We’ve all done it at least once or twice…or many times, those moments when we pass by a mirror or glass window and check out our reflection. We’re always hoping to see something we like, right? We want the image looking back at us to meet our expectations and to be attractive to us. Sometimes we look and are satisfied, sometimes…not so much. But here’s the thing: as much as mirrors are supposed to just reflect the “truth”, what we really see when we look at our reflection is how we feel about ourselves, not how we look. When we see people with the “ideal” body, we may assume they are happier than people who do not, but this is often not the case because an ideal body alone does not mean happiness.

We can owe the concept of the ideal body image to the media. As summer is approaching us, magazine covers are preaching the best diets and exercise regimes to get our bodies “beach ready” while also plastering images of models with the ‘perfect’ body…and they are perfect… because they are photo-shopped. It’s no wonder so many people struggle with disordered eating and distorted body image in an attempt to attain a body that does not exist. So what are we to do when we have cultural pressures telling us how we should look?

We have to define what an ideal body is for ourselves, and no one else. We also have to have a healthy, loving relationship with our body by accepting ourselves as we are. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong to want to lose weight or to want to gain muscles; acceptance does not mean giving up, nor is it a form of weakness. It means saying yes to what is working for you and letting go of what is not. Your body is not the enemy, but your negative thoughts about your body can be toxic. Marc David, the founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, gives 5 steps we can all do to begin a healthy loving relationship with our bodies. He compares our relationship with our bodies to relationships with people, as they require the same kind of attention and care.

The basis of every relationship is communication, and healthy relationships have plenty of open and loving dialogue. Negative comments towards each other eventually break down the relationship. It is the same when it comes to ourselves, we can make negative remarks about ourselves, like “god that stomach is huge” and these comments eat away at our body image. It makes it hard for us to be loving and accepting of ourselves when we constantly criticize and are unsupportive of our bodies. Just like in your relationship or marriage, if you are constantly being criticized or criticizing, you cannot expect you or your partner to feel very accepted and loved. So we need to talk nicely to our bodies, replace negative comments with positive or neutral comments, and find kind, compassionate and supportive things to say to ourselves. Our partners respond well to encouragement and support, and so do our bodies.

Once we learn to be nice to our bodies, we have to move! Our bodies were designed to move and we usually feel our best when we are active. Exercise can have negative connotations; people may think of it as forced, un-enjoyable, and miserable, and often this is because the main goal of exercise is to whip our bodies into shape, which often just causes us stress. But our bodies need more care and thought than that. No one likes to be forced to do anything. You cannot force your partner to do something he or she does not like. Relationships are at their best when partners are having fun and feel free and relaxed. So when it comes to being active, we have to find ways our bodies like to move and this requires experimenting with forms of movement that make you smile and genuinely give you a feeling of joy. This is absolutely going to be different for everyone, it can be dancing, swimming, hiking, throwing a ball, etc.

Now that we know how our bodies like to move, we need to fuel it. Just like relationships need daily fuel in the form of positive statements and affection to make us feel good, so do our bodies need food that makes us feel good. There are two parts to this: we need to find foods that we enjoy as we eat them, but we also need to find foods that make us feel good. You know that fast food meal you usually eat in a hurry that ends up just sitting in your stomach or you are hungry an hour later ? Yeah, that’s not loving to our bodies. At the same time if you don’t enjoy eating the plate of veggies and brown rice, you are not enjoying the moment. So find foods that fit into both categories, and while we are not giving nutrition advice, these kinds of foods are typically minimally processed, high quality, natural foods.

Another step in loving our bodies is spending quality time by slowing down. Just like relationships need quality time between two people so they relax and enjoy each other, so does our relationship with our body. We can’t know what our body likes and needs if we don’t give it time to relax. When we relax we can be more attune to the sensations, the more attune we are the better we can listen to our needs, the more we respond to our needs the better we feel, and when we feel better we have a more positive and healthy body image. Quality time with our body can mean going for a slow relaxing walk, taking a bath, massages, or meditating.

Lastly, all relationships benefit when we focus on what is working. When we recognize what works and can be thankful, those things will continue to grow. Keeping a gratitude journal for our relationship can help us become aware of what is working and can help remind us of the good things during times of stress. Keeping a gratitude journal for what we are thankful for in our bodies can do the same. Just as relationships need daily care, so do our bodies. These steps can help us get away from the cultural ideal body image to a positive and healthy relationship with our body.