Body Image and Touch

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Of course, many of us realize that our body image relates most closely to our own conception of our worth. If we believe we are worthy human beings, regardless of what the scale says, we are likely to have a positive body image—and vice versa.

However, we humans don’t live in a vacuum. Our interactions with others also have an impact on our body image. Specifically, how much we lovingly touch, and are touched by others, can affect how we think about our own bodies.

A 2013 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that “dynamic, slow-velocity affective touch can have a fundamental role in the malleability of our sense of body ownership and highlights the central role of interoception and embodied affectivity in self-consciousness.” In plain language, this means that slow stroking – the kind that mothers often share with children and romantic partners with one another – can actually help us achieve a greater sense of body ownership and enjoy a more positive attitude about our bodies.

Here are a few factors to keep in mind.

Touch promotes self-love.

At the end of the day, our sense of self-worth needs to come from within. But it is difficult to maintain if we aren’t receiving adequate affection from loved ones. The more loving touch we experience – with our partners, family members, children, and friends – the more we are reminded that we are worthy, valuable human beings. And the more we feel that way, the easier it is to love our own bodies. Receiving love from others helps us to love ourselves.

Touch = intimacy.

There is a reason why many of us may feel uncomfortable hugging someone we don’t know, or kissing on a first date. Touch is an expression of intimacy. Often, when we have a poor body image, it is at least in part because we don’t feel valued or seen by others. Intimacy helps to heal that. When we feel that someone knows us intimately, understands who we are underneath the polished mask we may present to the world, and loves us for it, it helps us to feel like we are “enough,” just as we are.

Infants need touch.

Studies show that infants deprived of touch may be more likely to experience developmental setbacks, and tend to thrive less, both physically and emotionally. This is true in both animal and human studies. Evolution has designed us in such a way that touch literally becomes a key component when it comes to reaching our fullest metabolic and emotional potential. This isn’t a fanciful notion, or something that simply sounds like a nice bonus to have. It’s hardwired into our DNA. Without this kind of early contact and bonding, the probability of future challenges when it comes to body image and self love are likely increased.

Touch gets INTO the body.

What exactly does this mean? While of course it is our skin and our exterior being physically touched, the impact goes much deeper. Touch can help us to feel embodied. Just like yoga or jogging, loving touch can bring our awareness to our bodies in a positive way. When we have negative feelings toward our bodies, it’s tempting to ignore or even disown our physical selves. We go through our days not participating in activities that call our attention to our bodies, because that attention makes us too uncomfortable. But loving touch can help us become more mindful of our bodies again, in a very gentle way.

Everyone deserves it.

Often, those of us who don’t have a positive body image feel as if we don’t deserve to be lovingly touched—we’re not pretty, thin, or handsome enough. We have too much fat here or there. But the truth is, everyone is worthy of loving touch. It is not a privilege reserved for those who are perceived as “beautiful.” So every time someone touches us in a nurturing way, it helps us to recall that we do, in fact, deserve that kind of intimacy—there’s nothing we have to change about ourselves to earn it.

Loving touch is such a simple act, but it has profound effects. Simple physical contact can help each of us to feel that we are seen and valued, and can in turn help us remember to value ourselves exactly as we are – body, mind, heart, and soul.

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