Where does the makeover urge come from? It hovers like a mirage in the distance, an idealized form, backlit by golden-hour Hollywood cinematography. As though within each of us is a glorious butterfly waiting patiently to be freed from our lumpen corporeal cocoon.

At a certain age, we are overwhelmed by the desire to renovate our bodies, our faces, our looks, our lives. But it’s just not as easy as trading in a car or gutting a kitchen. Nor, ultimately, does an external fix have staying power. To make real change, we have to start from the core and work outwards.

We’ve been conditioned to buy into the chorus of ooohs and ahhhs that the Queen for a Day receives after the big makeover reveal. The superficial makeover segment is a time-honoured staple of morning chat shows, a place where transformation is just a few wardrobe upgrades, a snip and a nip or two, a fresh face of makeup and some bouncy new highlights that will be just the thing to cure what ails us.

From Cinderella to My Fair Lady to Pretty Woman via Mean Girls and The Princess Diaries, women in particular are sold a myth about transformation: after the makeover, the girl gets the job, the money, the cool friends and the guy of her dreams. The modern flip on this trope, the Queer Eye franchise, brings some parity to the mass delusion: men are now encouraged to believe that a good guacamole recipe will make them shiny and new and desirable.

Then there are the reality makeover competitions – The Biggest Loser, Revenge Body, Extreme Makeover and a whole, sad lineup of shape-shifting shows. We live in a time of competitive misery, where people actually vie in public to get that pity brownie from the Notting Hill dinner party. But in true Cinderella fashion, that impulse is underpinned by the fantasy of getting to rub everyone’s nose in how far we’ve come from that lowest low. Like Scarlett O’Hara wanting to turn all her enemies pea green with envy.

But external change is like trying to capture a chimera. It is our experience of living that has real power, not the mirror. Inner happiness is visible. When we believe in ourselves, our bodies manifest this confidence, wellness and harmony with the universe on a cellular level. This is where that inner glow comes from, and it is tangible, visible and quantifiable. Dr. Bruce Lipton is the author of The Biology of Belief.

A researcher and expert on functional and integrative medicine, he posits that basically, we all control our own destinies. Citing the placebo effect, he goes on to show that our subconscious minds have an effect on every cell in our bodies and thus our feelings and behaviours.

And some traditional complementary medicine techniques and new age-y sounding energy therapies do, in fact, have a basis in science. The U.S. National Institutes of Health review of a 2004 book called The Scientific Basis of Integrative Medicine concludes: “It has been scientifically documented that factors such as faith, prayer and love, influence our recovery from illness.

These partially understood modalities currently are spoken of in terms of ‘energy,’ ‘healing energy’ or ‘subtle energy.’” It looks at how energy (e.g., light, sound, electromagnetism or even prayer) translates into the chemical and electrical signals that orchestrate our physical health and mental well-being.”
Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It is simply good sense that positive attitude will manifest good things on the wellness and happiness fronts.

To make real and lasting internal change requires a plan that is not all or nothing, as in the traditional magical external makeover model. That means slow and steady progress towards realistic goals. Healthier choices around food, leisure, life balance, body image and sleep. It means anticipating
ingrained, lifelong triggers that will sabotage progress. It means turning “I can’t/it won’t/I suck” negative thinking habits into can-do positive frameworks that can make you into a cheerleader for yourself.

Here are some concrete actions that you can take to change the way you feel inside, so that people will see the difference on the outside.

Inner resources

Self-care is an expression we use flippantly, from the glass of wine we pour ourselves after work to cancelling a dinner in favour of Netflix. But the practice is deeper than that, according to Colette Baron-Reid, a spiritual teacher also known as the Oracle Queen, something she herself would say sounds very “woo-woo.” A charismatic intuitive with a grounded sense of humour, the best-selling Canadian-born author of multiple books including The Map, Baron-Reid is also a radio host for Ask the Oracle on HayHouseRadio.com, and she is the star of Messages From the Spirit on VisionTV (a ZoomerMedia property).

