I hate how I look in pictures

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How To Process Bad Body Image Moments

My photographer just emailed me the link to my family photos from our recent shoot for our Christmas cards. With my mouse hovering over the link to click I was already feeling anxious, hoping I don’t hate how I look in these pictures. I’ve been here before, ready to pick apart my every feature, to be terminally dissatisfied with my image. But now I’m an Intuitive Eater. I’ve spent the last year working on creating balance in my life, stepping away from diet culture and repairing my fraught relationship with food and my body.  I’ve spent countless hours reading, talking to my coaches, journaling, working on changing the way I relate to my body, redefining what matters in my life, and how it all pertains to how I look.  

I click on the link to the first photo, and it hits me like a punch to the stomach.  

“Is that what I really look like?” I think to myself.  

I zoom in, change to the next photo, bad just got worse. 

My finger clicks through amazingly beautiful photos of my children. The sun peeking through the trees, my children’s faces erupting into love-filled smiles. Their blue eyes shining, each one of them looking so much older, yet my familiar babies still. Their hands throwing up leaves screaming with joy, and then…click, I see another of me. 

Gawd….is that really me? I hate how I look in pictures. My face gets hot, my mind starts to race, “What have I done?” 

This post is for all the women out there that like me, are putting time and effort into improving their body image. It will explore why you hate how you look in pictures, why they can be such a trigger, potentially threatening to harm the stable foundation of body neutrality we’ve built.  With the help of experts, this post will seek to explain how unrealistic it is to imagine a life completely void of any uncomfortable or negative feelings about our body, especially within this culture.  Moreover, it will teach us that having a positive relationship with your body means learning how to process our uncomfortable feelings about our bodies in the moment, and not letting these feelings get in the way of taking care of our body in a loving respectful way.  The real work of having a positive body image is building up resilience for these inevitable times in life that we are shaken off our stable fronts. 

  1. The Science Behind Why We Hate How We Look In Pictures.  

As I sat there thinking about this new image, my mind started to wander back to a few years ago, when I received a prior professional image gallery link. There I was, three years ago, one less baby, a few less wrinkles around my eyes and I’m sure several pounds lighter.  I remember emailing the photographer about my disappointment in the images, asking her if she could do retakes. The truth was, I always felt this way about my images. Research would suggest, I’m not alone. Turns out there are real psychological reasons why most people feel disappointed in their image.  

The Mere Exposure Effect suggests that the more we encounter a stimulus, the more we tend to like it (Zajonc, 1968).  Robert Zajonc, the scholar most often given credit for this theory conducted a series of experiments where he would show participants familiar images, and they would time and time again rate them much higher than those that were unfamiliar.  After repeated exposure to the unfamiliar images, subjects’ ratings on the images would go up. This suggests we simply don’t see images of ourselves enough to be “used’ to them.  Especially mothers that are always BEHIND the camera, never in front of it.  

Dr. Tara Well, an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University, developed a “mirror-based mediation” which has been called a “a revelation” by the New York Times. The theory is based on Zajonc’s findings that negative reactions change and will lessen through habituation.  So while instinctually my response was to slam shut the laptop and never see the image again, this method recommends the opposite. Suggesting, the more we see our image, the more we like it! 

2. Have compassion that it’s OK for you to feel this way.   

When we work with women in our Food Freedom Academy Coaching Program, they are always concerned with their progress through our program. “Am I doing this right, should I be thinking this, does this mean I’m not getting it?” Understandably so, the women we work with, myself included are very conditioned to rule-based programs, traditionally with long lists of shoulds and shouldn’ts, unrealistic food exchanges and a start date and a numerical ending goal weight and day. 

Although sometimes referred to as a journey, learning to be an Intuitive Eater is not a linear process. It has no end. Bad body image moments, like hating how you look in pictures, can be incredibly emotionally charged, and as I shared up above can make you think “oh no, what have I done? I was wrong to let go of the rules, this is not working, now I am fat.”  

Let’s unpack that.  First of all, the existence of these feelings doesn’t mean you’ve failed: it’s how you process these feelings that will demonstrate your progress. Number one, be proud of yourself that you have the awareness to understand these thoughts are nothing more than a bad body image moment.  As I’ve previously cited, it is not precisely the size of my body that is the problem, I’ve felt this way at every size, it is what I think about the size of my body.  Dana Baron, one of our coaches here at Wellness Lately, always says, once you can see these moments for what they actually are, it’s very hard to unsee and revert back. 

Awareness is our superpower, and now because of the work we have done, we have a different set of tools in our arsenal to get through these thoughts. Instead of hitting up Google to search some form of “fix myself now,” you are reading this post. You are feeling the bad feelings and processing them. 

In her amazing book Untamed, that is quickly becoming my personal bible, Glennon Doyle writes “Progress through something, it’s not linear. It’s not like we go from unhealthy to healthy, failure to success. I think it’s all circular. You just come back around to the same pain … But each time you come around, you’re stronger from the climb.”  Bad body image moments happen to every woman.  It’s certainly true that for some, they happen more than others.  Our realistic goal here at Wellness Lately, is to help ensure that they start to happen less frequently as you put time into changing and challenging your own internal critic.  But, it’s also true they never completely disappear.  The awareness of this fact is like an experienced downhill skier’s ability to stabilize themselves when they hit a patch of ice,  they strengthen their core, straighten their skies and simply are able to glide right through.  With experience and technique, even the challenging is doable. 

