For women, when it comes to our bodies, are we ever happy? When given a compliment about our appearance, why is it our default to deflect it and point out something else that is wrong? For example, today I saw my friend at the gym. We’ve both been training hard and her efforts have really paid off—her arms are so strong and toned! I had to compliment her, I am just so proud and inspired. The convo went something like this:
Me: “Kate you are looking great! Your arms are so buff!”
Kate: “Ugh I wish my fat legs would show some muscle.”
At first we laughed together, then, after she walked away, I realized: her legs DO show a lot of muscle. She just doesn’t see it. Why? Because she has the negativity bias blinders on.
The negativity bias (also known as the negativity effect) refers to the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things. In other words, something very positive will generally have less of an impact on a person’s behavior and cognition than something equally emotional but negative. (yep, got that on Wikipedia).
The negativity bias is a survival mechanism, but it got me thinking, as women, are we EVER happy with our bodies? I know a few ultra tri-athletes, Olympic runners, a lot of Crossfitters, and some friends with insanely perfect genes (oh you know who you are), and all of us complain about our appearance here and there. Are women just wired that way? My husband and brothers don’t do that. I have a lot of close male friends, they never put themselves down (except for sport or humor, which I totally love and support, see below). Yet women do it all of the time.
Well in fact, we are wired that way. The negativity bias is Mother Nature’s way of keeping us on our toes. A study performed at Ohio State found that there is an increase in neural firing in the brain when people were shown negative images compared to when they were shown positive images. We differentiate negative and positive events in just a tenth of a second, but the negative grabs our attention. For example, when shown a paper grid with dozens of smiley faces on it and one angry face, people instantly zoom in on the one angry face. Reverse the pattern, and it takes people much longer to find the one smiley face. Our brain is wired this way to protect us.
But as women we use it to hate on ourselves (and, subsequently, each other). Well, I’m tired of it. Beauty comes in many shapes and sizes, and there is no way I’m going to allow magazine editors to tell me what beauty is or isn’t. Taken a look at a magazine stand lately? Magazines for men = hot women on the covers. Magazines for women = hot women on the covers. Um, excuse me—I’ll take more of Channing Tatum magazine covers thank you! (Have you seen Magic Mike XXL? He’s so….talented.)
I’m lucky. I’ve always had naturally high self-esteem. I have a family who raised me to love myself. As I get older, similar to staying in shape, it’s something I continually have to work on. Humor makes me happy, and hence I often make fun of myself. I deeply enjoy a good laugh, especially if I’m the ‘butt’ of the jokes. I once had a friend who said to me (in front of a room full of people, including my husband’s boss, I might add), “You’re always making fun of yourself. I don’t think it’s funny. I think you’re doing it because you don’t love yourself enough and are masking something deeper. You need to stop joking about yourself.” UHHH, stop. nope. wrong. Once my humiliation and anger wore off, I realized she didn’t understand me in the slightest bit. She couldn’t understand how someone can make fun of herself without, some passive-aggressive level, actually meaning it. Not surprisingly, and thankfully, we’re not friends any more. Contrastingly, one of my closest friends of 10 years always laughs when I joke about myself. I love her for it. When we hang out it seems that no matter how serious the conversation, we are ALWAYS having a laugh.
“Be able to laugh at yourself, and you’ll live longer and happier.”
I have no problem with self-effacing humor because I am comfortable with ME. I fully love and accept my body, and myself even when I’m not at my goal weight or not running as fast or lifting as much as I want. (My workout goals are never satisfied, I do admit.) But I LOVE MYSELF and choose not to look at everything I hate about my body, but instead my assets (pun intended, ladies). I once read, “Self-effacing laughter is the best laxative for loosening a stuck up sense of self.” Joan Rivers is the perfect example of this, as that woman never ceased to make people smile (or gasp). There is, btw, such a thing as Laughter Yoga. Seriously! It makes me laugh just thinking about it!
So, how can we change things? How can we turn our body image from an automatic negativity effect into a positive one? Well, it’s no easy task, and in addition to therapy and wine (both of which I strongly believe in), here are 3 ACTION STEPS to point you in that direction.
1) Accept a compliment. If someone says something nice, just accept it. Don’t make an excuse, a re-direction, or highlight something else you hate about yourself. Just accept the love you receive.
2) Stop the mental negative chatter. When the mind changes, the brain changes, too. My friend who is a sport psychologist told me that on average humans have anywhere from 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. But according to some research, as many as 98% of them are exactly the same as we had the day before and 80% of our thoughts are negative. So he gave me some advice (and I swear totally works to keep you uplifted all day): Every time you leave your house, or walk into a room, tell yourself something positive.
I like to say, “I may not be perfect, but parts of me are pretty darn awesome.”
Recognize a negative or limiting thought and consciously choose to change it. It’s a good way to stop that negative self-critical chatter going on in your brain, and put you on the path toward Mindfulness. And your body will reward you for it: focusing your attention on positive information triggers the release of the ‘happy’ chemicals, like endorphin, serotonin and oxytocin. These little actions really add up over time.
3) Laugh at yourself. I call it the therapeutic art of self-effacing laughter. There’s liberation and power in it. The sheer act of laughing can improve mental and physical health.
As Mickey Mouse says, “To laugh at yourself, is to love yourself.”
That being said don’t make passive-aggressive, self-deprecating cracks, because that’s not really funny. A higher form of humor is to be able to poke fun at yourself or at a situation, or see humor in the foibles of the human condition. We are a funny species and to be able to laugh at ourselves makes life much easier. After all, “the most wasted of all days is the one without laughter.” E.E. Cummings.