Body-Image Exercise Through Art

Developing healthy body image is a bit of a concoction… 1 part acceptance, 2 parts forgiveness, 10 parts self-compassion and so on.

To date, I have not met anyone who has never had periods of poor body image. I’m not saying they don’t exist, I just think it’s a human thing to experience at some point in life. And, unfortunately, for many, this experience is more than just a “period” in their life, versus what they have always known or experience day to day.

Often, we get caught up in what our body looks like… or perhaps, what it doesn't look like. The negative voices that dominate our thoughts telling us: I’m too bald, I’m not bald enough. I’m too short, I’m too tall. I’m too fat, skinny, wrinkly, pimply, and so on and so on. It’s exhausting. So, for today, I want to shift away from what our bodies look like and focus on what they do for us. Thanks to Eve Tesluk, a professional art therapist in Guelph, for introducing me to this exercise to do with my clients. 

Thanks to my colleague Megan Callon for supplying me with the drawn figure you will see below to demonstrate an exercise I often do with my clients. As always, please note this drawing is just one of the many different shapes, sizes and forms bodies come in and is not meant to represent an 'ideal' (remember, health at every size!!). Also, the individual described below is fictitious.

Here’s a picture of what you will need.

I get clients to think about what they like to do and how their body experiences these things. Through colours and symbols, I get them to draw/colour where on/in their bodies they experience these activities. By doing so, we are moving away from appearance, and more on its function.

This individual below, appreciates their feet as it allows them to skate, their fingernails as they often get painted funky colours and their hair that allows them to express themselves in various colours and lengths. They enjoy watching movies, smelling nature and feeling the warmth of the sun on their shoulders and body. They appreciate their fingers and toes that help give them balance as well as to wear rings.They appreciate their ears and the ability to listen to sounds, especially laughing or the deep quiet the night can bring. When they feel empowered, they see it in orange, both in their mind and their heart. They enjoy their tongue/mouth as it enables them to eat ice cream.

They acknowledge the struggle they have with their thighs and stomach, however know without the strength that comes from these areas, they would be unable to do so much of what they love. They symbolized this to remind them these areas are their powerhouse that gets them through their day. 

Often, the drawer will neglect symbolizing or colouring certain areas of their figure. More times than not, it is these areas that they need help with reframing or finding its purpose. Everyone will have a different reason for why they struggle with a particular area. Some feel betrayed by their body. Sometimes it’s finding the little things, like the fact skin helps contain our bits, blood and guts, protecting us from the world, that helps start developing a different narrative. It’s function doesn’t have to be mind blowing. It just has to be something that helps reframe how they think or see their body. Perhaps, it’s being thankful that one of their two ears can hear, or one of their two eyes doesn’t cause them pain.

And as always, developing a healthier or more tolerable relationship with one's body is a process. This exercise is just another way of exploring a different aspect of what are bodies can do, and in turn, part of who we are. Give it a try and talk it over with your therapist or trusted support.  As always, practice compassion and think outside the box society likes to put us in! And, if you liked processing thoughts, emotions and issues through art, check out Eve Tesluk in Guelph, ON, or another professional art therapists in your area. 

Teaching About Body Image Through Games

A few weeks ago I went to an ugly sweater Christmas party (yup... in an elf onesie!) and the host introduced "Pictionary Telephone" to me.  It's an easy party game to play with a group of people. Everyone begins by writing a phrase on a piece of paper, then passes it to their right.  The person looks at the phrase, and then attempts to draw it (no words allowed) on a blank piece of paper. It gets passed to the right, where the person receiving it writes what they think was drawn. The stacks of paper makes its way around the room until you get back the phrase you wrote at the beginning of the game. So, if you're playing with 10 people, there will be 10 stacks of paper (10 sheets each) that are simultaneously getting passed to the right each time. At the end of the game, each participant goes through the stack of paper, trying to make sense of the sequence of words and drawings. Ultimately, the goal is for the last drawing to be as accurate as the first saying. 

Here's an example, all on one sheet of paper. 

Last week, I was reinvented to speak to a class of high school students in Guelph, ON. I thought it would be fun to play this game, with a twist. I had all the students start with a phrase that included something cool, or something they liked, or something positive about bodies (their own or just in general). Sidenote...the poor girl who got my initial phrase. I had written, "Eyes are the window to your". Yup... totally forgot to write the word "soul". Anyways... eventually, after many many laughs, giggles and "how the heck am I supposed to draw that" comments, we all got our phrases back. And, you guessed it... they all came back twisted and not on par with what was originally written. I asked the class whether or not what they had written on the first piece of paper was true. They all nodded. I then asked them if even though the message got distorted along the way, did it somehow make the original phrase false. They shake their heads.  I then broadly asked them what they thought I was trying to get them to think about regarding body-image. Here's what I got: 

- people might judge or talk negatively about your body, but that doesn't mean it is true. Nor should you doubt what you initially wrote, even though the message came back distorted.

- you might say negative things about your body over the years, but that doesn't take away from the fact there are many positive things about it

There are so many influences that affect how we think and feel about our bodies. Somewhere along the way, for many, the message gets twisted, distorted and negatively interpreted. At the beginning of the talk, I had the class think of their baby picture. I had them think about if that baby deserved to hear all the negative things they were saying to themselves now. It wasn't a cruel guilt trip... l just wanted them to think about what changed from that picture and all the positive things they felt toward it, versus now. Did that baby not have worth because their arms were chubby, or maybe, underweight? Did that baby not deserve to have people love it because it's feet were large, or because it was bald? Had they messed up too many times in life since that picture was taken to feel that way again? Had too much 'life' happened to feel worth a second time?

It takes work, forgiveness and a desire to try... but I believe healing and a healthy sense of body image is possible. Start by saying positive things to yourself and your body, despite what everyone else is saying. Give your  body the benefit of the doubt and trust it knows what it is doing. Recognize its worth, even if you've gone a long time believing the opposite. Take a step back to think critically as to why you feel so negatively about your body, challenging whatever you uncover (such as speaking up again fat talk at the office/locker room/class and the latest diet fad).  

Talk with a therapist to help you get back to what you first initially wrote about your body. Maybe, it's been so long that you can't fully remember what it was that you liked or felt. That's okay!  Talking with someone can help! It's okay to start liking what your body does, even if you can't fully accept how it looks. It's a start! For example, one may not like the size of their feet, but can appreciate that it helps them get around. One might feel frustrated with the shape of the buttocks, but can appreciate that it provides a soft cushion to sit on. The important thing is to start saying something positive and build from there!