I personally had been feeling very good about my body up until the moment I received these images. But there I was, finger hovering over the link, ready to open the image gallery, and for a moment as the first image flashed before me, I felt like I had circled back to a place and a pain, I’d felt before.  But now, as I write, I realize although the pain felt similar, the one huge difference about that moment, was me and my ability to process.

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3. How to Process The Bad Body Image Moment.

So…understanding we are all going to have these thoughts from time to time, what exactly do we do when they come up?  Here at Wellness Lately we teach women it’s important to challenge these thoughts. We channel the important self inquiry work of Byron Katie. She found, when she simply believed and accepted the negative thoughts in her head, she was unhappy. But when she challenged them, she found happiness and peace.  

When we think, “I hate how I look in these pictures! I look disgusting” we instead ask, “is it true?” 

Do you actually look disgusting? 

How do you act if you believe this is true?  

Who could you be without the thought?  

In an article for psychology today, Dr. Renee Engeln Ph.D, and the author of Beauty Sick: How The Cultural Obsession With Thinness Hurts Girls and Woman says, instead of thinking about your body parts in terms of how they look, think about all of the amazing things they help you do.  I tried this, I looked at the image of myself, I thought how powerful my legs felt that very morning as I did a sprint interval workout on my treadmill, how my arms carried my not so little baby half a mile into the woods wearing those healed boots. 

No, it wasn’t true, I wasn’t disgusting.

Glennon Doyle would challenge us to take this one step further, encouraging us to get quiet and ask ourselves, “ok, so what is the most true and beautiful thing about these images?”  I started thinking about my life leading up to this image, the confidence I felt forgoing all the rules I used to follow about what, when and how much to eat, the  balance I’d created on my plates, eating foods that left me feeling good physically and satisfied mentally, how strong I’d felt in workouts, how fulfilled I felt returning to work after six years, how proud of the life skills I was learning to ensure my children had a different fate.

This is the work, becoming resilient to these untruths requires we challenge them, correct them, refuse to listen. That mean critic won’t keep flapping her gums if you continually tell her to shut up and sit down. If you have been speaking this way to yourself for years, coming up with believable rebuttals to these negative statements can be a challenge. I laughed in the face of my coaches when they suggested positive affirmations, but what at first felt disingenuous, now feels very true.  I am strong, I am healthy, I do eat what I want. If you are stuck, listening to our video series on How to Stop Hating Your Body, or choosing a book of our list of our Ten Of Our Favorite Books to Improve Body Image could help give you the much needed vocabulary. 

4. How to Move Beyond the Thoughts?  

Once we have sat in the thoughts, challenged them, determine what is true, now what do we do? What’s the next doable step? Bridget Shannon, one of our coaches would suggest, “what action could you take right now that would reflect how you love and care for your body?” If moving your body makes you feel powerful, if a nap gives you a recharge, if laughing with friends provides that connection that makes you feel alive, do that. 

Our prior selves may have looked at a bad photo and immediately mentally started listing the foods we need to cut out to fix these images. But we are smarter than that now.  We all know that 95% of diets fail, and those that do lose weight gain back all the weight they have lost within five years, the majority of them gaining back even more.  If you know and believe the statistics but still think your willpower is the problem, read How Diets Like The Whole30 Contribute To Binge Eating. You are not the problem, science says so.

Instead, to move forward, you could do a few things, you could take our quick quiz to determine if you are eating intuitively (not about perfection). You could simply ask yourself the questions: am I taking care of my body? Am I eating a wide variety of foods, am I moving my body in ways that feel comfortable and are energizing, am I hydrated, sleeping enough, scheduling fun?  If you can answer all those questions, “yes,” then it sounds like your body has reached a point where it’s comfortable and it’s time to work on body acceptance and body respect.  We have a Free 4 part Body Image Video Training Program that is a great place to start. 

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We didn’t develop the body image we have now in just a few days, weeks or years even.  These perceptions about ourselves have been developing every minute of every day we have been alive in this world. If you are, 25, 40, or 70, that is a LONG ass time.  Our relationships with our bodies are complex, challenging, fraught.  For most of us reading this post, we have just begun the lifelong work of deciding to work with our bodies instead of against them. As we discussed, this is not a journey with an end destination, it is a fluid practice we will tweak everyday. Give yourself patience, as it is not without stumbles that we will move forward in the practice to choose to love ourselves. This work is simply about progress, as there is no perfection. 

The next time you, hate how you look in pictures or feel that pang of a halting body image moment, try some of the tips I referenced above. As I write this post just a day after seeing the photos for the first time, screaming, “I hate how I look in pictures,” I worked through these exercises I shared with you have already moved beyond the moment. 

This week I lost an old friend. He was a beautiful person, like a gemstone in my memory bank. He was sparkly, polished and special. For the majority of his life this beautiful person couldn’t see the electric light that like a gemstone he shined at whoever entered his world. The loss of him clenches my throat, the knowledge that he died struggling, breaks my heart.

Losing Andrew reminds me, we have this one, magical life, and although it will never be easy there is so much beauty to be found in it. As I look at the picture of my family, and the smiles on our faces I’m grateful once again for this work, the perspective it has given me, this new lens in which to see the world.  

If you are struggling with your own body image, or your relationship with food, you are not alone. Schedule a time to speak with us to get to the root of your struggle and determine a plan to help you start to feel strong very soon. Our coaches have all been in similar positions in their lives; and now it is our honor to help walk women away from the diets that are draining their electric lights and toward a life where they can focus their energies on those things that make them feel alive. 

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