03 1 / 2012

You are beautiful. Right now. Today. Just as you are, just the way you look as you read those three words: You. Are. Beautiful. Say it slowly aloud, as if the phrase were a foreign language, for it probably is.

You are beautiful. Now say it in the first person singular.

I am beautiful.

Do you know that? If so, remind yourself of this glorious fact every day. If not, it is time to become beautiful in your own eyes. This will require a makeover of sorts, but not the kind you think. Learning to love the way you look has nothing to do with starting a diet or reshaping your eyebrows. Accepting and embracing your authentic beauty means seeing yourself from the inside out.

I love me, I love me not—I love me.

Beauty may only be skin deep, but there is nothing superficial about the complicated relationship that a woman has with her appearance. How you see yourself and how you think other people see you—your body image—is deeply connected to how you feel about yourself.

The effects of a negative body image can be devastating. If you don’t like the way you look, you probably don’t like the woman you are. And those feelings of worthlessness, self-consciousness, and inadequacy will insinuate their way into nearly every area of your life—into your friendships, your career, your romances, and, most importantly, your relationship with yourself.

A positive body image is equally powerful. It is not an instant solution to all of life’s problems, but a starting point, a spark that can set off a fabulous chain reaction. Loving how you look when you catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror or store window paves the path of self-love, and with that acceptance comes self-esteem, confidence, and authentic beauty, a radiance that glows from within. A beauty that is more than skin deep.

Looking in the mirror is a startling subjective experience. When facing her reflection, one woman may say to herself, “I wish my hips were smaller,” or “My fat hips make me ugly.” Or she could say, “My curves make me sexy.” In each example, the hips are the same—it’s how a woman feels about them that’s different. But where do these feelings come from? Whether or not you realize it, you’ve spent your entire life developing them, honing them, cloning them. Transforming the messages communicated by society, your family, your friends, your rivals, and your enemies into cellular memory.

"As preschoolers, boys and girls have already learned the lessons about physical appearance that our society teaches," explains psychologist Thomas Cash, author of "What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?" "They know that lovely Cinderella gets the prince; her ugly and mean stepsisters do not. From childhood on … we judge our self-worth by the physical standards we’ve absorbed." The world’s standards—to be extraordinarily thin, conventionally attractive, and forever young—are uncompromising and unrealistic, yet so pervasive in the media that women who do not conform (and who does?) feel flawed, inferior, unsuccessful, unlovable.

Society’s ideals are reinforced in children by parents who overemphasize the importance of appearance, consciously or unconsciously. Their messages, be they subtle or painfully obvious, are expressed in dozens of ways: Were you put on a diet as a child or compared unfavorably to a sibling? Or were you praised for your prettiness, made to feel that it was your looks that made you lovable? Did your father disparage your mother for the way she looked? Or did she obsess about her own appearance? Don’t discount the influence of friends and classmates: Being teased as a child or ostracized as a teenager can undermine the efforts of the most accepting parents.

Do you have memories of experiences that might have contributed to the way you see yourself today? As an adult, you may be able to “understand” them, to understand that your parents’ criticisms did not mean they didn’t love you, or that the bullies at school were acting purely out of their own insecurities. But this doesn’t make the memories any less hurtful or their hold on you any less powerful. However, facing them, before you face yourself in the mirror, is the crucial first step in reshaping your body image.

A lifetime pattern of self-denigration is not going to disappear overnight. You’re going to have to learn how to replace your automatic criticisms with praise. Self-admiration takes many forms. It can and should include the new compliments you pay to yourself everyday. But the most powerful self-compliment of all is honoring the promises you make to your own soul.

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