Many of the women I’ve worked with have experienced ruthless self-criticism of their bodies, sometimes on a regular basis. Many women the world over still do live with this form of inner abuse. For some, it can be hellish, keeping them cut off from a their deep in-breath, cut off from sensations in their body and from their natural appetites, as well as from joyful, wholesome physical pleasure.
Many of the women who approach me for help to heal their relationship with their body report that their self-hatred directly fuels unhealthy food behaviours. Often, women find the only outlet of relief from the inner critic is through indulging in foods that cause (either real or imaginary) weight-gain. This can fuel the inner critic into loudly expressing its shaming opinions about our bodies still further.
Bingeing can be an act of defiance against the body-critic. Or it can be an attempt to soothe the part of ourselves that feels the shame of being criticised. Self-deprivation can be an act of compliance with the body-critic: “Okay: I’ll improve myself by getting thinner.” Both reactions fuel our problem. Or for us it might just be a response of hopeless collapse: “Well, if I look this bad, I might as well just eat.”
Through coming to understand and respect our inner-critic it can relax, and all these food behaviours can melt away.
The tone of our inner critics as they focus negatively on parts of our body can be very harsh, and the words very insulting. Some words I’ve heard reported by women (whether these were shouted or whispered) are ‘fat’, ‘dumpy’, ‘revolting’, ‘pig-like’, ‘elephant’, ‘freakish’, ‘blubber-whale’, ‘morbidly obese’, ‘disgusting’, ‘a disgrace’, ‘unsightly’. I’ve sat with women who’ve cried at the harshness they’re regularly subjected to. There can be a moment of rawness as full awareness is bought to the reality of the onslaught they’ve experienced often near-continuously, sometimes for years or even decades. (Raw and painful as this awareness is, it is the key to the beginning of freedom… more on this below…)
I’ve observed that these parts of us tend to dwell in our minds rather than in our bodies. I notice that they keep themselves cut off and distanced from the bodies they judge, criticise, and objectify.
Some women’s body-critics can be so ruthless and cutting that they are able to motivate us to all sorts of extreme actions and strategies, in the hope that this will make them go away. Such strategies range from dieting, to rigorous exercise routines, to secretly spitting or purging food, to cosmetic or bariatric surgery.
I find we women tend to either go into a trance in the face of such strong inner insults, or else we try to fight back. The trance is characterised by our illusion that changing our physical appearance is the way to make the critic go away. We can easily fall into the trap of believing that our critics will stop shaming us once we finally “get our act together” and once-and-for-all improve our bodies/faces/looks to the perfect standards they demand.
Sadly, I have discovered from years of witnessing women’s relationships with their body-critics that lasting relief from our pain is rarely if ever discovered through these means. No matter how much we invest our time, energy, and money into changing our weight and manipulating our looks, it never ultimately works to melt the inner shame. The critical self-focus either finds a new subject elsewhere on our bodies, faces, teeth, hair … or else it goes underground and strengthens there awhile, only to re-emerge later in the form of envious, crushing comparisons with another woman, or in uneasy reaction to the natural process of our ageing.
This can severely dull our life-force energy and prevent us being the full and flowing forces for much-needed goodness and creative solutions for positive change in a badly-damaged world.
Many women I’ve met have tried to fight their body-critics. They may take a defensive stance with them: “I’m NOT ugly! I’m NOT fat!”, but the critic doesn’t seem to listen or agree.
Some women have parts that rebel through what they eat: “I’ll show you! I’ll eat whatever I want, even if it makes me put on more weight! I won’t be pushed around or bullied by you, critic!” This strategy also seems to have no lasting positive affect … in fact the body-critic seems to redouble its efforts with renewed strength once the angry-eating-bout is complete.
Thankfully for us all, there is a way to heal from body-criticism which has nothing to do with liposuction, only-eating-sprouts, eating-only-cake, or having a brain-transplant.
The natural result of such healing is that we can begin to love and accept our bodies, from today onwards. And the result of this, in turn, is that we naturally begin to treat our bodies with the tenderness and care it truly craves. This marks an upward spiral of self-love and self-respect that leads us to experience a complete paradigm-shift in how we define and experience beauty, both in ourselves and in others.
