If you want to enjoy a positive body image, meditation can help.
We live in a day and age where society and the media have led many people to an almost pathological degree of body hatred. And as a result, we are witnessing a rise in debilitating mental health conditions related to the body. Our unhealthy obsession with the thin body has been a cancer to us all. But it does not need to be this way.
As a private meditation teacher, I have helped many people to correct a poor body image, and I have seen how mindfulness can play a pivotal role in this transformation. I’ll show you how in just a moment.
What Is A Positive Body Image?
First, let’s discuss just exactly what a positive body image is.
Your body image is essentially the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that you have about your body.
There are four aspects of body image according to The National Eating Disorder Collaboration. They are:
- Perceptual body image, which is the way you actually see your body, which could be inaccurate.
- Affective body image, which is the way you feel about your body
- Cognitive body image, which is the way you think about your body
- Behavioural body image, which is the behaviours you perform as a direct result of your body image.
When we talk about having a positive body image, what we mean is that we are able to accept our physical form the way it is, even if it is indeed imperfect. You do not necessarily have to be happy or content with your body, you just have to have a realistic impression of it, a respect for it, and an appreciation. For instance, I myself am a little overweight and am showing signs of aging, so I’m not perfect, but nevertheless, I appreciate and respect my body.
With a positive body image, it is easier to avoid eating disorders and also easier to have self-esteem, self-respect, and self-acceptance. On the other hand, a negative body image can lead to things like calorie counting, skipping meals, exercising to the point of excess, being obsessed with make-up and other aspects of appearance, self-objectification, mental health problems, and develop eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
Any person, regardless of their gender, age, social status, or fitness levels, can potentially develop body dissatisfaction and, as a result, secondary health concerns.
I do also want to point out that body dissatisfaction can affect people even if they are extremely fit and good-looking. Indeed, some such people become obsessed with their physical appearance and start to value themselves solely on their bodies, to the detriment of other areas of their lives. And yes, a lot of those folk are the ones taking selfies on Instagram!
Sadly, poor body image can last our entire lives unless intervention is taken. One such intervention is meditation.
Meditation For A Positive Body Image
There are many ways to meditate to improve your body image. The meditation I am about to share will help you to see your body as the miracle that it is, to be more mindful of your body, and to be grateful for it.
- Sit comfortably with good posture, making sure your spine is straight but relaxed. Close your eyes.
- We must calm the mind before we transform it. To do this, focus your mind on your breath as it moves between the space just beneath the middle of your nose. Take ten breaths like this. Then expand your awareness and be aware of the complete movement of the breath down to the abdomen. Take ten breaths like this.
- Now, we will progressively move our way down the body, being aware of the parts of the body, visualizing their processes, and expressing gratitude for them. We start with the hair, taking a moment to visualize its growth—which averages a total of a thousand kilometres in a lifetime!
- Next we come to the forehead and behind that, of course, the brain. Consider the billions of calculations your brain makes ever moment of the day. Consider how your brain takes sensory information from the outside world and uses it to create a vivid picture of reality. How about the millions of memories your brain holds… consider all these miracles.
- Next, move on to your eyes and consider how miraculous it is that light enters our eyes from the outside and travels to the brain where it is transformed into images… be aware of that miraculous process and express gratitude for it.
- Continue on in this way through your body, visualizing each part, being mindful of the functions of the body, and expressing gratitude for them. You can do this in one long meditation, or you can do one part of your body one day and another the next. Alternatively, you can choose to focus your meditation on the part of yourself that you’re not happy with. Be mindful of that part of the body, visualize the function it performs, and express gratitude for it.
- This meditation will make you very aware of just precisely how much of a miracle your body is. It will make you respect your body and be grateful for it. And of course, it will improve your body image. By the end of this meditation you will have so much respect and admirations for your body that those minor imperfections in its appearance will seem utterly irrelevant.
Why the Key to a Positive Body Image Is Meditation
Meditation has always been a powerful tool for changing our thoughts and for addressing our emotions. In other words, for creating changes in the mind. And Body Image is entirely about the mind. Sure, it is mind directed at the body, it is thoughts and feelings about the body, but it is the thoughts and feelings that matter. It is the thought that we must have an ideal body, the feeling that if we have imperfect bodies then there must be something wrong with us… heck, it is even the belief that there is such a thing as an Ideal Body.
The power of meditation, and indeed the reason why meditation is so helpful for body image, is that it gives us a way to change our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. And this can help us to develop a positive body image in several ways.
Let’s start with compassion. Body image has a lot to do with compassion. We must be compassionate to our bodies and understand that the body, like the mind, goes through challenges and that those challenges make it imperfect. We must also have self-compassion for the mind. We must realise that we have gone through stress in our lives, we have suffered through difficult times, and maybe those times led us to eat too much or to not exercise or to make other unhealthy choices, and that is understandable and forgivable. Meditation gives us compassion. And in turn, this helps with body image. Indeed, a 2020 study showed that pregnant and postpartum women experienced an improvement in body image and a reduction in body shame after just three weeks of compassion meditation.
