Can You Train Yourself to Accept Your Body?

Photo: Corbis

This week, the Cut explores women’s complicated relationship to beauty standards and the effort required to meet them.

I’ve been calling this “My Year of Ugly.” This is based on a few factors: major weight gain thanks to “Enjoying Life to the Fullest” (alternate title: “The Year I Became Comfortable Requesting a Double Order of Mozzarella Sticks”); an uninformed transition to natural hair that led to a lot of damage and an awkward haircut; and a cropping of acne worse than any I had in middle school. The end result is a sustained, overwhelming feeling of discontent with my appearance.

There are a lot of things I could have done to combat this feeling. I could have gotten a different haircut (or a wig), gone to the gym, purchased some self-help books, new shoes, or lipstick. Instead, I developed an internal patter of constant, vicious, negative self-talk, which has led to the kind of crippling insecurity that turns itself outward. I can’t take a compliment without a deflection or an awkward Oh, you have to say that.” At first, friends chuckled and reassured me that I was being crazy. Then they began to titter uncomfortably and look away. Eventually, my Ugh, I’m so fat”s were met with silence or broken eye contact. Finally, a friend sighed and asked, “Seriously, aren’t you tired of talking about yourself this way?”

Of course I am. If I heard someone talk to a friend the way I talk to myself, I’d slap them in the face. Unfortunately, it’s physically challenging to slap oneself in one’s own face, which is why I decided to use the technological equivalent: the Pavlock.

Funnily enough, the Pavlock — a new piece of wearable tech that administers an actual electric shock in order to help the user break bad habits — was actually the result of a slap in the face. One of its co-founders, Maneesh Sethi, wanted to break a nasty Facebook habit, so he paid a woman $8 an hour to hit him whenever he accessed the site during the workday. Not a normal impulse by any stretch of the imagination, but Sethi said it worked. And it gave him the idea to develop a cheaper, technology-driven version.

The Pavlock, a tribute to Pavlov and his legendary beasts of behavioral modification, is about the size of a watch, and administers an electric shock to the user to help them form a good habit or break a bad one. You can either self-administer a shock by pressing the device itself or sync it to the Pavlock iPhone app and set it to, say, remind you to go to the gym at 12 p.m., or remind you to stand up and walk around. (You can also use the app to decrease or increase the intensity of shock.) For the sake of my own behavioral modification, I chose to skip the app and shock myself manually every time I had a negative thought about my appearance. Whenever I let myself think “God, you look bad” or “Your hair looks shitty” or even the most basic “Ugh,” I voluntarily double-tapped my Pavlock and shot 115 volts of electricity into my tender wrist flesh.

This might seem like some sick form of self-harm, but it’s actually founded in a common strategy of cognitive behavioral therapy that requires patients try to break negative, depressive, or anxious thought patterns by snapping a rubber band on their wrists. My goal with Pavlock was to become so aware of my negative thought patterns that I can stop a thought in its tracks — and train myself to avoid thinking that way altogether. Did I mention I wanted to change my thoughts quickly? A 2010 study found that it takes an average of 66 days to break a habit — and in some cases, 254 days (who has that kind of time?). Pavlock claims it can get you there in two to three weeks. 

My first few hours with the Pavlock, I’ll admit, were used more for shock value (no pun intended) than for anything else. I strapped the wearable on everyone I knew and gently shocked them to get validation — the shock, which feels like someone is jabbing Tabasco-sauce-covered cat claws into your skin — really hurts. If it hurts, it must be effective, right?

And yet, once I get serious about using it when I have negative thoughts, I find that I’m shocking myself an average of 14 times a day. On one particularly bad day (a day I had to work out directly in front of a mirror at the gym), I clocked in at over double that. I was really beginning to worry about the safety of that much electricity coursing through my veins. Would my hand fall off? If so, I would probably deserve it. (Administer shock.)

A few things I immediately didn’t like about the Pavlock: It’s huge. I was given a clunky first-generation prototype to test out (a much sleeker version will be available in February). It also has an enormous lightning bolt on it that lights up whenever it administers the shock. It calls attention to itself, and to my constant double-tapping, which is pretty embarrassing, since I do it so often.

An average day goes something like this: Why even bother putting on makeup? (shock);  I hate the way this part of my hair falls (shock); I have a terrible profile (shock); Ugh (shock); My teeth are so yellow (shock); Ugh (shock). Putting on clothes in the morning gets at least three shocks in a row. Getting ready for a date, I was certain I was going to melt my wristbone. At the gym, I was worried I might be the first person to electrocute myself with a Pavlock, since surely electric current isn’t good on sweaty skin.

By day five, I’m not convinced the method is working. I’m still doling out shocks at an alarming rate — but at least I am learning how often I think bad things about myself. By day six, I make the conscious decision to cancel out all of my negative self-talk with overwhelmingly positive talk. Not just to myself but to everyone around me — so that my habits become words and my words destiny, or whatever it was Gandhi said to do. Instead of thinking, “You look awful in that,” I say, “Guys, I look great tonight.” When I’m out at a bar, I say, “You can really tell I do squats when I wear these shorts.” I realize I sound like a bit of a jackass, but for the first time since strapping on the Pavlock, I shocked myself only six times that day.

By the end of my week experiment, I went back up to a ten shocks day. Not great, but still better than where I started. For such an extreme method, to be honest, I had hoped for better results. A week was helpful — even if the results weren’t necessarily long-lasting — but I don’t think I could sustain an entire three weeks (or more) of tiny electrocutions, especially when I’m the one doling them out. I do think there is merit in the founding principles, which is why I’m considering Sethi’s original tactic and am tempted to make 2015 “My Year of Paying Someone to Slap Me in the Face.”

Can You Train Yourself to Accept Your Body?