Spring has finally sprung and the budding trees herald an ambush of headlines directing us to get ready for summer – swimsuit-ready, bikini-ready, beach-ready. No, popular media does not cause eating disorders, but it does create a reliable seasonal frenzy around body awareness. For those who suffer from an eating disorder and the many others who report extreme body dissatisfaction (Prevalence estimates being 13-30% of women and 9-28% of men in a recent US sample.), these articles prey on insecurities. The exterior message is to focus on your exterior, to lose weight, “debloat,” tone or tan; the interior message is that you must be on guard to the minutiae of your physical appearance in order to be healthy, enjoy the summer sun or feel warmly towards yourself.
But science suggests otherwise—that quality of life cannot be reduced to weight or waist size. In fact, hypervigilance about body shape and weight is associated with low mood and unhealthy eating attitudes. This heightened awareness can make it difficult to focus on anything else and encourages distorted perceptions of your body. Positive body image, by contrast, has a positive impact on a variety of health behaviors.
Resisting the mania of media messages about physical fitness while retaining a healthy focus on being your best you this season (and all others) requires serious mental strength training. All strength training comes down to the core, and this is no different. As you get summer-ready this spring, consider a visualization exercise to help shape up the “core” you:
- You might begin by conjuring up a childhood image of summer, one in which the body is being used as a vehicle for exploration, playful activity, or accomplishment. Your vision might be a real memory or imagined, based on your own child, a friend, a favorite summer movie or song. Maybe it’s an image of successfully riding a bike up a steep hill with a grown-up cheering you on, or jumping rope or playing hopscotch with friends, or diving underwater for the first time.
- Then try to retain that image and the way you are thinking about the physical body and its capacities while you imagine feeling strong and healthy in your adult form this summer. Flex your mental muscles to identify activities that might focus you on discovery and achievement, rather than perfectly toned abs. Walk a new stretch of shoreline. Play with others in a yoga class. Get on that bike again.
- If you are at risk to overdo it with exercise, then maintaining variety, flexibility, and limits around the type and amount of activity is critical for your physical and mental wellbeing this summer. If you tend to underdo it with exercise, stay mindful of your motivations for change and focus on immediate positive reinforcements of activity, like improved mood and energy level.
If you are especially susceptible to behaviors associated with poor body image, then summer-readiness will also involve cleansing yourself of certain psychologically toxic habits:
- If you repeatedly engage in bodychecking behaviors, you might spend a few days monitoring the frequency and types of checking you do. Get creative with strategies to stave off the behavior. Or, practice changing your less than helpful habits as soon as you become aware of them. For example, if you notice that you are pinching your arms to check out your muscles, you might play with a counteraction like purposefully placing your hands on a tabletop for 10 seconds.
- If you tend to spend too much time staring at yourself in the mirror, you could use that time to feel better, not worse, about yourself. There are a few techniques that have shown promise in scientific studies. The first is thought to improve our ability process information more globally. With this strategy, you work to replace disparaging self-talk with more neutral, descriptive language, as you look from head to toe. Noticing your hair as “a mass of light brown loose curls falling 3 inches past your chin” as opposed to “a frizzy mess” can encourage you to feel differently about it and yourself.
- If this feels tough, then try the second technique, which relies on principles of cognitive dissonance (that is, promoting a state of inconsistent thoughts and feelings to change your attitude). Using this approach, you would practice noticing something positive about yourself when you look in the mirror – your self, who you are as a person, not your appearance – to curb your inner critic.
- If you feel uncomfortable in certain types of clothing, like tank tops, practice wearing them more often rather than avoiding them altogether. You can do a series of experiments of increasing difficulty to expose yourself to your fears and challenge your assumptions. Start, for example, by wearing a tank top for an hour in your apartment, then to run an errand, to brunch with a friend, and finally out to party. Once the experiment feels boring (that is, your discomfort has mostly subsided), it’s time to move on to the next difficult item on the list.
No matter the specific behavior you are trying to change, it will first take increased awareness of the action and then many reps to achieve course-correction.
As the temperatures rise this season, aim to let cooler heads prevail by focusing on true summer fitness, physical and mental. You can use this summer to work on the “core” you by starting to ask yourself now, “What will help me strengthen my core self?”
An earlier version of this article was posted in the Huffington Post on May 12, 2014.