judgmental inner life by creating space in your mind to observe negative and self-critical thinking.

  • Skillful Compassion meditation. A novel approach to the pursuit of happiness.

  • Gratitude meditation. Find a great sense of gratitude for yourself, your health, and the people in your life.

  • Kindness course. Foster feelings of compassion toward yourself and learn to judge others less harshly too.

  • Happiness course. Develop a more playful attitude towards life and begin to understand how your own happiness impacts others.

  • Quiet Confidence guidance. Explore the connection between confidence and vulnerability.

  • Visualizing Well-Being meditation. Create an inner sanctuary of safety, support, and joy.

  • Mindful Eating course. Become more aware of your relationship with food and the thoughts that drive your choices.

Cultivating a healthy body image can have a measurable impact on almost every aspect of our daily life and overall well-being. And yet, getting to that place of acceptance and confidence isn’t always an easy journey. For many of us, feeling content in the body feels dependent on some future variable. But with mindfulness, we can learn to step away from this way of thinking to appreciate and love our bodies not as they could be, but as they are right now.

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