Outside In

My experience with cultivating positive body image may seem a bit backwards. I know many women who feel like they’ve only ever been valued for their looks, feel like so few people care about their life philosophies, goals, personalities, senses of humor. I felt like plenty of folks respected my inner self but no one saw or valued my beauty, my body, my physical self. And I felt that way for YEARS until I figured out that scads of people saw and valued my beauty, my body, my physical self. It was me. I was the one who couldn’t acknowledge what was good and sexy and amazing and gorgeous about my own body.

I already had the inside figured out, now I needed to work on the outside.

And since I’d already spent what felt like eons trying to change my body’s shape, size, and form, I started tinkering around with how I presented it to the world instead. I began to dress with care and creativity, shirk certain trends and seek garments that worked with my specific figure. As I learned about style and how it overlapped with my tastes and my body, I began to feel more confident. I began to BE more confident. I began to see and value my beauty, my body, my physical self.

It wasn’t until I had made some serious headway in the body image department that I began to feel everything merging in an organic, marvelously inevitable way. I’d loved my inner self for ages, but loving my outer self helped me to accept my whole self.

I cultivated positive body image from the outside in. I didn’t plan it that way, I don’t think it’d work for everyone, and, again, I can see how it might seem a bit backwards. But I’m kind of amazed by how successful my unorthodox methods have been. Perhaps they could work for you, too.

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  • My husband and I were talking about this very topic this morning! We both have found that developing our bodies’ capabilities for athletic performance has helped us to cultivate a positive body image. By focusing on the things our bodies can do, we found ways to love them that were independent of what they looked like. Then ironically, we’ve both ended up really liking the way our bodies look. But every time I’ve set out with the explicit goal of “liking the way my body looks,” I’ve failed. It just hasn’t ever worked out for me that way.

  • Very thoughtful post, Sal. I was always confident of my brainpower as a young woman, but thought I was rather plain (looking back, I was really just lovely). I think it took having my teeth straightened in my late 20’s to “see” myself as attractive. So I needed an external jolt, I suppose, to look as my whole self in a different light.

  • Amy

    Beautiful picture.

  • Amy

    I think my journey is a little of both. I’m pretty good with myself internally and have a good share of confidence. But I’m uncomfortable and shy with ever showing off what I’ve got. In part this may be just that I don’t know how to dress to suit my pear shape and it’s hard for me to find fun things that suit me now that I’m middle aged.

    I was so excited to find your blog – I love your style and your boldness!

  • rb

    Yes, I completely relate to how you feel/felt. I used to joke in college, “He only wants me for my mind.” 🙂

    The good news is, we’re still smart & we can experiment with the external stuff. It’s hard to impossible to go the other way.

  • Iris

    I’m in the process of doing this exactly the same way (not going to claim I’ve entirely succeeded yet), and your blog was incredibly important in helping me learn how to do that. It was by realizing that I could dress in ways which flattered my current shape, that I wasn’t helplessly doomed to look terrible because of my physical attributes and that there were actually parts of me that deserved to be highlighted and shown off, not just parts that needed to be hidden away, that I started to feel happy about my physical self, and to elicit compliments and recognition of it from others – I was always quite happy with, and felt that other people only noticed, my intellectual self. And, paradoxically, it was learning how to look good the way I was which started me off in the process of doing away with the compulsive overeating and self-imposed inertia that was the cause of a lot of my body image woes!

    • Sal

      Iris, you ROCK! I’m delighted to hear you’re making such incredible strides. WOOHOO!!

      • Iris

        Thank you! And I really have to thank you for writing this awesome blog, as well. It constantly inspires me. 🙂

        It’s difficult to achieve self-love and deal with an eating disorder at the same time. I was in denial about it for the longest time, even through a period when I wasn’t doing it any more (recently I’ve had a relapse, though). I’ve only been able to up and aknowledge that I have a problem with compulsive overeating for, what, a month or two? And I’ve been doing it for something like 6 years. It’s a tough one to come out with, because people either seem to equate it with gluttony or go “You go, girl! Don’t you let society’s bogus standards of beauty keep you from having that chocolate.” Which is a really good sentiment that I wholly agree with, but which maybe shouldn’t be applied to stuffing yourself to the point of physical discomfort, a lot of the time with food I don’t even particularly enjoy… And then there’s the nice little equation that overeating + new-found awareness of own body and desire to lose weight = very easy to develop bulimia… Haha. I’m fighting it and I’m hopeful, though. 🙂 I’m making progress all the time, and after all relapse is part of the transtheoretical model of change!

        I seem to have ended up oversharing and going off topic all at once. Sorry! These thoughts have been buzzing around in my mind for a while and it was nice to put words to them.

  • Molly

    Recently I was talking to a teenage relative who has always had one boyfriend or another and strikes bikini-clad poses even in front of family, but is very insecure and unhappy inside. By contrast, at her age I lamented the fact that I’d never kissed a guy. In a way I feel lucky, because I didn’t have boys or men dragging me into an adult understanding of my body’s effect on others; that was left to me to cultivate, under my own power, in college and beyond.

    On the other hand, being looked at as smart and thoughtful meant a lot of self-pressure, because I was made aware of the flaws in what I said and did (e.g. not being tactful)–skills that we usually acquire as we gain perspective, which can only come with time and life experiences. The pressure I put on myself was all about thoughts and behavior, so aside from learning to flirt and date (which are somewhat body-oriented), I didn’t cultivate my physical strength and agility.

