Body image. That shame inducing, guilt wrenching, despair filling feeling that happens when we look at ourselves naked in the mirror, trying on clothes in a less than flattering changing room, or compare ourselves to those around us (both real and in celeb-world).
For so many women - and I focus on women because although I believe men are increasingly coming under scrutiny for the way they look, I think women have carried this critical gaze for much longer - body image does not, generally conjure up feelings of positive self-worth. For many women (myself included), body image has been a battleground for many years, perhaps even as many years as we can remember.
It often starts young. I remember being shamed when, as a tubby 11 year I was playing football with my male cousins, and when they got hot and took their shirts off, so did I. My female cousins laughed and pointed at my 'boobs'. I didn't have boobs, I had a bit of puppy fat, but I remember clearly that burning sensation of shame as I pulled my T-shirt back down over my head and stopped playing football - forever.
It's not just the awkwardness of changing body types that lingers long after puberty, it's the feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment and disgust that can arise during menstruation. At this crucial time when young girls and women could be learning to embrace their step into womanhood and admire their changing bodies, menstruation is something that is often ignored, joked about or hidden away in shushed tones.
It is no wonder that so many women carry less than full love for their bodies as they move into adulthood: for many of us menstruation is more an initiation into shame than into power. More likely is that we instantly try to change the body, subjecting it to harsh, unsustainable diets, aggressive exercise routines, and a barrage of critical and abusive thoughts towards ourselves.
I have fully lived this. In my teens, which as many of you will know if you read my blogs often, was a traumatic time when I lost my grandparents and struggled with grief, loss, depression and low income, I pretty much lived off toast, pasta, and apples. Partly because those foods were cheap, partly because I didn't really know how to cook, and partly because at that time, nutrition was not really the top of my priorities. I used to buy magazines with people like Jennifer Aniston on the front, and cut out pictures and stick them on the fridge to try and persuade myself not to eat. A good friend of mine came over once, and was horrified and demanded I took them down. I couldn't understand why she was upset - my body image and self worth were so low, I honestly thought that unless I looked like an A-list celebrity, I had somehow failed, and this was all aged 17.
When our attitude to ourselves is one of loathing, it doesn't matter what we do to change or improve ourselves, we will always fail. Companies like Weightwatchers make most of their money from repeat customers, because if you are punishing yourself with food and exercise, you are going to run out of steam and either go on a mad binge or just burn out (yep, been there, bought the T-shirt).
If you can bring a feeling of love to your body, with time the way you eat and move WILL change. You'll find an exercise that you love (because the body does love to move), and a way of eating that makes you feel good (which probably still includes chocolate, cake, pizza and wine but without the bingeing). Because they things make you feel good - and you believe you are WORTHY of feeling good - you are more likely to continue them.
In Classical Yoga, our attitude is everything. In some schools, yoga postures and breathwork shouldn't even be attempted before the attitudes towards the self and others (known as yamas and niyamas) are perfected. If we learn to be kind to ourselves on the yoga mat, it can help us become kinder to ourselves off the mat.
Unfortunately, yoga is actually a killer for comparison and competition. Most people are in tight fitting, body revealing clothes, and a lot of people are slim, strong and flexible. At a time when we should be concentrating on our inward journey, it is too easy to look around and compare ourselves to those around us, by body size, ability and even colourful leggings!
Yoga can be, and should be, an empowering practice for women. It has, quite literally, changed my life. It can change our external and internal worlds, perhaps bringing us new friends, more freedom in the body, more control over the mind and the thoughts we chose to have. It can change how we feel about ourselves, how much we love and laugh and enjoy,
These are practices to continue for the rest of our life, because after a lifetime of body hatred, it's a slow journey to work to full body love. So steady. Be kind. Find an affirmation that works for you, and use it everyday. Be mindful of what you read, listen to and watch, and how these things make you feel. And whatever you do, don't let yoga become another stick to beat yourself with.