Over 85% of girls and women in America hate or strongly dislike their bodies. This is a statistic I heard years ago, and it greatly trouble me. Why do so many women hate their bodies? I wondered Why can’t we love ourselves? Why does body loathing afflict women so disproportionately? (This post is geared primarily towards women, but much of the advice also applies to men and also my friends who identify as non-binary and transgender.)
Why Women Hate Their Bodies
It is no wonder that we struggle so deeply with this issue. We live in a media-saturated society in which we are constantly barraged with images of perfect, air-brushed people, and advertisers make a great deal of money by makings us feel like we are flawed and gross and that their products will solve all of our problems.
In addition, historically women have be socialized to be docile, compliant, child-like and subservient. This message often makes women feel as though everything about them–their spirit, their ideas, their bodies–must be small—if not, they are no longer attractive and desirable. As a result of this, many females live in terror of getting big in any way. They learn to play small in every area of their life.
On the other hand, women also receive the message through the media and other distorted cultural messages that their bodies exist primarily as an object of the male gaze and that their worth as a person depends on how attractive men other people in general find their bodies. (This is all bull-$%^&, by the way.)
This leaves them in constant terror of any perceived physical weakness or unattractiveness. Women worry that other people will find them unattractive, and since their worth depends on other people’s opinions, it feels like any bad opinion negates their worth as a human being.
It is no wonder that increasingly very young girls (even as young as kindergarten), worry how their bodies look and learn to hate what they see in the mirror.
It is no wonder that only 12% of older women report being satisfied with their bodies.
It is no wonder that for many women, body obsession and talking smack about their own bodies is second nature. We somehow believe that body-loathing and body-hate is normal, expected, and perhaps even a virtue.
Body-Loathing is Holding Us Back
The struggle that women have with their bodies became vividly apparent to me years ago when I was at dinner with a group of my girlfriends one night–a group of beautiful, wonderful women.
We were having a pleasant meal together when the conversation suddenly shifted to our bodies. My friends started talking about what diet they were on; how much weight they needed to lose; and all of their perceived physical flaws.
I was sorely tempted to jump into the conversation and add my own list of reasons I was displeased with my body. I had been feeling inordinately insecure about myself that day, and it would have been easy to list all of the things I did not like about my physical appearance. I had certainly engaged in such conversations before. I certainly thought about these issues constantly.
I suddenly remembered that statistic–“Over 85% of women hate their body.” I thought about how much pain body loathing had caused me. I desperately wished that I and all other women could feel at peace with their bodies.
I remember feeling a calm resolve that it was time to defy the statistics and kick my body-loathing habit. I said, “My body is perfect. I love it. I don’t need to fix anything.”
I do not really remember how the conversation went after that or much else that happened that night. What I do know is that day signaled a shift in my thinking. I realized that I (and my friends) were intelligent women with so much to give to the world, and for some reason, all we could think about was our physical imperfection (much of it imagined).
“This cannot be healthy,” I thought. “All of this body-hate is holding us back. It is holding me back.”
The End of Body Hate
That day I decided that I wanted to be a part of a growing group of women who love and accepted their bodies unconditionally. This does not mean that I started magically loving my body 24/7. I had, and still have, days when a really mean voice inside my head points out everything wrong with my appearance. (I wrote about such a day and how I handled it here.)
I did however begin researching and thinking about body-love and body-acceptance. I spent a lot of time thinking about why women hate their bodies so much and how we can stop engaging in this widespread game of body-loathing–a game in which no one wins (except perhaps the diet industry).
Along the way, I have learned some really helpful things about body=shame and body- loathing that have helped me a great deal. They are ideas that I fall back on whenever I have a body loathing attack. My ability to love my body unconditionally has strengthened dramatically because of these ideas, so I want to share them here in case they help someone else.
Here are seven things you can do/things you can remember when you have a body-loathing attack.
#1. Slow down and breathe.
Many times when we have a body-loathing attack, it is because we are pushing ourselves too hard and trying to force ourselves to do and be more. We feel like failures. Frequently when women feel like a failure in any area of their lives, they translate this feeling into “I feel fat. I hate my body.” (See next point to read more about this.)
So, if you are having a body-loathing attack today, you may be pushing yourself too hard. When this happens to me, I slow down, sit in a quiet place, and practice intentional breathing.
Here is one of my favorite breathing patterns that you may find helpful: Breathe in deeply through your nose for four counts; hold your breath for four counts; exhale for four counts.
I find that breathing slows me down, dissipates my anxiety and self-loathing, and helps me gain clarity so that I can assess what is going on inside me.