    Now I’m learning that mental and physical flexibility go hand-in-hand: Stiff muscles and rigid emotions are both easily injured. Gaining “core” strength, and fluidly moving around that center, are good ways for me to inhabit my mind and body with less pain and more peace. I don’t think it’s coincidence that I’m only now truly discovering my personal style, either, as it’s hard to manifest what’s inside if the inside is in turmoil.

    • Sal

      Molly, I can relate to every word of this. But especially the idea that rigid muscles and emotions are the most easily injured. So true. Thank you for sharing your hard-earned wisdom.

  • Sarah N.

    Wow, Iris, you DO rock!! I think the mental hurdle is sometimes the hardest.

    I struggle with anxiety and depression, and sometimes when I’m wound up and worried or not feeling up to anything, putting attention into how I dress makes a big difference. There are definitely days when I have a negative body image and all I see is the love-handles Prozac gave me (*shakes fist*), but days when I dress in a way that makes me feel cute and put-together, it boosts my confidence tenfold. And when I feel confident, I act confident, and I achieve my goals, and I feel better about myself internally. It’s a cycle, worth putting effort into: look and feel as fabulous as you really are. 🙂

    • Iris

      Aw, thank you! I think you’re awesome too – well done for finding ways to deal with your demons! Mental illness definitely really really sucks, but I think the absolute best way of handling it is to make lots of small steps in different areas. It adds up! In Norway, we have a saying that I like: many little streams become a big river. 🙂

  • Having just yanked a silver strand of hair out of my head not even a half-hour ago, I think I still have a ways to go on this outside-in approach. But I absolutely identify with being blind to one’s own beauty or not having a real sense of it. Growing up, I thought you could either be beautiful or smart—my mom worked at beautiful, so I chose smart. I wish I’d had the fortitude to enjoy both beauty and intelligence when I was younger, but rebelling against Mom probably played a part in my decision. Since then, I’ve always felt a little behind in having a healthy body image, but I’ve also recognized how the mental energy exerted from feeling “less than” is exhausting. Nice post.

  • Alexandra

    Sal, two things.

    1. That photo is stunning, luminous beauty.

    2. Thank you for writing this blog.

    I am a geeky grad student, and until a little while ago, I used to prize and cultivate my mind while neglecting my physical appearance. For a while, that was *FINE*: I didn’t mind the way I looked, and I was happy.

    I’m digging my way out of the hole of post-partum blues now. Your posts on using fashion to start an upward spiral of self-esteem sounded intriguing, and after some empirical testing, it turned out that investing time in my appearance has been amazingly helpful for me, amazingly restorative. Thank you. Know that your work here has reached yet another reader and helped her out (or out-ish) of a personal Slough of Despond.

    • Sal

      Oh my, Alexandra. Thank you so much for taking the time to tell me this. And I’m SO GLAD to hear that you feel like you’re emerging from those post-partum blues. Huge kudos to you for all that work.

  • Wonderful post. I’ve always been really smart, but moved around a lot as a kid. So, I was always the new kid with the funny accent, and it was assumed I was what I was not (when I had a southern accent I was dumb, when I had a Boston accent, I was tough – all the silly stereotypes). I spent years trying to fit in and, even though I was always told I was pretty, when I put a few pounds on in recent years, my self confidence plummeted again. As I get older, I know a few pounds isn’t a huge deal, and I appreciate my smarts more. But, my self-esteem is still being worked on. You have inspired me with this blog. I’m really starting to realize the way we dress definitely adds to our confidence level, and how we value ourselves is so important. I have always appreciated diversity, and no longer care if I fit in. It is more a matter of taking your life experiences, learning from them, and just being yourself. I think we are all a work in progress 🙂

    • Sal

      Thank you so much, my dear! I’m absolutely honored.

  • Sal, I just love that photo of you. You look so serene.

  • I absolutely identify with this outside in approach, but partly it has to do with my peculiar intersection with time. When I was 19, my younger sister was selected Miss Missouri Teen; I somewhat consciously decided to be the “smart” sister. Also, I came to believe that an emphasis on looks somehow detracted from my seriousness as a scholar. Then came the wave of “sexual harassment” after the Clarence Thomas hearings. Too late did I realize that most of my adult years had passed with almost no emphasis on my appearance. I’m glad I stumbled across style blogs when I did!

  • Love this post (and this picture -simply beautiful!). Because of my recognition that women are constantly judged by their appearance, my own negative self-views, and my dislike of how consumerism (sometimes) robs women of their financial power, I gave up a bit on my appearance (not completely, but mostly). However, recently, I’ve tried to focus on buying and wearing clothes, make-up, and accessories that express my authenticity. And, I feel like I’m growing more into myself everyday.

  • I love that you assume that we will all get to that point of self-love. That’s such a positive approach. I think more people would arrive at their destination if they framed it within their own mind as an eventuality rather than a possibility. I’m going to borrow that approach from you!

  • Wow. Wow. Wow. Most beautiful post ever. You are my inspiration! Yes, I’ve struggled with accepting my outer beauty, well, finding it and THEN accepting it. I continue to read your blog every day and it’s like the small angel on my shoulder telling me that yes, I’m pretty, too. Thank you Sal!

  • I had to work towards appreciation of everything. I’m way less pretty now, and feel far more beautiful. I mean that very very deeply.

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