By Karen Schwartz
I’ve been a health, fitness and yoga teacher for more than 20 years and I’ve always been in great shape — strong, flexible, and falling within a healthy weight range. Still, I’ve never had the proverbial “Instagram” body. Over the years, my struggles with compulsive eating have resulted in pounds alternatively piling on and dropping off, accompanied by feelings of self-consciousness, shame and debilitating worries about body image that felt like they were holding me hostage.
As a result, I dressed for my classes accordingly. When I was “feeling thin,” I’d wear closer fitting tops that revealed my frame. When I wasn’t, I’d wear billowy tops that hid my belly, hips and thighs. Once, when I was trying to demonstrate a yoga posture to my class, I realized my oversize tank top completely obscured my body and prevented my students from seeing what I was doing. I paused, had a moment of terror, then pulled the tank off over my head. The earth didn’t swallow me up and the students didn’t run from the room screaming. With a giddy mix of freedom and fear, I continued my demonstration, realizing that this body image thing was something I needed to get a handle on.
Despite the rise and evolution of the feminist movement, body image continues to be an issue for the majority of girls and women in the United States and worldwide.
According to recent statistics compiled by The Body Image Center in Washington, D.C., 89 percent of girls have dieted by age 17, and 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Interviews conducted with 10,500 females across 13 countries for the 2016 Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report found that “women's confidence in their bodies is on a steady decline, with low body esteem becoming a unifying challenge shared by women and girls around the world - regardless of age or geography.”1 Recent years have seen progress, like a broader spectrum of women’s images portrayed in the media, and a wave of pushback against magazines and advertisers that routinely airbrush and Photoshop out “flaws” in appearance; however, it takes constant vigilance not to fall prey to the pressure of unrealistic norms. Loving and accepting ourselves completely is an ideal that many of us have not even come close to.
If you’re not sure where you stand with your body image, think about it for a moment. You might look at yourself in the mirror and determine whether there are things you feel like you need to hide, or that somehow make you less than you think you could be. Now, flip that script — simply state the opposite out loud. Can you do it? Can you actually feel it? The degree of resistance you have to changing your perspective may indicate just how deeply rooted your beliefs are.
Of course, body image isn’t only about weight and about the images we see. Difficulty expressing emotions, sexual objectification, physical and sexual abuse and trauma can all result in a fraught relationship with our bodies, and may result in addictions or eating disorders that affect both our actual appearance and our self-perception. Women who have been objectified or assaulted might come to see their body as something evil that needs to be controlled, hidden or denied. The “me” that we see might look perfectly lovely to an outside observer, but when we look in the mirror, we see a surface layer that is hiding pain, rage, shame and all the shadows of our experience from the rest of the world. It keeps us safe, but it also holds us hostage.
Enter the healing power of yoga — not an approach centered around perfecting forms and achieving extreme flexibility and strength, but yoga that teaches us to be present in each moment, noticing the sensations we feel and honoring our experience. When we practice, first and foremost we witness what is there, releasing judgment and even relinquishing the desire to change. As we stretch, move and breathe with mindful awareness, we come to understand ourselves on a deeper level. Practicing in this way loosens the grip of our habitual ways of being, allowing for greater self-trust and making room for a new perspective.
For many of us, this takes time. Patterns can run deep, especially when they’ve served to protect us for so long. When we’re used to feeling bad, feeling better can be scary, and as much as we want freedom, we might not know what to do with it when we find it. That’s why it’s important to be consistent with our practice, but gentle with ourselves as well. I practiced and taught for years before I began to understand yoga in this way, and to develop a compassionate relationship with my body that opened the doorway to greater freedom.
The beauty is that you can begin any time. As a start, next time you put on your yoga clothes, step in front of your mirror and pause. Is the voice in your head rushing to judgment? Try closing your eyes and doing some movement. Are you comfortable? Can you breathe and stretch freely? Do you begin to feel more spacious inside? Yoga gives us a new touchstone, one that focuses on the feeling inside. Try taking that risk—like an oversized tank top, you can pull off that outer layer and letting your true self shine through.
Karen Schwartz, LMSW, TCTSY-F, C-IAYT is a New York City based social worker, yoga therapist and writer with more than 25 years of experience helping people achieve better physical, mental and emotional health. Find her at www.mindfullivingnyc.com