Here is a meditation to support this shift from body-hatred to body-love. Before listening, though, it can be helpful to open our minds to a few new ideas:
We can’t ‘beat’ our body-critics.
We can’t fight, ignore, persuade, debate-with, banish or overpower our body-critics. I find that any attempts to do so strengthens them in their entrenched position in the long run, as they resist our various strategies to change them or drown their voices out.
Our body-critics have a positive motivation.
I’ve never met a critic either in myself or others who wasn’t trying to protect us in some way. It can be hard to believe this theoretically, because it may feel as though they are trying to destroy our confidence and inner peace, not protect us! However, if we take this on faith, it will allow us to approach our critics with some curiosity and openness, rather than a defensive stance. This curiosity is the key that enables us to get to know our body-critic.
It is impossible to get to know any of our critics through the filter of our previous assumptions that they are unwelcome psychic thugs: inner ‘bad guys’. Some reasons for the criticism may be about making sure you look good, so you don’t get bullied, attacked, ignored or rejected the way you once were, or the way you witnessed someone else being. It may be trying to keep you fit and healthy, by trying to bully you into losing weight through pointing out the weight it hates continuously. It may be trying to erode your confidence, so you don’t reveal or express too much of yourself through your body physically or sexually and get hurt that way. It may be making sure it criticises you first, so you won’t feel bad if or when others do, because by then you’ll be used to it from the part. Your critic will have its own reason or reasons for working so hard at its role.
These critics are trying to protect vulnerable, hurting parts of us
Maybe we once noticed we didn’t look like the fairies, princesses or mermaids in the films or stories. Maybe we felt we wouldn’t get love because of this. Maybe someone once said something mean about how we looked, either once or often.
Maybe someone important stopped loving us, or we felt that they never did love us the way we needed back then. When asked whether they’d still need to criticise our bodies were we to heal these hurting younger parts, I find our body-critics often say “No.” The thought of not doing this hard job it doesn’t like anymore may come as a relief.
It may be that our body-critics are so protective of these hurting parts that they swear they’ll never abandon their abusive-roles by softening up. That might lead to further hurt! As and when they give us permission to go to the vulnerable parts they protect so that we can heal them, our body-critics can learn to relax for good.
I ask that you take these three ideas as ‘givens’ as much as possible, before having a go at this mediation.
If you’d prefer to read this meditation, rather than listen, here it is:
Before you begin, you may wish to have lotion nearby, for massagin any exposed areas of your skin. This can faciliate a loving connection with yourself through your skin.
Start lying down, either on a mat on the floor, or on your bed. Lie with one hand on the belly, and one on the heart. Breathe evenly and naturally, and notice how your hands move as your body does. Keep the breaths flowing and connected: once you’ve breathed in, breathe out, and once you’ve breathed out, breathe in, in one continuous flow…
Say to yourself these sentences, or repeat just whichever one resonates with you:
“It is easy for me to receive.”
“It is easy for my body to receive love and acceptance.”
“I am a channel of unconditional love and my body’s receiving this endless flow.”
“I am filling my cup with kindness and love I need and deserve.”
Now, slowly open your eyes, and sit up. Take in the sight of your body with a soft, receiving gaze. Keep breathing steadily, evenly, naturally… Feel how your body feels from the inside.
Gaze at your body and also begin to apply lotion if you have any, starting where your instinct guides you: it may be your feet, your knees, your belly, your shoulders. Let your instinct be your guide.
Take your time, noticing things you may have never noticed before, dwelling on small details. See if you can see yourself with new eyes, with curiosity and even wonder at the miracle that is you.
While you gaze and slowly apply the lotion, stay open to the presence of any body-critics that may be present.
One way to check for their presence is through thoughts in your head: are there any judgments present?
Another way to check for their presence is through noticing if you’re holding your breath or using any muscles to stay small.
When body-critics want us to be slimmer or more petite than we are, other parts of us try to obey by contracting us inwards and shortening our natural height and width.