I also use this personal affirmation to slow down and center myself: “I am only responsible for this moment. I have everything I need as I stay present with myself.”
#2. Ask yourself, “Is this about my body, or is it about something else?”
Sometimes when we hate our body, our self-loathing is actually not about our body, even though it feels like it—it is a signal that something else is going on.
In her book, Fat is a Feminist Issue, Susie Orbach suggests that many times when women feel body-loathing, it is actually because they are trying to live bigger lives, ask for more, and try new and daring things, and this feels scary.
There has been a great deal of pressure historically for women to be quiet, docile, childlike, and to play small. One only has to look at the history of body modification techniques like foot-binding, corsets, and other body invasive practices to recognize this.
Whether we realize it or not, the pressure to be small affects women deeply—so deeply, in fact, that when we begin to live large in any way, we often feel unattractive, gross, and unfeminine, and we equate these feelings with our body.
When you feel like you hate your body, consider that your feelings may actually not be about your body but because you feel insecure for trying to live a bigger, more confident, visible life.
The next time you hate your body because you are starting to play big and ask for more, here is something you can say to yourself, “Living a large, beautiful life is everyone’s birthright. I do not have to be ashamed.”
#3. Reject People Who Control Through Body-Shaming
The next time you hate your body, realize that your feelings may be coming from people around you who are consciously or unconsciously trying to control you through body-shaming.
Women are socialized to believe that their worth is directly connected to their physical attractiveness. Therefore, most women are extremely sensitive about their bodies and appearance, and we shut down whenever we hear any criticism related to this area of our lives.
Because of this, many men and women who are threatened by women automatically resort to criticizing their body or some other aspect of their physical appearance. Many men and women have found that this is a highly effective bullying technique for silencing women. (You can read more about this here.)
Many people body shame to control consciously. Many people also do it unconsciously when they feel threatened by women in any way.
If you are achieving new things in your life, standing up to bullies and boundary crashers, pursuing new goals, taking risks, and generally kicking ass, some people (even friends and loved ones) may feel threatened and are body-shaming you so that they feel less threatened.
If you are feeling shame and hatred about your body, consider that people around you may be trying to make you play small by shaming your body.
Here is something you can say to yourself the next time you realize somebody is body-shaming you: “People who body-shame me are trying to control me, and I refuse to surrender to this shame. I am proud of myself and always have my back.” You can use ideas like this to build a force field of love around yourself.
#4. Realize that weight gain and weight loss are a normal part of life.
If hate your body because you feel like you have lost or gain weight recently, realize that gaining and losing weight are a normal part of life. Our bodies change all the time. For example, at different times of the year, our immune system is stronger or weaker; our hair is thicker or thinner; our skin is lighter or darker.
These are all natural and normal bodily processes. Weight gain and weight loss, in general, are other natural bodily processes. We gain weight because of puberty, stress, childbirth, menopause. Sometimes we gain weight because we have a nutritional imbalance that we need to fix.
We also gain weight for important emotional reasons, too. Sometimes we unconsciously gain weight as a way to protect ourselves from the world. Sometimes we unconsciously gain weight as a way to rebel against people and messages that tell us that we have to play small to be valuable.
All of these reasons for gaining weight are normal, understandable, and even helpful messages from our body that we can heed in order to gain wisdom. It is odd, then, that our culture singles out the physical change of weight gain and weight loss and makes such a big deal out of a completely normal process.
This suggests that the issue is not really about weight gain, which is normal and no big deal (just like a haircut is no big deal.). The issue is really about people controlling women. (See #2 and #3 again.)
The next time you hate your body because you have gained or lost weight because of natural life processes like puberty, pregnancy, menopause, stress, or emotional issues, here are some things you can say to yourself: “I honor my body’s natural life processes, and I listen to my body. We can always figure out a loving solution together.”
#5. Realize that you can be healthy at any weight
Sometimes the reason we hate our bodies is because many of us have grown up with weight/height and BMI charts which give us a very specific range we have to fall in in order to be considered healthy. Many women (and men) are shamed when they fall outside that range.
We receive the message that we are unhealthy, we are not taking care of body, that we have failed morally.
The impetus between BMI and height and weight charts may be well-intentioned, but it is ultimately really unhelpful.
Extra weight is not necessarily unhealthy. In fact, many times it is healthy—especially if someone is exercising and eating a nutrient-rich diet. Do you know what is always bad for health? Worrying and stressing about one’s weight constantly.
