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A Former Exotic Dancer...

A Former Exotic Dancer on Building a Better Body Image

If you're struggling with your body image, you're not alone. To find out how to improve our body image and what causes negativity about our bodies in the first place, we turned to the experts. 

Having a positive body image is easier said than done. No one knows this better than body image coach, writer, and former exotic dancer Sheila Hageman who struggled with eating disorders and self-esteem issues before she was able to accept herself and her appearance. We talked with the author of Stripping Down about the concrete steps women can make to start liking what they see in the mirror. 

It seems unrealistic to expect to like everything you see in the mirror. How would you describe a positive body image?
SH: As human beings we are programmed to judge things in opposites, so we tend to see either the good or the bad in things—including ourselves. For many people, especially women, when we look in a mirror we usually focus right in on what we dislike the most rather than what we like the most.

It’s perfectly normal to see parts of us that we’re not thrilled about some mornings; I’m not going to lie and say I love it when I have a giant pimple on my chin! Having a positive body image is not about thinking everything we see in the mirror is physically perfect because no one is “perfect.” Having a positive body image is about being able to look in the mirror and accept what we see. Learning how to actually love what we see (pimples and all) may take a little more time, but I do believe it’s possible to achieve that state of wisdom.

Some women feel as if they are either born with confidence or not. Or their either born liking their appearance or not. But do you think a positive body image is something someone needs to practice?
SH:
Positive body image is absolutely something we need to practice. My childhood was spent feeling very shy and not having much confidence. I struggled with my body image as a teen after finding my father’s porn magazines and thinking that’s what a woman was supposed to look like. Skinny, flat-chested me felt totally confused. I looked nothing like those women. Was that what I should strive for?

After many years of struggling with an eating disorder and of trying to become what I thought would be a “perfect” woman, I fell into the very life I had seen in those magazines—I became a nude model and stripper. My livelihood was dependent on what my body looked like. It took me many more years of practicing accepting the body I had for me to feel really healed. The key was practice. I didn’t just wake up one day and love myself. I read books, attended workshops and wrote about my relationship to my body. The confidence in myself and my body evolved slowly. 

What steps specifically can a woman do to begin to cultivate a better self-image or relationship with her body?
SH: The first step, as cliché as it may sound, is for a woman to admit she wants to cultivate a better self-image or relationship with her body. Once the “problem” has been recognized, the mind begins looking for ways to solve it. I recommend writing as a path of self-reflection on a woman’s quest for understanding and self-acceptance. It can be as simple as taking fifteen minutes a day to write in a journal reflecting on her relationship to her body. She can ask herself questions such as: "how do I feel about my body?" "How did I feel about my body and self as a child?" "What were the messages I received from others that I believed and bought into?" "When and why did my relationship change with my body?" "How would I like to feel about my body?"

Another wonderful method to cultivate a stronger relationship with her body would be to begin a simple yoga practice. Yoga was what really started me on the journey to wellness. There are so many classes and videos available today; there really can be a right match for just about any interest, whether it be a very aerobic-style yoga or an extra-gentle yoga. The act of giving attention to the body through thoughts and actions will start an amazing process of self-discovery and acceptance.

Why do you think we, women especially, focus on the negative when they look in the mirror?
SH:
I believe women often fall prey to the world of over-stylized beauty “imagery” that is around them every day. There is no escape from the idealized body image seen in the media. When we have become so accustomed and indoctrinated into thinking women are supposed to look a certain way, when we look in the mirror and see something else reflected back, it can feel disheartening. Through practice we can focus on what we love about ourselves rather than what we see as less-than-perfect. Through appreciating what we admire about ourselves physically, we will begin to appreciate those areas of ourselves that we don’t find as pleasing. By starting with the focus on what we already like, we can build our self-esteem muscles to really love all parts of ourselves.

What do you think is the main culprit preventing so many women from having a healthy relationship with their body? Is it external pressures or something internal?
SH: While I believe the outer world has a large effect on modern day women’s relationships with their bodies, the most difficult pressures often come from the internal voices that may have started out as well-meaning adults’ advice in our lives. The negative voices and messages that we learned as children become lodged in our minds and bodies until they become our own voices, our own feelings. As we grow up into women we carry along those voices that are forever comparing ourselves with others. Luckily, as adults, we can take the time to recognize what is happening and find ways to counteract those internal messages. 

How did you deal with your own struggles with eating disorders? Would you say you have a positive body image now?
SH:
For me it was a slow recovery process that was born from the still voice within me which proved to be stronger than all the negative voices. The most important step was for me to admit I had a problem. Through the support and love of family and friends I learned that I really was lovable just as I was. I now have a positive body image which doesn’t revolve around how much I weigh at any given point. I am not perfect, though, and I accept that even with usually feeling good about my body, I still have days where I wish my thighs were thinner or my belly wasn’t so thick. The difference is that now I don’t jump to conclusions about what that means about me. I accept the feelings and examine them—see what I can learn from the negative thoughts and what actions (if any) I want to take. I am constantly monitoring my thoughts and feelings about myself and my body image, uncovering new information about this journey I am on.

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