Body image: a Buddhist perspective

Apparently, “body image” is how we see ourselves when we look in the mirror or when we picture ourselves in our mind. And how we think others see us. That sounds about right, as does flowersthe common notion that body image is related to self-esteem at all ages.

No surprises, really, considering we impute or label our sense of self on our body an absurd amount given that we have minds as well – thinking “I am ugly”, “Cor, I’m gorgeous”, “What must they think of my jowls?” And we limit others by identifying them with their bodies too, as explained here, even though all of us are infinitely more deep and interesting than a meaty pile of gristle and sloshing liquids could ever be.

If we are identifying our body as the cornerstone of who we are, basing our worth and value on our physical appearance, we are highly susceptible to insecurity, depression, emotional pain, and lack of self-confidence. And, at whatever age, this in turn interferes with our ability to live a happy, healthy, and productive life.

Selfie faces

I learned a new expression this weekend in Los Angeles – when someone took a photo of a beautiful young woman and me, she yanked the phone right out of his hands and said, “Hey, let me see that, you can’t post it, I need to make it Facebook-ready.” And she wasn’t talking about me, even though I needed a lot more photoshopping than she did. Obsession with the perfect body image has apparently reached epidemic proportions – girls everywhere are doing that duck face and fishy gape thing with their mouths and then photoshopping the image to lose ten pounds before they can possibly release it to their friends, even though their friends see them all the time and presumably aren’t fooled for a second.

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It’s not just my teenage nieces (who are already perfectly gorgeous without all that make-up if you ask me) – some studies say up to 91% of women are dissatisfied with how they look. (So, well done if you are in the remaining 9%, you’re doing something right 😄 ) Apparently it may be just as many men too, but they don’t want to talk about it – though I have spotted at least a few glancing covertly at themselves in shop windows and sucking in their stomachs. Not that they’ll probably ever do much about that extra weight around the midriff other than feel disappointed, any more than most of the 91% of women. But at least it looks like we are all feeling silently self-disgusted together 😉

Disclaimer aka embarassing story: I’m not even overweight, technically, but I recently found myself drinking only Nutribullet smoothies for several days in an attempt to dislodge some pounds so I could once again zip up the ex-jeans of an impossibly skinny friend, and just generally be more lean and mean. With the result that (1) I was ravenous and light-headed, (2) my smoothies were nowhere near as delicious, let alone filling, as they looked on the box (my carrot juice — how hard is carrot juice?! — was the consistency of cardboard and had to go straight down the sink), and (3) worst of all I found myself unusually preoccupied with the scales. Then one day last week I decided: “To heck with this! What a horrible waste of my energy. I’m just going to eat healthy (hey, lucky I’ve got a Nutribullet!), think about others instead, and let the rest take care of itself.” And then I thought, “I’m going to write an article about this body image thing.”

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RIP Leonard Cohen

Interesting, isn’t it, that we (me) spend almost no time worrying about anyone else’s food intake or weight?! That when someone else (other than my dad) puts on fifteen pounds it’s like, “Meh, you can lose that if you want, no big deal, I can’t even tell”, whereas when we put on five pounds it’s like a freaking catastrophe. The hours thinking about our own physical flaws can add up fast, but we are rarely so concerned about others’. No wonder Geshe Kelsang says that our body is one of the biggest objects of our self-cherishing. This is even when it is healthy, let alone when it is sick or ageing or dying.

So-called “distorted” or “negative body image” is a distorted perception of our shape, leading us to feeling self-conscious or awkward in our own body, and to a greater likelihood of depression, low self-esteem, and an unhealthy relationship with food.

(Sometimes this becomes extreme, as in the case of body dysmorphia and anorexia, in which case professional support is advisable until it is back to manageable levels. Just in case you are listening: You need your body to be healthy to help yourself and others, you are by no means alone in the struggle to get better, you are completely wonderful and wanted and needed, so please, please ask for help.)leonard cohen 2.jpg

In general, with meditation we can learn to dissolve negative thoughts and feelings away, and power up the mind with positive, affirming, and accepting ideas of who we are instead. We can understand that a person’s physical appearance says zero about their real worth, and that the beauty and kindness of the mind is so much more important and fulfilling. This’ll help us feel comfortable and confident in our own body, and not to lose all those fruitless hours to worrying uncontrollably about food or weight or how others are judging us. It’ll also save a ton of time spent on photoshopping, looking in the mirror, and over-the-top diets.

But sometimes we need to loosen our grip on our body first, undermine the bad habit we have of identifying with it so persistently. So, since an exaggerated preoccupation with our body is part of our ignorance that can and does cause a lot of us a lot of problems, it is really helpful to use the meditation on the true nature — the emptiness — of the body to get rid of it.

So, here is the next article: There is nothing out there, out there.

Meantime, comments welcome! What helpful thoughts do you use if you notice you are spending too much time worrying about how you look? If you have never been bothered about it, what is your secret?!

Related articles:

What do you see when you look at a stranger?

Oh woe is me! How to stop distracting ourselves from happiness

Who do you want to be when you die?