Women (and men) who regularly worry about their body suffer stress, anxiety, depression, and self-loathing, and these take a tremendous toll on our health. Worrying about weight can actually be linked to type II diabetes. (You can read here and here.)
Dr. Love, a professor of surgery, writes “failing to live by the various health rules is a major source of stress and guilt, particularly for women.”
Dr. Love continues, “And there is nothing magic about losing weight. People who are obese or underweight have higher mortality rates, but people who are overweight are just as healthy as those of normal weight — and sometimes healthier. “
Kathy Kater, a psychotherapist who specializes in treatment of weight concerns writes, “There is clear evidence that, fat or thin, people who are well fed, fit, and less stressed are at lower risk for health problems. In light of this, what if, instead of, ‘How to reduce or prevent fatness?’ health campaigns asked, ‘How can we teach children and adults to stay connected to, care for and take care of their bodies?’”
Worrying about our bodies and our weight does not make us healthy. Loving ourselves, nurturing our emotions, nurturing ourselves with nutrient-rich food, and incorporating gentle exercise into our day makes us healthy.
Linda Bacon, who holds a doctorate in physiology and specializes in treating eating disorders and body image problems, has written more about these issues in her book Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight.
The next time you hate your body because you worry that you are unhealthy, here is something you can say to yourself: “Health is possible at any size and comes from loving and taking care of myself.”
#6. Realize that you can be beautiful and have a beautiful life at any weight
Frequently when we loathe our bodies, it is because we are afraid that we are too big or too small and that this means we are unattractive and/or cannot have beautiful life.
We have been conditioned to believe that only people who meet a very narrow set of beauty standards—like those we see in magazines—are beautiful and happy.
Nothing can be further from the truth. Beauty comes from loving yourself and others. This means that any person of any size is beautiful at any moment they decide to pursue these things.
There are many people, who are beautiful in the traditional sense, who make themselves ugly by their cruelty to others. Their lives are filled with a string of fractured relationships, regrets, and self-loathing.
On the other hand, there are so many other people who are not traditionally beautiful but who are extraordinarily beautiful nonetheless because their lives are overflowing with love for themselves and others.
When people love themselves and others, they bring the gifts of peace, compassion, healing, listening, and curiosity to every relationship they have. They live an abundant, joyful life, and this is true beauty.
This is not to say that people who look any certain way are more or less prone to happiness. This is to say that beauty and happiness are not really tied to people’s looks. Beauty and happiness are connected with an inner state of love and compassion that every single person can cultivate, no matter their size, shape, or appearance.
While gaining or losing weight may accompany other behaviors or mindsets that bring happiness, losing or gaining weight in themselves do not bring happiness. Unfortunately, we (especially women) regularly receive the message that they do.
This message is often referred to as the Fantasy of Being Thin. It is the idea that as soon as we lose weight (or for some people, gain weight) and have the perfect bodies, we will finally be happy, and our lives will start going well.
Kate Harding has written a great post on the Fantasy of Being Thin and why it is extremely unhelpful and misleading.
In addition, Wooley and Garner, in an article from the American Dietetic Association, address this issue when they write:
“Obese patients are often encouraged to believe that weight loss is an appropriate way to combat depression, save a failing marriage, or increase the chance of career success. The irrationality of hopes pinned on weight loss is so striking that dieting might almost be likened to superstitious behavior…. Passing from childhood into adolescence, leaving home, marrying, starting a new job, having a baby, experiencing marital difficulties, adjusting to children leaving home, and growing old — all these life situations may become unexamined reasons to diet. In other instances, concerns over weight mask even more serious problems.”
Once again, having a perfect body never guarantees happiness and beauty. Happiness and beauty come from loving yourself and loving others, and everyone can do this. Loving yourself and others will likely lead to healthier habits, which may or may not lead to weight loss and weight gain. It is possible, however, to be happy and beautiful at every size at shape.
The next time you hate your body because you feel like you are too big or too small to be attractive and have a happy life, here is something you can say to yourself: “Beauty and happiness come from loving myself and loving others, and everyone of every size and shape can do this.”
#7. Remember that you never have to apologize for the space you take up in the world.
The other day I heard the idea, “The body is not an apology.” This idea is perfect. Many times we feel like we have to apologize for some aspect, or all, of our body. Our bodies are never an apology. Our goal is never to be thin or fat or curvy or uncurvy or more feminine or less feminine. Those are somebody else’s arbitrary standards. Our purpose is to be OURSELVES in all of our moments.
