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Seeing yourself: 7 ways to stay in the photo

It may seem counter intuitive in the age of selfies to talk about staying in the photo. But we often critique our bodies as adults, choosing to keep ourselves out of photos. We've been made aware of what's different about us, or don't feel we've lived up to a manufactured ideal. In painful cases, we've been bullied. Women especially, tend to mourn the unrealistic thin ideal. 

When children were interviewed on what to change about themselves in this video by the Jubilee Project, they asked for fun things like a mermaid tail or a superpower. Contrast this with the adults in the same video. They had lists of physical parts they sought to change or improve. These parts of their body were so disappointing, you could clearly see the distress in their faces. Meanwhile, children chatted happily about what they would do with their new powers.

We may have been conditioned culturally to think, if only we were a smaller size, we would be worthy of staying in the picture. Nowhere is this more evident than when we choose not to appear in photos. Or, we disappear entirely behind someone in a group photo.

Reeds: Are you hiding from photos of yourself?

Have you taken yourself out of the photo?

Body image is often even more difficult after a cancer diagnosis, whether or not the scars are visible. Often, we divide old photos by "before cancer" and "after cancer." We examine pictures closely for signs of changes, and look at whether these changes are visible to others as well. Breast cancer treatments and surgeries can lead to everything from weight fluctuations and swelling, to body changes or a new bra size.

Focusing solely on our size or our weight, means we'll take less care of our bodies, not more. So for better mental and physical health outcomes, I believe cancer thrivers should stay in the photo, irregardless of their size. But how can we overcome the urge to disappear in photos? Here are seven ways to make yourself visible once again in that selfie, family gathering, or group photo.

Getting comfortable with photos

Getting comfortable with photos starts with acceptance and feeling worthy. Here, I remember the vacation I was returning home from this summer.

To get more comfortable with accepting your body and participating in photos, try these 7 tips:

  1. Follow body positive social media. Body positive social media accounts present a realistic view of body sizes, along with an appreciation for different sizes and shapes. They express gratitude for our differences. Some may critique these accounts in a mistaken view that these photos glorify higher weights. That's not the point of these photos. The more exposure we have to different sizes, the less weight stigma we'll experience in our culture and health care.

  2. Unfollow any before and after photos. These types of photos present a distorted view of health and may also serve to trigger restrictive eating and harmful fad diets. For every "after" photo (which is probably unrealistic and heavily retouched), there is a "before" photo that may resemble us and make us feel unworthy. It's also critical to understand what it took for those people to attain an "after" photo. What did they give up in their lives? Was it worth it? And how about an after, after photo, because most dieters will regain the weight within 6 months to 3 years —and even more.

  3. Follow breast cancer thrivers who post photos on social media. Posting candid photos of scarring, mastectomy drains, and hospital photos of people in recovery, is a new phenomenon. I applaud these people of all genders: It is enormously helpful to breast cancer patients at all stages of treatment and beyond. As I see these photos, I also see people getting more comfortable with their body changes, and bravely showing up. If they can post a mastectomy tattoo, a jagged DIEP surgical abdominal scar, or a sudden bald head, certainly we can show up fully clothed in a family photo —smiling.

  4. Challenge the thoughts you have when seeing a photo of yourself. If a negative thought strikes (I'm so fat; I'll eat less today; Why am I the biggest one in my family?), then try this exercise: Print and write an alternative thought on the back of the photo. (You can do this exercise with old photos too.) An alternative thought might be the following. Instead of a laser-focus on large arms, say this instead: My loving arms held my feverish baby most of the day. Or, I went through chemotherapy and I'm so strong. And: I had major surgery, recovered, and feel pretty good now.

  5. Value mental health along with physical health. Picking out the flaws in our appearance is a natural response to the diet culture around all of us. But just as we value physical health, let's value our mental health too. They're equally important. Will you regret not appearing in family photos? What will it mean to your children or your partner?

  6. See the photo as a meaningful memory. For an activity to strengthen this skill, try the Meaningful Photos practice from The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. This writing exercise reinforces your personal values and gives us a greater "sense of strength and purpose when coping with stressful life events." See the easy instructions on their site and the evidence behind it.

  7. Aim for body acceptance as a path to body love. You don't have to begin with body love, or loving every single body part. Start with accepting your body, how it functions well, and the size you are right now. You'll eventually be more forgiving of how you appear in photos.

photo memory focuses on the moment

 I'm in my favorite place, the farmers market, a warm memory and value-driven about my work.

Many studies now show we respond better to compassion, gratitude, and kindness, than to diets or restrictive eating. The latter are futile attempts to control our bodies. A woman who accepts her body's changes is more likely to take good care and nourish herself, leading to better health markers like blood pressure and cholesterol.

You and and your body are in it for the long term. It's doing amazing things for you, struggling with balance and strength on your behalf. Are you able to forgive your body? If so, start showing up in those photographs.

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