How many times this week – no, today, or even this hour – have you said something derogatory about yourself? From ‘I look fat’ to ‘I’m useless’ or ‘You’re ugly’ to our reflection, we hand out self-depreciation like the free morning newspapers at the station. We repeat that we’re not good enough, we could look better, slimmer, smarter, cooler, taller… the list goes on.
When it comes to friends, though, we let the praise rain down like confetti.
The gaping divide between how we speak to ourselves and how we talk to friends is one that came to mind when I saw the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which begins on May 13. The theme is ‘Body image: How we think and feel about our bodies’. And with that in mind, I set about spending a week being as kind and complimentary to myself as I am to mates. Here’s what I learned.
Saying ‘This looks good on me’ is a hard habit to build on
It’s almost a ritual to get dressed and judge my body. This only occurs to me as I begin the ‘experiment’ and put on a t-shirt that I feel is a little snug. I’m about to sulk and huff that ‘it’s too small’ (and add that’s obviously because ‘I’m fat’) when I check in with myself for the first time. ‘It’s not right with these leggings,’ I correct myself. And it feels good. I realise I’m right – it’s not the baggiest top, but it’d be better with jeans.
I head over to see a friend. "You look so trendy and co-ordinated!", she compliments me. I’m about to say "Oh this old thing…" when I check myself again. "Thanks!", I reply. I add in that she looks well (she does!). Then I realise, I’ve doled out the compliments to someone else but not myself. And that she’s played down what I’ve said, too. It’s like we’re all trapped in a learned behaviour of essentially telling our loved ones they are lying to us. I explain the experiment to her and she immediately relates. We’re just ‘nasty’ to ourselves, we agree. But why? Why, god, why? It seems so ridiculous when you think about it.
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Loving what you see in the mirror will take time
Day two and I’m working from home. As I dress, I find myself touching my stomach. The flesh fits in my hand – it’s by no means flat. Normally this would be the moment I’d say "Need to do something about this" or similar. I then imagine doing the same to a friend. Imagine, taking a friend’s belly in your hand, shaking it and saying "should do something about that, fatty!". I feel embarrassed at the very idea.
So to challenge this, I say out loud "My belly’s brilliant! It’s full of fabulous food I’ve enjoyed cooking". I feel like a fraud, though, because deep down, I do wish it were flatter. Aesthetic surgeon Dr Dirk Kremer says we need to try and distinguish between reality and insecurities. “I’m a big believer in positive self-talk. It can be so powerful. Every time we start to be unkind to ourselves, notice it, and have a stock response to the negative voice in your head. Even just something simple like, “I’m happy the way I am.” In time, you’ll start to believe it.”
Being yourself on social media is important
Over on social media there’s more self-depreciation. I try to post things which are positive, and honest, but I often fall down the rabbit hole of feeling like everyone else on there is better than me – physically and with work, too.
Why do we act this way? is a psychotherapist runs workshops on body image. She says: “There is so much focus on how women look, and mixed messages about how we should look. There’s an idea that it’s ‘nice’ to be curvy, but then if you look through a magazine there are also articles on diet. I believe there is still a strong message that ‘thinner is better’.”
I have a scroll through my Instagram, where I try to be ‘real’ and honest about my feelings and body. I put up running selfies from time to time, and have posted recently about feeling fearless (complete with double chin!). I’m not afraid to post a selfie with no make up, and realise this is something a lot of women wouldn’t do. So today’s lesson is to just be more ‘you’ on social media. And follow more animals, fewer influencers and celebs that make you question your own body and image.
Some of what you say might be true – and that’s ok
Often, when naked, I will jokingly rub my stomach and say something about being fat. One evening during the week I’m half-dressed as I’m off out to meet another friend, I wobble my boobs, then turn to the mirror and say "Look at my curves! My boobs are huge, and fabulous!". It feels laughable, but I have a light bulb moment; It’s not untrue. My boobs are big, and maybe it’s time to accept them instead of using them as a negative. I go into the bathroom and do my make up. ‘I love what you’ve done with your eyeliner!’ I mouth into the mirror. And I find without warning, a grin plasters across my face. While I feel daft, I also believe myself. ‘It’s Sephora!’ I giggle ‘back’ at my reflection, hoping my boyfriend can’t hear me.
Another night, a friend says my hair looks glossy – it’s had a wash and blow dry for once – and I jump in to talk about my ‘grey roots’. I stop myself. But I don’t know what else to say. Has it become so hard to say ‘thanks!’?! Kremer adds: “It can be very difficult to accept a compliment, and for some reason, can make us feel even more self-conscious. By pointing flaws out ourselves, it’s like a self-defence mechanism, in that if we talk about them first, nobody can them criticise us.”
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And sometimes, silence is the best solution
By the end of the week, the incessant need to heap praise on myself has become exhausting. Which makes me realise that it’s not always essential. Yes, we need to be more positive towards our own reflection, but I conclude that sometimes it’d be better to just focus on something else entirely. Instead of saying something when we look in the mirror, how about just saying nothing and getting on with our day? Sophie Boss adds: “It’s second nature to be self-critical. One thing to remember is you don’t have to be kind or unkind – if you don’t like what you see, then try saying nothing at all.”