Highly Sensitive Refuge
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How to Stop Struggling with Body Image — the HSP Way

My high school held a carnival every summer. Out on the schoolyard, there were food stands for everything from cotton candy to funnel cake. One year, I spotted a stand that sold samosas, and there was no way I could pass them up. So I bought half a dozen and offered some to my friends — but one of them refused. She said she’d “rather not pack on the extra calories.”

I was dumbfounded. Up until that point, I had never thought about calories. My friends seemed so naturally conscious of their diets, but I ate whatever I wanted. How could anyone refuse a hot and crispy samosa for something as trivial as calories? But her refusal changed something in me. It started to feel like I was living my life the wrong way.

When I got home from school that day, I flipped through old pictures of myself, suddenly ashamed of how much weight I’d gained over the years. I wasn’t overweight. I had never been overweight in my life. But for the first time, I thought:

…Am I fat?

When my friend refused that samosa, she probably didn’t mean to make me feel insecure for choosing to eat it anyway. However, because I am a highly sensitive person, even the slightest comment about my diet greatly impacts my body image.

Why Highly Sensitive People Are Vulnerable to Body Image Issues

Magazines, commercials, social media — everywhere we look, we’re told that we need to be sexy, skinny, and sculpted. These unrealistic ideals can be harmful to anyone’s self-esteem. But for the highly sensitive person (HSP), the message is even more deeply internalized.

HSPs process information on a deeper level than others. We are self-reflective, which also means we tend to be very self-critical. When the world constantly tells us that we can only be attractive if we conform to strict beauty standards, we process that message over and over again. And each time, it gets harder to dismantle from our self-perception.

Highly sensitive people also tend to be overthinkers. We take every bit of information into account when we make decisions. This may put us at higher risk of disordered eating patterns, such as obsessing over calories and exercise, and feeling guilty when our carefully planned diets derail.

(Wondering if you’re a highly sensitive person? Find out here.)

How People-Pleasing Hurts HSPs’ Body Image

Shortly after the school carnival, I began exercising twice a week, logging every calorie on my diet tracker, and cutting back on many of my favorite foods — including samosas. Months later, my mom told me she’d noticed my drastic lifestyle changes and asked me how much weight I’d lost. I proudly told her I’d gone from 145 pounds to 128. “That’s good,” she replied, “but it’d be even better if you were 125.”

All the confidence I’d gained in the past few months was crushed.

Mind you, it’s never okay to tell someone to lose more weight. But as an HSP, I’m particularly conscious of what others say about me, whether it’s from good intention or not. Losing 17 pounds wasn’t enough, I internalized. As long as I wasn’t at an ideal weight of 125 pounds, I was fat. I was unattractive. I was a failure.

I spiraled further into shame, insecurity, and disordered eating patterns. My efforts to lose weight became less about how I felt in my own skin, and more about seeking validation and acceptance from others.

That’s another part of what it means to be highly sensitive. We always think about how our actions affect the people around us, so we tend to people-please to make everyone happy. This adds extra pressure when it comes to how we maintain our appearances. We want to make our parents proud. We want to look good for our partners. We want our friends to accept us. When we gain weight, we feel as if we’ve let people down.

Given how body image affects HSPs, it takes time to truly accept your body as it is. If you’re highly sensitive and you struggle with negative body image, there are simple practices that can smooth your journey to long-term self-loving. Here are five ways to start loving your body. 

5 Ways for HSPs to Start Loving Their Body

1. Make exercise your self-care routine — but not to “lose weight.”

There is so much more to exercise than slimming your waistline or toning your glutes.

Exercise not only boosts mood and confidence, but for HSPs, exercise can be a safe haven. Yoga is a great way to recharge after a long day of overstimulation and sensory overload. You can also go for a walk through nature, or let loose by dancing alone in your room (trust me on this — expressing yourself through movement feels super empowering).

Don’t exercise solely to shed pounds. You’ll only feel more dissatisfied with your current appearance. Instead, turn exercise into an outlet to recharge your energy and relieve stress.

2. Stop overthinking your meals.

When you’re highly sensitive, every decision feels like the last you’ll ever make. But if you keep obsessing over your diet, you may be on a dangerous path to an eating disorder. 

The next time you catch yourself comparing the calories of every option on your brunch menu, pause and take a deep breath. Remind yourself that you will eat many more meals in your lifetime. What you eat today won’t instantly cause you to break your bathroom scale.

Once you leave behind that strict diet mentality, you can begin to accept that your physical appearance doesn’t really matter as much. 

3. Take a social media break.

Social media can lower anyone’s self-esteem, but this effect may be even greater for a highly sensitive person.

Constant exposure to images that encourage body shame can elicit a heavy emotional response that can fuel feelings of depression or anxiety.

When you start scrolling through photos of celebrities, fitness accounts, and “thinspiration,” it’s hard to stop. If you’re an HSP, however, it’s important to know when to distance yourself from emotional stimulants that will only wreak havoc on your body image.

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4. Distance yourself from toxic friends.

It’s exhausting to be around people who deliberately damage your self-esteem. However, some toxic friends project their insecurities onto others without realizing. If you find that this amplifies your own body image concerns, then you should keep your distance.

Highly sensitive people are good at absorbing other people’s emotions. If you have a friend who constantly criticizes their own body, you may subconsciously mirror their insecurities, which will make you feel even worse about yourself.

You don’t need to cut off friends completely, but try to limit your time with people who make you feel anxious about your body, even if they don’t mean it.

5. Wear what you want.

When you’re constantly worrying about how you look in front of others, it can feel as if you’ve lost control over your own body. Remember that you are not defined by what people think or say about you. Your body is yours, and you can take back control.

Look good for yourself and nobody else. Change your hairstyle, shine your shoes, or paint your nails. Sometimes the littlest details can boost your confidence in ways that have nothing to do with your weight. It’ll serve as a reminder that it’s possible to be happy with yourself, regardless of your shape or size.

Everyone has insecurities. When you’re highly sensitive, however, it’s even harder not to fall into the trap of negative body image. Being healthy is much more important than being skinny. And that pertains to both your physical and mental health. If your doctor recommends that you slim down for health reasons, then by all means, do that. But don’t sacrifice your mental wellbeing just to achieve a “summer body.” And if you have an eating disorder, or suspect that you do, reach out. Talk to someone you trust, or find a support group near you. You are never alone in this.

To all my fellow highly sensitive people who struggle to love themselves: remember that you deserve love and acceptance regardless of your body weight. Your true beauty lies in your extraordinary gift of empathy and intuition, and that is all the beauty you’ll ever need to flaunt.

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