As a psychology major, I am very familiar with the strong influence that the environment can have on one’s behavior. The environment has the potential to elicit certain, repeated responses to normally neutral stimuli. I recognize that this sounds a bit jargony, so I’ll try to break it down as best I can for the purpose of this post.
Our bodies are naturally a neutral stimuli. In ancient times, the body was not glorified in the media nor was it intentionally starved, inundated with laxatives and diet pills, and forced to exercise even while exhausted or injured. The body was simply the mechanism that allowed humans to hunt, eat, reproduce, and sleep. Ancient humans did not have any emotional ties to their bodies– no hatred, no obsessive thoughts about their fat, no guilt after eating a hearty meal. It sounds heavenly, until you remember that these ancient people did not have the comforts of modern day socialization (aka, no Netflix).
So, other than Netflix, what changed over the course of, say, hundreds of thousands of years? The answer is simple, really: society. More specifically, society’s values. As food became abundant, fashion became essential, and money infiltrated every aspect of living, humans turned on their bodies. Beauty was held as the highest standard, and anything less than beautiful was deemed “bad”. This led to children and adults developing poor self esteem and many people praising the diet industry as an angel sent from above.
What’s worse, the once-neutral body became objectified and judged, with either positive words (beautiful, thin, fit, healthy) or negative words (ugly, fat, out of shape, unhealthy). Judging one’s body became a means for social acceptance, and maintaining a neutral view of one’s body yielded rejection and ostracism.
But wait, those who developed eating disorders, which fed off this culture of judgement, were seen as vain. These men and women who judged their bodies harsher than anyone else were written off as self-absorbed and shallow. It would take years before eating disorders were recognized as a life-threatening mental illness, rooted in much more than society’s body image obsession.
And today, it seems as if society is even more obsessed with bodies. In this culture of insanity and glorified judgement of a once neutral object, how can anyone practice healthy acceptance of their bodies? The answer lies in a simple concept discovered long ago in psychology: conditioning. I’ve tried it myself and can vouch for its success.
One day, I grew weary of looking in the mirror and judging my body. So, I recalled one of the first lessons I learned in my psychology classes about the power of conditioning, and I gave it a shot. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I had trained myself to replace a natural response to a neutral stimuli with a positive response. In other words, I looked in the mirror and forced my first thought to be “You are beautiful.” Now, just three weeks later, as soon as I catch a glimpse of my reflection, my automatic response is “You are beautiful.”
My advice to anyone who has ever judged their body is to try replacing the judgment with a positive phrase or word, or even a neutral one, like “apple”. The goal in this exercise is to remove negative judgment and allow the body to exist as it is meant to exist. And hopefully someday, we will all stop judging something that is simply a part of life, as neutral as the air we breathe. Fight on, fellow warriors.