I remember the first time I became self-conscious about my body. I couldn’t have been older than seven. I was wearing my favorite floral one-piece bathing suit, and my friend’s little brother told me that I had big legs. Those words felt like a punch to the gut. I was suddenly aware of my body in a way that I hadn’t been before. From that moment on, my body became something others could accept or reject without my consent. That comment planted a seed of shame that would eventually grow and lead me on a long journey from self-destruction and dysmorphic thinking to self-discovery and spiritual renewal.
At the age of nine, I transitioned from being homeschooled in a diverse suburb of Syracuse, New York, to the public school system in Bel Air, Maryland—a predominantly white community. I was not only aware of my “big” legs, but also my hair texture, my far from European-shaped nose, and my darker skin color.
I began comparing myself to the “popular” girls, who wore ponytails that swayed from side to side as they walked the halls. In an attempt to “fit in,” every few months I would sit for hours in a salon while a hairdresser transformed my hair into hundreds of long, tiny braids, called micro-minis, in hopes of mimicking long, flowing hair.
My image consciousness wasn’t helped by the fact that my loving parents, who grew up in the South during the civil rights era, were incredibly conservative. To protect me from what they viewed as a world that oversexualized black women’s bodies, they made sure there were no short shorts in my wardrobe. Instead of celebrating my long limbs, I hid them, growing more and more ashamed of my figure.
Negative self-talk began to fill my head. During my senior year, I went to the prom with a white friend. After that, his friends stopped talking to him for choosing a “brown girl” as his date.
I internalized the hate until I despised every square inch of who I was. According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of dysmorphia include having perfectionist tendencies; constantly comparing your appearance with others; having a strong belief that you have a defect in your appearance that makes you ugly or deformed; avoiding certain social situations because of it (which for me meant wearing a bathing suit or shorts in public); and being so preoccupied with your appearance that it causes major distress or problems in your social life, work, school, or other areas of functioning while always seeking reassurance about your appearance. I unknowingly could have checked off all those boxes.
It had been a dream of my grandmother’s that I’d have a “black experience,” and so for undergrad I attended a predominantly black, prestigious, private college in Virginia. It was healing in some ways, but isolating in others.
It was a relief not to stick out like a sore thumb. I even traded my long braids for my natural hair—which I wore as an afro and then dreadlocks that grew down my back—perhaps, an act of rebellion after years of conformity.
While I still hadn’t made it into the “popular” clique, I did gain a tiny bit of self-confidence. My freshman year, I ended up at the same fraternity party as the handsome senior I’d had a huge crush on. He’d never paid any attention to me until then. I was flattered.
Trying hard to fit in, I consumed a lot of alcohol for the first time. What started off as a fun night with my girlfriends ended with a devastating sexual assault.
I was left feeling even more insecure about both my body and my self-worth, and I turned to the gym as an escape. I’d work out obsessively for hours. My soul knew I needed help. At the time, I felt isolated and conflicted. I had always believed that black women didn’t have this problem; that curves were celebrated, not despised. And yet, skinny equaled happy in my mind.
During the summer break after freshman year, there was no gym where I could sweat out my emotions. I needed another way to feel in control. I began bingeing and purging everything I ate—a different way to cope with the lack of control I’d experienced throughout my adolescence. But a small voice within begged me to stop, and I finally confided to my dad that I needed help.
The next day, I saw an eating disorder specialist. Soon after, I was hospitalized and began a rigorous treatment process. My breath became my anchor as I slowly began my recovery. When I would think about purging after a meal, I’d use my breath to calm my thoughts.
I had taken a yoga class with my older sister in high school. What a gift that 90 minutes had been; a break from my own self-criticism. I hadn’t practiced yoga since then, but when I returned to college my sophomore year, I took a yoga mat and DVD with me. I began practicing in my dorm room. For once, I was more interested in celebrating what my body was capable of than what it looked like. Yoga wasn’t popular then, but I stuck to my practice throughout college, and I took it with me to New York City after I graduated.
In New York, I started attending hot yoga classes and found confidence in wearing just a sports bra and leggings; I was even occasionally bold enough to wear shorts. While I wasn’t fully free from my negative thinking, I finally felt strong in my body. I could look at myself in the mirror and greet my reflection with a smile.
As I deepened my practices of vinyasa, mindfulness, and meditation, I reached a place where I could be the observer of my thoughts, not a servant to them. The power of mantra has been profound, and I now rewrite my negative “broken records” as positive affirmations. I still battle with self-criticism; however, I now have the tools to recognize and shift my thoughts with self-compassion.
The Power of Words
When your inner dialogue is repeatedly negative, it can feel like you’re listening to a broken record. These self-defeating thoughts can wreak havoc on your self-esteem. Luckily, you have the capacity to turn that overplayed tune into a sacred love song. By repeating positive words or phrases, you can start to shift into a healthier state of existence. The more you practice, the more you'll be able to speak to yourself as if you are a divine being (which you are!). In the following sequence—which uses twists to help you mentally detox and lunges to help root you in your power—silently repeat the mantra for each pose, and imagine its meaning permeating every cell of your body as your breath soothes your soul!
See also Nurture the New You
About Our Pro
Teacher and model Sara Clark is a vinyasa and mindfulness teacher in New York City. She is a faculty member at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, and the creator of a series of online yoga and meditation classes for YogaGlo. Learn more at saraclarkyoga.com.