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The term “self care” has become increasingly more popular these days as an important part of healing our body image and improving our mental and physical health.
Despite its frequent use, many of us struggle with the idea of prioritizing ourselves and our needs. It seems selfish, rude and a little self indulgent. I spent years talking about the importance of self care in eating disorder recovery as a way to heal our body image, but if I’m being honest, I wasn’t always practicing what I preach.
Sure, I’d sometimes take a bubble bath and slap on a face mask and if that’s your thing, great! But if we look at the definition of self care, there is so much more to it.
So, what is self care and what are some ways you can foster a more positive body image and improve your mental and physical health?
Let’s look at the official definition of self care: Self care is care provided “for you, by you.” It's about identifying your own needs and taking steps to meet them. It’s about taking the time to engage in activities that nurture you, taking proper care of yourself and treating yourself as kindly as you treat others.
I like to think of self care in three layers:
Layer one: basic self care
This layer is about meeting your most fundamental needs, such as dressing and undressing yourself, feeding yourself, using the bathroom and washing and grooming yourself. We are privileged if we are able to practice basic self care and sometimes, this alone helps with stress management and a more peaceful life.
Layer two: physical self care
The second layer is basically the “upgraded” version of basic self care. It includes any additional habits or actions that take care of your physical needs. Aside from what I mentioned in the basic self care-layer, these include getting enough sleep, moving your body in ways you enjoy and are able to, resting your body when needed, getting a massage or stretching your body to release muscle tension.
Layer three: mental and emotional self care:
This final layer is about engaging in thoughts and activities that nurture your mental health and your overall outlook on life. The goal of this self care layer is to make you feel like your life is meaningful, that you belong and that you are enough.
It’s the layer that helps you heal your body image and foster more self esteem, which in turn positively effects your relationships as well as decrease your stress levels big time. I would argue that this is the most neglected layer of self care. Most of us rush through our day, frantically checking things off our do-to list, coming home at night feeling like we have nothing left to give to ourselves.
We fail to ask for help, because we’re either ashamed to admit we need it, or we don’t want to be a burden on other people. I can very much empathize with that, because I’ve been there plenty of times: burnt out, anxious, unable to sleep or shut my brain off at night.
If you can relate, I want you to consider just how much your mental and emotional well-being affect your life and the life of your loved ones. Your mental health matters and you deserve to make space for it.
Here are seven ways I take care of my mental health and foster more self confidence:
Reconnecting with my inner “mean girl” and giving her some love
We all have that little voice inside our heads that says some pretty nasty things. She seems to be in the background at all times, chatting our ear off about how we’re not good enough. What I’ve come to realize is that this inner voice of mine is afraid. It’s not a “mean girl”, it’s a little voice that’s afraid of judgement, afraid to be unloved or unappreciated and afraid to never feel like she belongs.
On days where she is extra loud, I like to take a few minutes to write down what she is saying to me. I let her voice all the things she’s afraid of, so I can get it out of my head and onto a piece of paper (or Google Doc).
What I do afterwards - and this is important - is respond back to her like I would to a loved one or a child that’s afraid. I try and write to her from a place inside of me that only has love and compassion to give. Cheesy, I know, but it works wonders. This little fear-voice wants to be heard and acknowledged, not ignored. So, let her speak, but be sure to write back to her and give her a big loving hug.
Take time in the morning to simply be with myself
I’ve made this a non-negotiable part of my morning routine. As soon as I get up, I make space for some “me time.”
Sometimes I write down three things I’m grateful for in my life and why, then I read them out loud to myself. Practicing gratitude has been a game changer for my mental health. Other times I take a few minutes to stretch or simply sit and take a few deep breaths. I go through my to-do list for the day and set an intention on how I want to show up for the day.
This may seem insignificant, but give this a try. Tackling your to-do list with the intention of being present or being kind makes a big difference. It helps you approach your day more mindfully, which in turn helps you to remain calm and not get overwhelmed as easily.
Cultivating body acceptance and body respect through a breathing exercise
Accepting and respecting our body after years of negative body image and self-hatred is a challenge. I’m the first to admit that this was really hard work and at times, it felt impossible.
Here’s one breathing exercise that helped me: se a timer for three minutes, sit comfortably, close your eyes. Breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds and breathe out for seven seconds.
It will feel uncomfortable at first. You might feel tempted to pinch your skin or say mean things to yourself. Resist the urge and simply sit and breathe. You can even repeat a mantra as you do it, such as, “Inhale confidence, exhale doubt.”
It calms your body down from years of stress and helps you reconnect with your body.
Cooking my favourite childhood meal or good-for-the-soul food
This helps tremendously on days where I feel lonely or disconnected. I spent years counting every single morsel of food that went into my body and punishing myself with vigorous exercise. Now that I have fought my way through recovery and body acceptance, I can enjoy food again and it has become a huge part of my mental self care.
I make sure I’m always well-fed, but taking that extra step to prepare a loving meal for myself is truly good for my soul and helps me feel more connected to myself.
Move my body in a way that is rooted in love and kindness
After taking a long break from exercise, I have slowly introduced it back into my life after my eating disorder recovery. My approach to movement has changed completely. When my body craves movement, I ask myself what kind of movement would bring me joy.
Sometimes, it’s a walk with my dog, other times it’s a little solo dance party in my kitchen or a yoga class. However, I don’t exercise with the intention of “burning calories” or “making up for what I ate.” These intentions aren’t rooted in love and kindness, so I catch myself when these thoughts creep in and course correct pretty quickly.
I highly recommend trying this approach and experiencing it’s benefits. Your body will thank you, because that love and kindness decreases stress levels big time. It also really helps in healing your body image, because you learn to respect your body, instead of punishing it.
Asking for help and getting support from a therapist
I couldn’t have worked through all my trauma without the help of my therapist. Therapy, in combination with temporarily being on medication, saved my life. The lessons and tools I learned in therapy will stay with me forever.
If you don’t have access to therapy in person, check out sites like Better Help or Talk Space for online therapy. Also, check out this article for some tips on what to do if you can’t afford therapy.
Following Instagram accounts that are inspiring and uplifting (and unfollowing those that don’t fit this narrative for me)
When you scroll through your Instagram feed and stories next time, pay attention to how certain accounts make you feel. Do they inspire you? Uplift you? Make you smile or challenge you in good ways? If not, it may be time to do a little unfollow-spree on your social media accounts.
Follow people that make you feel good, but open yourself up to a wide variety of accounts that maybe aren’t body-related at all.Think cute animals or funny meme accounts; content that takes your mind off of your body and off of comparison mode is key.
Remember, the relationship between your mind and your body is like any other relationship: it needs a lot of TLC, it needs connection, it craves belonging. Treat your body and your mind like they deserve to be treated.
Don’t be mean to yourself, don’t punish yourself and don’t starve your body. You deserve to take care of yourself on all three layers and you deserve to ask for help if you feel you need support.
Be kind to yourself and please don’t judge yourself if you’re having a bad day. It’s okay.
My last tip is to have a list of actions/activities to engage in if you’re having a bad day. Maybe these include laying in bed and watching a movie on Netflix, maybe it’s going for a walk or it could simply be the act of doing nothing.
I urge you to not feel guilty for “not being productive”. Sometimes this is the most productive thing you can do to support your mental and emotional self care.