If you notice this happening, ask any such parts if they would be willing to relax and allow you to lengthen and widen, to become your natural shape and size. If they are afraid that this will activate the body-critic, let them know you are there. Tell them that if you can make contact with the body-critic and get to know it better, it too may be able to relax and then these parts can trust that it is safe for your body to just be as it is…
Notice the area at the centre of your forehead and a little lower towards your eyes, as you gaze and go within. Sometimes when we ‘over-think’ things, it can feel a little cloudy there, or tense as we attempt to peer through the fog. See if you can encourage any parts of you peering here to relax, and this area to clear. This might feel like cleaning a dirty window and allowing in the sunlight.
This meditation is not an intellectual pursuit. If it starts to feel too complex in your mind, drop any agenda you have and come back to the breath, the lotion, your body, your senses, and the noticing of whatever arises.
You may not notice the presence of any critics. If you don’t, send an internal thank you inside for allowing you this time connecting with yourself and your body with love.
You may on the other hand notice judgments, tension, criticism, or attempts to change your shape and size through breath-or-muscle-holding. If so, see whether you can turn towards the presence of your body-critic as you continue to breathe steadily and stroke your body.
Check for how open and curious you feel towards it, through checking out the texture of your heart: does your heart feel open, or guarded? Just notice, don’t judge or force a change there.
When you feel ready, ask your body-critic this question: “What is it afraid would happen if it didn’t do this?” See what comes by way of an answer: it may be words or images. Don’t think of an answer: let it come from the body-critic part.
Whatever it shares with you, listen with curiosity. If it reveals to you how it’s trying to prevent you getting hurt or humiliated, show the body-critic you see it, and you see how hard it’s been working at trying to protect you in this way. Send it some appreciation, and see if it can receive this from you, for all that it has done trying to keep you safe.
Stay here awhile. Let appreciation flow from you to the critic. Let it know you see how hard it’s trying to help.
Check that your heart again. Notice whether you can allow this appreciation to flow from there to your body-critic. Remember that you are not giving permission to the critic to be even harsher through showing it your appreciation. You are simply acknowledging that it works hard at its role trying to keep you safe from harm in the only way it knows how.
Notice to what extent the critic can receive any appreciation that flows to it. Appreciation is a medicine to you and your body-critic part. It allows it to soften, to relax, to not have to work so relentlessly, vigilantly and hard … to not have to be so harsh.
Now say to the part: “If I could heal or change the vulnerable part that got hurt back then so I’m no longer so vulnerable, would you have to criticise my body in this way?”
Listen to what it says.
It may say, “Yes”. It may reveal a part it protects through an image or a memory. It may be a younger part of you. Perhaps she was shamed for her weight or her appearance. Perhaps she witnessed others being shamed, bullied, or rejected, and was afraid this might happen to her one day. Perhaps this is when your critic took on its role, to motivate her not to have that happen to you, again or ever!
If the critic relaxes and gives you permission to go to the little one, go to her now and comfort her.
The critic may not allow any vulnerable parts of you to be revealed, however you may notice a relaxing in your body as you spend time appreciating your critic for all that it does. Don’t push this process or try to force your body-critic to relax. Just keep breathing and, if it feels good, keep contact with your body through your hands and eyes.
Allow your hands, eyes and breath to give and receive to your body.
We’re going to slowly come out of this process now. Take your time doing so… perhaps stretch your limbs and breathe a little more deeply or quickly now… perhaps gently rotate your shoulders, neck or wrists…
Thank your body-critic one last time whether or not you made contact. Acknowledge the vulnerable part it protects, whether or not she was revealed to you, or you met her.
If you feel you can honour this promise, let these parts of you know you’ll check in with them again soon to hear any further thoughts or feelings from them, in a quiet moment in the near future….
As you come out of the meditation, you may wish to gradually clothe yourself and then find a pen and journal to jot down any experiences you had.
You may also just wish to just lie and breathe in place, allowing any new information that arose to settle within.
I thank you for joining me in this space and wish you well as you go about your day.
As always, I am here if you want to share with me any thoughts and feelings you had as you opened to learn more about your own body-critic through this meditation….
Farewell for now,