Summer can be a challenging time when it comes to body dissatisfaction. If this is a hard season for you, you are not alone.
We have all noticed that the heat has arrived. Summertime conjures up images of relaxing beach days, unplanned ice cream trips, backyard barbecues, and fun pool parties. We are switching to summer wardrobes and thinking about ways to cool off.
However, this season may not be all fun and games for everyone. The reality is that, for many people, the idea of wearing summer clothes can prompt feelings of anxiety and discomfort, especially after a long season of covering up. For those struggling with eating disorders or body image, the idea of putting on a pair of shorts or bathing suit can trigger restrictive thoughts and make it difficult to enjoy this time of year.
If you are someone that finds this season to be challenging, here are some of our top tips to help you deal with these unhelpful thoughts and behaviours:
1. Work on body acceptance
Having a physical presence in the world means that almost everyone values appearance to a certain extent. However, there is a difference between valuing your appearance and overvaluing it.
Overvaluing appearance can have a detrimental effect on both your mental and social well-being. Do you find that thinking about the way you look or wanting to look different is taking up a lot of space in your mind? Are you saying no to social events because you would rather use that time to exercise or be able to eat “safe” foods? Have you been putting off booking a vacation until you look a certain way?
One way to improve your relationship with your body is to work toward body acceptance. Body acceptance doesn’t mean that you think your body is perfect or exceptionally attractive. It simply means committing to accept your body for what it is.
Remember, appearance is largely genetic. You’ve likely already come to terms with your height and shoe size, and probably don’t spend too much energy trying to change them. It’s true that there are aspects of your appearance that can be changed, but at what cost? What are you sacrificing to achieve that goal? Think about the time you could spend doing more important things rather than trying to change your appearance.
2. Reflect on your values
Reject the idea that achieving a particular body size will make you happier.
The media might lead us to believe that our appearance will determine our quality of life. But this is not the case.
As an exercise, think about someone in your life that you care about. Whether it’s a parent, sibling, friend, or partner, take a moment and reflect on what you love about them. What is it about them that you appreciate or value? Maybe they are kind, creative, generous, hard-working, smart, or fun.
Did anything about their appearance cross your mind? Probably not. It is likely that you were more focused on their personality, their character, or the things that they do. The same is true for how the people in your life think about you. Take comfort in knowing that the value you bring to the world is far greater than what you look like.
3. Focus on function over form
Consider all that your body does for you. It lets you breathe, move, hug, smile, and talk. Over the course of your life, it has grown, healed, and adapted. It has allowed you to learn new things, experience joy, and cultivate relationships.
Your body is simply the vessel that allows you to live your life.
Moving your body can be a powerful way to shift your mindset. If appropriate, find ways to include movement in your life in order to become more mindful of the things that your body does for you. This, in turn, will promote gratefulness and lessen the importance of what your body looks like.
4. Wear clothes that fit
Make sure you have clothes that feel comfortable and fit you properly. Ill-fitting clothes can exacerbate preoccupation with your body and fuel the anxiety of summertime events. When clothes are too tight, it’s physically uncomfortable, making it that much harder to focus on and enjoy the activity at hand.
Carve out time to try on last year’s summer clothes when you are feeling emotionally stable. Bring a friend or push yourself to get some new clothes if you need them. If you do decide to go shopping, avoid placing importance on the size on the label; clothing sizes are inconsistent and arbitrary. Instead, focus on finding pieces that allow you to express your style in a comfortable and authentic way.
5. Reduce body checking
People with eating disorders often tie feelings of self-worth to what their body looks like. This can manifest as body preoccupation and frequent body checking. You might scrutinize body parts, weigh yourself too frequently, or compare yourself to others
Excessive body checking may be subconscious, but it is nevertheless harmful. It’s also not useful. Your body really doesn’t change much day to day or even week to week. It is just your perception of what you look like that changes and it is common for those with eating disorders to have distorted views of themselves.
Identify the ways and frequency with which you body-check and choose 1-2 behaviours you’d like to reduce. Consider setting specific targets and gradually work toward lowering the frequency. When setting goals, remember that there is no need to completely avoid seeing your body, as that can also reinforce body preoccupation.
6. Be mindful of unhelpful thinking traps
Thinking traps, also called cognitive distortions, are patterns of thought that are unhelpful. They create a biased sense of reality that can make you feel bad about yourself and possibly even lead to problematic decision-making. As you read through the following list of common thinking traps, self-evaluate whether they reflect your own thought processes:
- All-or-nothing: Do you have a black-and-white mentality that makes you want to throw in the towel whenever something doesn’t go according to plan?
- Tunnel vision: Do you tend to hyper-focus on the negative and lose sight of the big picture?
- Mountain out of molehill: When one thing goes wrong, do you make overgeneralizations or reach sweeping conclusions that are negative?
- Fortune-telling: Do you make predictions about the future that are negative and allow those to dictate your feelings and actions?
To combat these cognitive distortions, it is first important to acknowledge that challenges are a part of life; we cannot control everything. We can, however, try to control how we respond. Thinking traps are often unconscious and can feel automatic, so take time to identify yours.
Then, challenge them. Is your thought actually a fact or is it simply an opinion? Is it the most logical or rational interpretation of the situation? Is that what you would say to your friend if they were going through something similar? See if you can challenge those patterns and create more realistic thoughts.
7. Evaluate your social circle
The people you spend time with will dictate the types of conversations and messaging you are surrounded by. If you find yourself with those that are frequently talking about their latest weight-loss endeavor or are generally preoccupied with their body, consider whether they are the right people to be spending your time with on this journey. If they are, think about how you will manage triggering comments.
In addition, evaluate your social media. Many accounts that masquerade as health and fitness “inspo” actually overexpose you to unrealistic body images that in reality are heavily edited and filtered. Consider unfollowing the accounts that make you feel bad about your body and following ones that promote a healthy body image.
8. Take it step by step
If you are just starting out on this journey, it is okay to take it slow.
Start with a clothing exposure you are more comfortable with and incrementally work towards the one that scares you the most.
As you build and work your way up this hierarchy of exposure, stay committed. Stick with your clothing choice once the decision has been made. Push through even if it feels scary when you have it on. It is important that you keep the clothing on so that you can move through the anxiety of the situation and notice if and how it shifts.
9. Enjoy the season
If you live in a place like Canada, warm days are fleeting. Try to put less emphasis on the scary parts of summer events and bring your attention to aspects that you enjoy. Go for an evening stroll, sit out on a patio, hang out with friends, or watch the sun set after a warm day.
Down the road, when you look back on this summer, it is the time you spent with your loved ones and the memories you made that will matter.