Criticizing the body comes naturally to us. We criticize it like we criticize so much: our possessions, our surroundings, our associates. Just as we might feel ashamed of a dented car, an unsightly neighborhood, or unimpressive companions—thinking they diminish our worth—we feel shame about our bodies.
To stop criticizing the body requires a change in how we relate with it. The mind-body question is discussed elsewhere on this site. For now, let’s recognize that we often think of the body as something different from the mind, which implies a perceived relationship between the two.
In our culture, we consider the body a mechanical ‘thing,’ like an automobile. It is the vehicle we drive through life. We take it to the clinic for maintenance and, when necessary, to the hospital for repair. But do ‘things’ feel? Do they grow and heal? The body is not a thing; it’s a living being.
If we believe the mind ‘drives’ the body, and if the body is a living being, then aren’t we treating it like our slave? No wonder we criticize and abuse it. Yet if the body were our slave it would—like all slaves—be powerless. But consider how often we feel propelled by its urges. Arguably, the body drives us at least as much as we drive it. Perhaps the mind-body relationship is better described as a partnership.
In that case, we might ask ourselves: what is the quality of that partnership?
Why do people criticize their romantic partners? Because they believe a partner should do what they want. Mature people know this is nonsense. A good partner tells us the truth (not just what we want to hear), makes independent decisions (and doesn’t simply follow our lead), and employs tactics that complement (rather than mimic) our own. A high quality partnership is not based on criticism.
If we criticize our bodies, our partners in life, we are making the same mistake as the person who criticizes his or her spouse. We are not treating the body as a beloved. We are minimizing its gifts; we are mocking its wisdom; we are defying its power. Sooner or later, a relationship like this will end badly.
Building a better relationship means resisting the temptation to criticize. But how? Here are some possibilities:
- When we see something we don’t like, we can ask ourselves how this ‘flaw’ came to be. It can usually be traced to personal or genetic history. Did we inherit delicate skin from our ancestors? At some point in the deep past, that trait served a purpose. Does the body bear marks of age? We lived the years that left those marks; is it fair to blame the body for showing signs of wear?
- We can remember it’s unrealistic to expect perfection. Even actors and supermodels hide blemishes with makeup, clothing, hairstyles, and retouching. Human bodies are not stamped from molds in a factory; they grow in context and display their history. Nobody’s appearance is flawless.
- We can ask whether appearance is as important as we think. Sure, good looks grant advantages; that’s obvious and has been empirically demonstrated. But are those advantages of such importance? Another proven fact is that a person’s level of happiness isn’t greatly influenced by material circumstances once basic needs are met. How much happier would you truly feel if you looked different?
- Of course, body-criticism isn’t always about appearance. We also criticize when our bodies cause pain or limitation. In this case, we feel justifiably distressed. But do resentment and frustration lessen misery? Wouldn’t we find more ease if, rather than criticizing the body, we accepted its problems with forgiveness and compassion?
- Another strategy for blunting criticism is to remember all the ways our bodies support us. Despite blemishes, pains, and limitations, they give us life. Doesn’t it seem ungrateful to criticize them?