It’s also about gratitude. We should always be grateful for the body. The body is a miraculous thing. Consider all the organs in the body, all the billion cells that you are made of. Consider how many breaths your body takes in your lifetime—on average, 672,768,000 breaths. Your body is a miracle, even if you happen to have a bit of fat. And here’s some tough love: You should be grateful for your body. You should be aware of the miraculous vehicle of life that you possess. Your body deserves that gratitude.
Meditation can make us more grateful of the body, and in turn this helps with body image. Actually, research by the University of British Columbia in 2022 showed that women who practiced gratitude meditation experienced a decrease in body dissatisfaction and were less effected by images depicting the “thin ideal” (the same was true for those who did Mindfulness Meditation).
Whatever the psychological problems surrounding negative body image—anger, loathing, shame, comparison to others…–whatever it is, meditation can help. And in saying that, I am reminded of one of the amazing things about the Buddha…
Buddhism on Body Image – Shocking, But Almost Too Real
I find it quite fascinating how much the story of the Buddha teaches us about body image.
Buddha certainly would understand the pressure we feel to look perfect. Unquestionably, when he was a prince there would have been tremendous pressure on him to have the ideal look. He would fully have understood the pride many people take in their appearance. But then, when he left the temple and embarked on his journey to enlightenment, he would have learned much about the challenges of the body too.
So, what wisdom did Buddha impart? What does Buddhism teach us about body image?
Buddhism teaches us that we should meditate on the body in various forms of decomposition. Yes, you hear that right. Meditate on the body in various forms of decomposition. Sounds almost sick, doesn’t it? And it flies in the face of modern convention. Society tells us that we should be obsessed with the ideal body. So why would Buddhism teach us to meditate on the body in its most grotesque forms?
The answer is that when we meditate on these grotesque forms of the body, we gain liberation from the idea of the ideal body. If we can come to acceptance with the fact that the body can be bloated, aging, decaying, even rotting… if we can come to terms with that, then we will no longer be attached to the idea of the Ideal Body.
Make no mistake. The idea of the ideal body causes enormous suffering. Anyone who is not beautiful and near perfect feels inferior and feels the pressure to make themselves “Ideal”. And you might think that people who do have the ideal body enjoy great happiness because of it. But that is hardly the case. People with the ideal body feel tremendous pressure to maintain that body. They become attached to it. They fear losing it. They fixate on even the slightest of imperfections.
Even if a person literally had a perfect body, they would still suffer. Why? Because such a body, as all things, would be temporary. It would decay. It would eventually become dust. And so, the person with the ideal body not only fears losing it, but they suffer years, even decades, of suffering as they watch their ideal body wither.
And so, the reason Buddha advised us to meditate on the body in grotesque forms is that it releases us from our attachment to the ideal body.
Sadly, I know that most people will not meditate on the vision of their body in decay. And in fact, that is one of the reasons why I prescribed the meditation that I did (above). But make no mistake, Buddha was right. We can either accept the fact that our body, every body, is imperfect and will turn to dust, or we can suffer through our denial.
Tips on Improving Body Image
Of course, meditation is not the only way improve body image. Here are some more great tips:
- Get involved with the Body Positive Movement: There has been an explosion in the community that is dedicated to spreading positive body image, to accepting bodies of all shapes and sizes. Get involved with it. Leave positive comments about people’s appearances who are not “perfect”, share images of people with “imperfect” bodies, do what you can to aid the Body Positive Movement.
- Take five minutes a day to write a list of the things that you like about your body. You might struggle to do this at first. However, the more you practice focusing on the good things about your body, the more good things you will find.
- Get away from negative people and negative influences such as social media: Take a look at your life and ask yourself what the main negative influences in your life are. Who or what is making you feel negatively about your body? Get rid of them / it.
- Practice mindful eating: Mindful Eating is the practice of eating slowly and consciously. It can be a wonderful tool for developing a healthier relationship with food and with the body. The link I have just shared leads to a guide on the best mindful eating practices.
- Try to become more aware of the different thoughts you have about your body. When you notice a thought that is unrealistic, judgmental, or hateful, try to replace it with a thought that is accepting and compassionate.
- Seek help if you need to. One way you can do this is by booking a private online meditation lesson with me.
We are at a real crossroads as relates to the body. As a society, we have never been more obsessed with the “Ideal Body”, but we have also never seen such a powerful movement towards body positivity.
For my part, I will admit that I myself occasionally loathe my body. Sometimes I am all too aware of the fact that I have a few extra pounds, that I am going gray, and that my teeth are crooked. But… but, but, but… when I stop and think about it, I become aware of the fact that my body is a miracle—a miracle that I am lucky to have.
Let’s be kind. Let’s help one another to accept—no, to love our bodies even if they are imperfect. Because whether it’s fat, thin, young, old, big, small… the body is always a miracle.
Paul Harrison is a passionate meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
“My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation” – Paul Harrison
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