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.

Rigpa in Griffith Park.JPG

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.”

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?

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

20 thoughts on “Body image: a Buddhist perspective”

  1. As I age and find increasingly difficult to maintain the conceit that my body, on a good day, is a source of happiness, I rejoice that my practice connects me to my Buddha Nature that never has a bad hair day and delivers more and more with age.

  2. This article could not have come at a better time, Luna, as we three branch teachers in Niagara are teaching on Cultivating Self-Esteem this week. We’ll be quoting you for sure. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. As other commenters have pointed out, I know women are thought of as the people most affected by body image, but as a guy I have to say that my self-esteem was low for most of my life partly because of a strong negative body image, and how obsessed I was in how I *thought* others perceived me (it was also low because of strong attachmemt to my unfulfilled wishes). Self-cherishing is so paradoxical. Here I am thinking that I am the most special, important being in the universe, while another part of my mind is thinking that I am the lowest of the low, *because* such a supreme being as I should have a perfect body and doesn’t. It really is insane.

  3. Interestingly, this is not only about body image. The first time I was walking down a major street in Toronto in 1965 and I saw myself in a TV screen in a storefront I freaked out. As I moved around and watched the person in the screen moving around I said: “That’s not me!”. The first time I heard my voice on an answering machine when they started being used I said,” That’s not my voice!”. I had generic images of how I looked and how I sounded that were incorrect. We also have generic images about how our body looks. Singing is an interesting subject too; we usually have strong opinions about our voices and often debate with others. Listeners sometimes enjoy and sometimes don’t enjoy hearing our voice. We are like karmic conductors when we sing. Barbara Streisand is loved by some and she is hell-realmish for me to listen too, as is Whitney Houston. I am indifferent to the vast majority of voices and only a select few interest me and are enjoyable. The extent of the suffering in samasara is unimaginable for most of us most of the time. Seems to boil down to confusion ignorance and attachment. So many mistaken minds! We only get it right when we see emptiness directly and all the generic images of our reality dissolve…. body, mind, relationships, homes, cars, careers, dreams, families.

    Here’s a poem:

    Generic John

    Was on a mission
    Walking down a road
    Saw himself in a screen
    Putting on a show
    Wide open eyes
    Stopped and stared
    At the sight he saw
    Who is that guy
    Dressed like me
    Looking sort of cool?
    Looks a little more
    A fool!

    Sean Hunt Dec 5 2016 Windermere, UK

    1. Very good points. Depending on karma, we see different things. Mistaken karmic appearances. We need to rely on our relatively non-deceptive minds of love and compassion, and definitely on wisdom, as I tried to explain in this article called Beneficial believing.

      One common illustration of what I think you are talking about: someone can be attracted to our body one week out of karma and attachment, and then not interested the next week when the karma and attachment has changed — at which point no amount of dieting or make up or plastic surgery will help 😆 I wrote this article as a lead up to a couple of articles on the emptiness of our body because that is a very effective way to stop being so hung up with body image if we can learn to do it. Thank you for your perceptive and helpful comments and a great poem 😘

  4. Thanks Dear Luna for writing this article, and for all your wonderful articles.
    What helped me when I was struggling with an eating disorder when I was 15 (I was training to be a dancer so body image was a big deal in my world) was reading from the Bible. I wasn’t a Christian at the time but, in a moment of desperation, I turned to a Gideon’s Bible that I had been given at school. I was weighed down and worn out by my self-obsession, but didn’t know how to let it go, so I read a passage from the Gospel of Matthew that was listed at the back of the Bible under, “What to read when feeling weary”. I experienced incredible relief and tears streamed down my face as I read: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Just the thought that I could feel lighter and freer through learning to open my heart and love others like Jesus did, was a weight off my shoulders. I felt blessed and inspired to learn how to become a peaceful, kind and loving person.
    That moment of wishing to turn my mind to others was a turning point in my life, the start of a healing process, so for me there is no contradiction between learning to love yourself and learning to love others – they are just two sides of the same coin. How I wish that Learning to Cherish Others were a core subject at school; as Geshe-la explains, it’s the answer and the way forward. How outrageously lucky we are to have met Geshe-la! He gives us absolutely everything we need to unfold our love and make the most of this human body for the brief time that we’ve got it.

  5. “all of us are infinitely more deep and interesting than a meaty pile of gristle and sloshing liquids could ever be” will be my new tattoo 🙂

  6. Great article, would love to hear more on this, thank you Luna. For the first time last night in over, well must be 30 years, I decided to go out to a party (the local dog walker social at the pub – alcohol free for me 😉) with no make up and hair au natural. I was clean, freshly washed and clean clothes yet bare without my usual make up and hair “armour” – my beauty inside would carry me through, and it did. I actually had an hour or so extra in my day because of this and when I thought about the price of the products I apply, wow, I could easily instead spend that money on dharma activities. I will endeavour to continue, aware that fear may hold be back on occasion ☺️

  7. A wonderful article. I think body image affects men just as much although we don’t have the same pressure via the media. I still check my hair before I go out even though my head is shaved. Force of habit, I suppose. I know some nuns have phantom hair syndrome. I’m fortunate enough to see people from the inside now not the bag of flesh they reside in.

  8. Life eats life.
    Rather ouroborosly samsaric.
    Too many teeth around.
    Sure beats the heck outta me Luna – beam me up …. please!!.
    Or Compassion opportunity??.

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