There are moments—albeit rare, and usually preceded by a few glasses of wine—when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and think, wow, I look really good. But too often we fill our days (and nights) with a mindless litany of barbs directed at our bodies: our hips are too vast, our breasts too saggy, our skin glows for all the wrong reasons.
“The majority of women are dissatisfied with their bodies, even women with a healthy or underweight body mass index,” says Dr. Traci McFarlane, a psychologist at the ambulatory care for eating disorders program at Toronto General Hospital. Her recent research for the Women’s Health Surveillance Report confirms that poor body image affects more women than ever before—women from every age group, not just those weaned on Britney Spears videos.
You don’t need a PhD to know when your body image is out of whack. The question is: can you learn to love your shape—if not all the time, at least more often? The answer is a resounding yes. It takes time and commitment, but building your body confidence is worth the effort. As Dr. Marcia Hutchinson, a Boston-area psychologist and author of 200 Ways to Love the Body You Have (Crossing), says, “Body image affects potentially everything you do, every relationship you’re in and the way you take care of yourself.” So, the next time you’re surrounded by a dozen nothing-looks-good-on-me outfits, try one of these 10 strategies. What you’ll discover: the way you feel about your body often has less to do with your love handles and more to do with the grey matter between your ears.
Shanon Archibald thinks her legs are her best physical asset. But the 24-year-old from Antigonish, N.S., didn’t always feel this way. “It was annoying and embarrassing. As a teenager, I couldn’t find pants to fit the large and muscular legs I had inherited from my athletic parents,” she says. But one day, during a high-school gym class that had Archibald suspended upside down from gymnastics rings, she heard her female teacher let out a muffled curse. “I had no idea what I’d done and was pretty self-conscious hanging there.” When the instructor asked her what she did to keep her legs in such great shape, Archibald immediately felt embarrassed. But as she hung in mid-air, she felt a twinge of pride. She realized that if her instructor was so impressed, her shapely legs must look pretty damn good. Today, she loves wearing skirts that show off her toned gams.
Zena Olijnyk used to envy bigger people. The 43-year-old, who stands just under five feet tall, felt frustrated as a teenager when she realized she’d never be a long-legged creature like some of her popular classmates. “I just thought, jeez, I’m short,” says the 108-pound Torontonian, who is a trim and enviable size 2. “I felt that just by being tall, some of the other girls were more attractive.” She continued to struggle with her height as she moved into her 20s, feeling that others didn’t always take her seriously because she was small. Then one day when she was in her late 30s, Olijnyk caught herself making a joke about her height. “I realized that if I was drawing attention to it, I must have become comfortable.” Life taught her to like her body, but seeing her daughter deal with her own size made a difference, too. Eleven-year-old Anna has inherited her mother’s body type and has been able to excel in gymnastics because of it. “Anna’s size is an asset. She feels comfortable in her skin, and it’s empowering for her. I realized that if she’s cool with her height, I can be with mine, too.”
For Juanita Joubert-Johnson, dealing with negative feelings about her body meant learning to be proud of her African heritage. The 32-year-old Torontonian is originally from South Africa but lived in Greece as a young girl and teenager. “I was surrounded by white people who, in comparison to Africans, had flat asses and no hips.” She became acutely conscious of her darker skin and her developing curves. But one day, when she was about 13, she backed into an experience that made her feel good in her skin. After accidentally brushing up against her, a male classmate said, “You have a nice ass.” She was taken aback. “I thought, he thinks I have a nice ass? OK, so there’s hope for me after all.” That was a mini turning point for Joubert-Johnson, who today loves her shape and her African roots.
Suzanne Cuerrier hasn’t owned a bathroom scale in 17 years. But throughout high school, the now 42-year-old Trenton, Ont., resident was obsessed with her weight and felt her hips were enormous compared to those of her slimmer friends. “I thought, oh my God, I’m huge.” Her insecurities were confirmed when she became a bride at the ripe age of 19. “Your boobs are nice but your hips are rather large,” her husband told her. Although that same man is now her ex, his callous comments left a mark. “Women had to weigh less than 120 pounds or they were fat. At 125, I was on the fat side,” she says.
Finally, Cuerrier decided she’d had enough. She committed herself to healthy eating and an exercise regime that helped change her attitude. The end result? When she got rid of her first husband (Cuerrier is now remarried), she got rid of her hang-up about her hips. “I looked in the mirror one day and my hips didn’t bother me,” she says. “That’s when I decided I was not going to weigh myself anymore and I turfed my scale.”
Your hair is flat, there’s a beacon-like pimple on your cheek and your pants no longer do up. And, oh yeah, you’re late for work. Try one of these instant pick-me-ups to get you through your day:
How do you know if your concern with your body has crossed the line and become an obsession?
Dr. Blake Woodside, a Toronto psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders, says that this problem, known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), can’t be confused with self-consciousness because BDD behaviour is so extreme. Here are the signs to look out for:
At the very least, choose your content wisely. One Chatelaine staffer learned to love her shape by looking for images of curvy role models. “When I see someone such as model Emme or singer Queen Latifah looking great, I know I can, too.”