Being ourselves may mean we gain or lose weight sometimes. If we are being ourselves, it will likely mean that we, and our bodies, will look differently at different times of our life. This is normal, and there is nothing wrong with it. We never have to apologize for the space we take up in the world, no matter how little or much space it is.
Our bodies are always trying to communicate to us, and they are always trying to love us. Our job is to listen to them and to figure out every day how we can foster a loving relationship with them. The rest will take care of itself.
The next time you hate your body because you feel like it does not look like it should, here is something you can say to yourself: “My purpose is not to be thin or fat or curvy or un-curvy. My purpose is to be ME in all of my unique beauty and complexity.”
Women spend a great deal of time and energy fretting about their bodies. Imagine all of the confidence, energy, and intellectual space women (and everyone) would have if they were to love their bodies unconditionally. We could change the world. I believe we are. I believe we will.
Your body is beautiful right now, Friend.
Postscript: I have so many amazing friends who are wonderful role models and advocates for body love and body acceptance. I asked them if any of them would be willing to share ideas about body love and acceptance for this post. Here is what they wrote to you:
From my friend and former student Hailee, who just had a baby: “Our bodies may carry the signs of pregnancy for the rest of our lives but why should we be ashamed? We should wear our stretch marks like badges of honor. Our stomachs sag because that is where we kept our children safe.
Our incision scars say, ‘While things did not go my way, I did what was needed when the time came.’ Why does it matter that our bodies are not how they used to be? Now they are so much more.”
(Hailee is the artist at PostPartum paintings which you can follow on Instagram here and on Facebook here. She does watercolor paintings of women’s postpartum bodies to help them love their bodies after pregnancy. Stay tuned this week on my blog for a guest post from Hailee!)
From my friend and cousin, Melissa: “I have always been told to cover myself because of scaring from an injury that I sustained when I was 2. I have never let it control how I dress, I guess because it has been a part of me for so long, but some people are very uncomfortable with my scars.
My husband is very loving and tells me I’m beautiful and that I should never be embarrassed by it. A good support system and positive self image is key. We are who we are. Created in God’s image. Now, some of us have a slightly different from ‘normal’ outer skin, but how we wear it is the key.”
From my friend, Jill Carson, “The diet industry is a 70 billion dollar operation. If women could spend a fraction of their $$ and thought life on something meaningful and positive, the male-dominated hierarchy would collapse. The diet/beauty/self-improvement market is set up to keep women small (in body and in thinking) and quiet.” You can follow Jill at Eating as a Path to Yoga here.
From my friend, Jesse: “I support anything that encourages women to own their bodies regardless of whatever male-gaze dominated social pressures may want them to believe otherwise.”
From my friend and former student, Chloe, who just had a baby: “I’m learning to love my body after having a baby. It looks so different now- my hips are wider, I have stretch marks, things sag and dimple and ripple in new ways and all of that is super hard.
You almost have to look as your body as though it’s a new one, like it’s gone through a butterfly like metamorphosis. Because it becomes something totally different. Everything I eat and drink goes into feeding and nourishing my baby. But I’m starting to appreciate it more and more.
The female body is incredible- it housed, grew, protected, and nurtured a brand new human being. So every time I look in the mirror and loath a part of my body, I remember what it’s been through and what it’s accomplished to become that way. And it makes me love it instead.”
From my friend Jack X Taylor, who is a personal trainer: “To any women reading this: you have so much to contribute to the world around you. The bullshit messages you have received about your body only serve to distract you from your true purpose.
Focus on cultivating appreciation for your body, practice gratitude for all it does for you and engage in strength training in order to physically show yourself what a badass you are. Anything else is a waste of your precious time and gifts.”
I am not sure where I heard or read this original statistic, but recent research seems to bear it out. A recent study conducted by the Dove campaign found that over 97% of women are cruel to their body every day and regularly think cruel and critical thoughts about their body. Another recent study found that 90% of women say that they feel depressed about their body.
 Please note that I am not speaking as a medical practitioner. I am speaking in generalities and understand that some weight loss and weight gain could signal a medical problem. This blog does not, in any way, constitute medical advice.
 Jon Gabriel writes and speaks at length about emotional reasons, such as the need for safety, that people gain weight. His work is outstanding, and I recommend him to anyone who thinks that they overeat sometimes because of painful feelings and are not sure what to do about it.
 Once again, I am not a medical practitioner. The ideas here are my opinion, and I have also shared the ideas of other medical practitioners.
 This is not intended as a judgment but rather an observation.
 “Obesity treatment: the high cost of false hope.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association. vol. 91, no. 10, 1991.