You should be thin but also curvy. Your lips should be full. Your skin shouldn’t look too “made up,” yet still be radiant and without visible trace of pores. Your eyebrows should be thick yet cleanly defined and your hair should show no evidence that you encounter weather, unless it’s at the beach. You shouldn’t eat that. You shouldn’t wear that. You shouldn’t give up on looking better. Oh, but also please love your body as it is because you’re beautiful and perfect! #BodyPositive!
This is the kind of lopsided messaging that women often receive from the media, including (perhaps most aggressively) social media. We’re blasted with directives on what beauty — in the most superficial sense of the word — is and how to attain it, no matter how unrealistic, only to be served a mawkish thumbs up from a beauty brand, clothing line or a well-meaning celebrity whose body bears a startling resemblance to Barbie’s.
I’ve been off-and-on obsessing (often negatively) over my appearance since I was 12 years old and now, at 34, I feel only slightly closer to accepting myself as I am, and eager to know: How do I authentically embrace a body positive mindset? How can I really get it in my head that I am — gulp — beautiful without makeup or filters or diets or even praise from anybody else?
These are the questions that Seline Shenoy, podcast host, life coach and author of “Beauty Redefined: How to Feel Authentically Beautiful in Today’s World” has finally answered for herself (and may help answer for others) — after years of shame over her body.
Less to love: Often we’re taught the slimmer we are, the more we belong
“As a teenager and a young adult I suffered from major body image issues because I was chubby,” Shenoy tells NBC News BETTER. “I was labeled as being ‘too hefty’ by the recreational director at a school fashion show tryout, snubbed by dancing instructors at auditions and deserted by trusted friends. All of these incidents left an indelible impression on me and unequivocally taught me that the only way to gain love and acceptance from others and experience a sense of belonging was by being slim and [conventionally] beautiful.”
These series of rejections pushed Shenoy to push herself. In her early twenties, she worked hard with exercise and diet to attain the body type she’d been taught was ideal. And when she finally met her goal, she got everything she wanted — or so it seemed, at first.
Real makeovers need to happen on the inside
“I began receiving the kind of attention and admiration from the outside world that I had never received before,” says Shenoy. “I relished all the adulation that I was receiving, but there was a big part of me that was absolutely terrified about losing my newfound sense of power. Becoming physically attractive, based on social norms, changed my world on the outside, but it did not change an iota about me on the inside. I was still insecure and needy of people’s approval when it came to my physical appearance.”
The insecurity developed into a full-blown “emotional breakdown” when Shenoy was in her mid-20s. “I [then] realized that I needed to shift some beliefs when it came to my self-image and my own capabilities,” she says.
This is when the real work — the work of feeling beautiful, began. Shenoy threw herself into seminars, workshops and sessions with coaches and counselors until she was “able to heal past wounds, regain my confidence and use my story and skills to help other girls and women out there who are suffering from the same struggles.”
How to get comfortable in your own skin: A list of resources and pro tips
How can I or anyone else get to this place of peace and poise with body image? Reading Shenoy’s book, which she calls her “contribution towards the looming revolution of beauty” may be of assistance, as the author explores both her own experience while digging into various research on the loaded subject of feminine appearance; but there are plenty of tips to try.
Do ‘Mirror Work’
“Each day, for 40 days, my clients look at themselves in the mirror before bed and thank themselves for all the wins they scored during the day,” says Christie Miller, author, motivational speaker and founder of EatTrainWin. “They express gratitude for their body and where it carried them that day. And they congratulate themselves on avoiding unhealthy behavior. It’s a total love fest that builds their self-esteem, confidence and love for their bodies.”
Check out the evolution of beauty standards
“I really like BuzzFeed’s video that show how women’s ideal body types changed throughout history,” says Shenoy. “It had a dramatic impact on how I view the standards of beauty because I could see how it’s been a moving target throughout the history of mankind. I was convinced of the fickleness of our society’s expectations of a woman’s appearances and why it’s not a reliable measure of our self-worth.”
Marvel at the wonders of your body — and the sensory experience
Sheina Schochet, a mental health counselor in NYC finds that women’s body image issues tend to spike in summer, when we’re slipping into more revealing clothes, so we should try to focus less on what we want to change, and more on what our bodies can do.
“Think about the things your body does, like making a baby (for moms) or getting through a really challenging workout class,” Schochet says. “[At the beach,] choose to focus on how the sun, sand and surf feel on your skin.”
‘Unhook’ your self-worth from your appearance
Michele Moore a certified coach, relationship expert and founder of Marriage Mojo encourages women struggling with body issues to connect their self-image to aspects of their identity that aren’t physical.
“In essence, I try to normalize their beliefs while also challenging their validity, therefore ‘unhooking’ or ‘un-linking’ the idea that one's worth is found in one's outward appearance,” Moore says. “That's not to say that [you] can't or shouldn't work on losing weight or updating their wardrobe, but only that [your] self-image doesn't have to be tied to these things.”
A three-step plan of attack
Alegra Loewenstein, health coach and author of “Emotional Eating Detox: A 21-Day Inspirational Journal to Understand Your Cravings, End Overeating, and Find Freedom From Dieting Forever” finds that negative body image is “an epidemic” among women today, and recommends the following three steps toward healing:
- Slow down and tap into your body wisdom to learn to love your holistic whole body. "A simple mindfulness or affirmation practice from meditation to talking kindly to yourself in the mirror [can help].”
- Release the bad energy. "Clear out the toxic emotions that cause you to self-sabotage your health goals, which are often stuck from your childhood. This can be done with a program of self-reflection with a partner, professional [and/or] in your own in a journal.”
- Make a plan to stay on track. "Your negative emotions will ebb and flow, and having a long-term outlook infused with love for yourself will make it easy to increase [healthy] body image and self-esteem.”
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter.