Recently, a tweet stopped me in my scrolling tracks. Writer Emmie Harrison-West had perfectly summarised a paradoxical experience that so many of us can relate to, in 280 characters or less: "Being a woman is thinking you're ugly and looking back at pictures when you also thought you were ugly at the time and being like 'Omg I was so hot'. And never actually remembering what it was like to be hot at that time... because you thought you were ugly."
After screen-grabbing and sending to my group chats (and receiving a stream of "OH MY GOD SAME"s in response), I went from feeling seen to feeling curious. Why is it that we can have such a different, kinder, view of ourselves when it's retrospective? Sometimes just a few months on, when we likely look pretty much the same? Over 262,000 people have since liked Harrison-West's tweet, meaning it's certainly a widespread issue.
According to Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, part of the reason we see ourselves in a new light later down the line is to do with developing a stronger sense of self (and self-acceptance), ageing and having the space to be more objective.
"Women receive a lot of added pressures growing up, especially when it comes to appearances and how they 'should' look," Dr Touroni explains. "This can lead to a lot of self-doubt and a critical inner dialogue [but] as we grow older, we’re generally less impressionable. Many of us will find that we naturally start to become more comfortable in our own skin."
This is definitely something I can attest to firsthand (although, sad as it is, I think I've still got a way to go before I'm fully happy with everything I see reflected back at myself in the mirror). Following body confidence influencers, and purposefully seeking out images of different body shapes and sizes, including deliberately following people who look similar to me in a bikini, has massively helped too.
If we're not exposed to a variety of bodies, we're at risk of walking through life thinking we're inadequate in some way (because, says our mind, why else would we only be seeing the same types of people plastered up on billboards, or being praised for their appearances on TV?). We can then silently, without even being consciously aware of it, start trying to cram ourselves into that box of what's 'acceptable' too.
The expression 'time is a healer' also comes into play here: "When we’re looking at pictures, we’re observing a memory," says Dr Touroni. "We’re further removed from the feelings and experiences of the time. It’s easier to take a more objective viewpoint when we’re no longer living with the same insecurities [or obsessing over that particular hang-up]."
Crucially, I also ask, how can we break that depressing cycle of negativity and poor body image? "If low self-esteem is something you struggle with in a more general sense, I would encourage you to turn your attention inwards," she advises. "Work out where these feelings of defectiveness and inadequacy started. Issues with low self-esteem often stem from childhood, therapy is a great place to start exploring them."
Dr Touroni is clear that by tackling those "feelings of defectiveness at their core and healing those parts of ourselves", we’ll naturally begin to "develop a more compassionate inner voice". The theory being that the more positive voice will then remain with us throughout the rest of our lives (research actually shows our self-esteem levels peak at the age of 60 too), or at least put up a stronger fight against our inner critic.
Of course, sometimes self-esteem issues can go deeper than simply feeling a bit down on yourself, manifesting as body dysmorphia or disordered eating. For many this isn't the case, but if you find yourself becoming preoccupied with your appearance, or notice yourself changing your eating behaviours based on this, then make sure you visit your GP for help and support.
On a personal level, I think that as we grow older and we experience more of what life has to offer – both good and bad – our perspective shifts too. This last year alone has certainly cemented that for me: our health is the most precious thing we have.
Losing a loved one has re-framed all of the many (many) hours I've spent stressing over whether or not my stomach looks "acceptable", or if my upper arms are too "doughy". That's not to say I'll never have those thoughts again, but I now find myself more often than not wondering 'What else could I have achieved with all that wasted brain energy?' instead. Looking at old pictures and being taken by surprise further cements the feeling that maybe, my inner critic was tricking me after all. Why is it so 'bad'/hard to say nice things about, or to, ourselves?
Now, I'm choosing to remind myself on the daily that I should be grateful for what my body can do (it keeps me alive, it lets me dance around my front room, it allows me to take big gulps of fresh air while out on a walk - something that others no longer have the privilege of doing). Focussing on that, and what brings me joy, over what doesn't, is proving beneficial. I don't want to spend the rest of my life longingly looking back at photos but never feeling good, or at least neutral, in the present.
While it's probably impossible to wake up every day and automatically love every single inch of ourselves for the entire duration of it, if there's one thing that we can take from Emmie's tweet it's that maybe, our negative thoughts aren't always accurate. So let's try to fill our minds with – and do the work to encourage – those kinder 'retrospective' ones instead.
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