Present, Not Perfect: Developing a Positive Body Image

When it comes to finding and keeping a positive body image, most of us end up feeling like failures, or ducking out of the race altogether. Sadly, many of us are convinced, consciously and unconsciously, that perfect is possible, and that no matter how hard we try, we are not it.

Along with the illusion of perfect possibility, we buy into the myth that when we reach that perfect body, then we will be happy or successful or peaceful, or all three. Some of us take the illusion even further. We are waiting until we find acceptance of our bodies in order to show up in the world as our authentic selves. We believe that if we don’t look the part, we won’t be able to take ourselves seriously, and that others won’t find us worthy of hearing. We fall prey to the voices of our internal critics, reminding us constantly that we are not enough.

I know this struggle all too well. I was brought up in a family system, and in a culture, where what I looked like was the measure of my worth. Not a measure—the measure. It didn’t matter to me whether I was positively impacting those around me, or being a part of creating change in the world. I was too caught up in other people’s acceptance of me, and wrongly convinced that their acceptance was based on the conditions of my physical beauty. Imagine the misguided effort, and time not well spent, that this created in my life.

Others of us sit on the other end of the pendulum. We find it difficult, or even vain, perhaps, to consider body acceptance as necessary. Perhaps we ignore or deny that our body is the temple that is carrying our soul, and do not develop a relationship to our body that is caring or nourishing. Instead, we focus on our mind. We think, we know, we understand—but we don’t always feel. And we don’t feel the wisdom of our bodies, and receive the teachings of them, because we have limited ourselves by separating our bodies from our minds. To us, the idea of creating a positive body image seems not only impossible, but a waste of time. We believe that the soul is here to do its work in the world, and that the body is simply a vehicle for that purpose. And yet, we don't care for the vehicle, not seeing the impact this devaluation may have on our ability to show up fully for ourselves and for each other.

Either path—and many well-worn roads between these two—lead us to a place where our mind is not in connection to our body, nor in alignment with our heart. This separation makes integration impossible.

The middle path to body acceptance is just that: integration. It’s bringing together the mind, body, and soul. It’s connecting the severed cords among the three, and then becoming present to what each contains. And here’s the good news: It’s possible. For all of us. That’s right, for every single one of us, no matter what kind of physical or mental shape we currently inhabit.

What can replace our striving for perfectionism in the body, as well as the denial of the body’s needs, is presence.

When we become present to the sensations in the body, we open the possibility for our body to teach us what it needs, how it feels, and why. As we learn to listen to the subtle sensations of the body, we can slowly develop the capacity to sit with them, and, as Rumi says in his poem “The Guest House,” to invite them in for tea. With practice, we begin to link the body’s sensation to our emotional responses: a tightness in the heart to a feeling of longing, the sensation of heat on the back of the neck to a feeling of anger, sweaty palms to a feeling of anxiety. Then we can use our emotions as teachers. They are here to show us something that we need in order to navigate our environment with more ease, without causing harm. 

Our capacity to sit with emotions allows each of us to be informed and aware. This awareness allows us to act mindfully, consciously, and with kindness. We create more attunement to our moment-to-moment experience with ourselves and with each other. It is this presence that creates contentment. It is from this presence that acceptance arises.

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