Baron-Reid breaks down self-care into a few simple concepts. First up, intuition: “Have you ever ignored a nagging feeling that you need to slow down, only to end up getting sick? Or you intuitively knew you should turn down an invitation but you didn’t and then had a horrible time. (And then you beat yourself up for not listening to your intuition in the first place!) Good self-care involves nurturing and trusting your intuition.”

A meditation practice is pretty much non-negotiable for proper self-care, says Baron-Reid, who also has several guided meditation tips and tools in her arsenal. In adopting a practice, she says you must honour all your emotions, positive and negative. A fan of Lipton, Baron-Reid says, “Once you’ve acknowledged negative emotions, put your focus on the positive. To help reframe your thinking, keep a gratitude journal or take some time to do affirmations each day. What you tell yourself impacts your emotions, how you see the world, and even the very cells of your body.”

Meditation, including transcendental meditation popularized in the West by the Beatles, is a millennia-old Eastern practice that has been studied heavily. Add to that research on mindfulness meditation, and you have a very thick whack of paper proving changes in brain waves and telomere length (the protein caps that protect the ends of each chromosome, a common method to map cellular aging). Meditation has been shown to effect changes in brain activity and the state of the brain itself. There is evidence it can do all the following: increase in immune function and positive emotions, decrease in inflammation and pain, depression, anxiety and stress. It can help slow aging and age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, and works on more subtle functions, such as emotional regulation, focus, compassion and social connection. It is (mostly) free and easy to learn, and there is no downside.

And there is definitely an app for that: Calm and Headspace are both pro-approved. And an even easier tip: YouTube is chock full of free guided meditations.

And perhaps Baron-Reid’s best piece of advice is to remember that it just doesn’t matter whether everyone likes you. Breaking the need to please, she says, can be a great first step in making sure that you are focused on your own needs.

Body works

In our quest for peace and relief from our stressed-out lives, into the breach has sprung a wave of new meditation chapels and alternative treatment spas. Even regular old beauty spas are adding “wellness” add-ons. The internet is awash in influencers flogging crystals right now, charged up by the full moon. But there is evidence-based study to back up some of the treatments and practices.

Take the Himalayan salt cave, for instance, just installed at Hoame, a massive new meditation studio in downtown Toronto, that also features infrared sauna treatments (now with chromotherapy, or a coloured light bath, purported to add colour frequencies to balance out an entire menu of body and mind functions). NOTA BENE: Chromatherapy is pseudoscience, as in not proved by rigorous and replicable scientific studies, but it is very pleasant, and if you are in the sauna to get its metabolism-boosting and detoxifying effects why not add some pretty colours?

The salt cave concept has been used throughout Europe for decades, where water spas have been in vogue for centuries, and have been opening across Canada in the past few years. The scientifically proven benefits are for respiratory and skin conditions (iodine is inhaled and absorbed through the skin), but the mood-boosting is pretty great, too. Of course, just sitting in a low-lit, pretty crystalline room with noise-cancelling headphones on a beanbag chair for an hour is guaranteed to have a calming effect all on its own.
Some of the more “out-there” sounding stuff (frequency therapies, hands-on healing techniques such as reiki and chakra balancing) have shakier scientific backing by Western medical standards. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have an effect (see above note on chromotherapy) – Reiki is an ancient Japanese practice and the theory of chakras is derived from the ayurvedic tradition. I’ve had my chakras balanced many times and can testify that it is well-worth it at any cost to feel that resounding sense of peace in your own body.

The Big Sleep

This is the year of the sleep expert, and also the year that high-tech sleep aids became a full-on marketplace. There is nothing that will make you look and feel better than getting enough sleep on the regular. To do so, you could buy a white noise machine or a gravity blanket or any number of sleep-enhancing gadgets or you can consult sleep experts.

Arianna Huffington has taken the concept of sleep to the next level, becoming a full-on sleep evangelist. So strongly does Huffington believe in the transformative power of sufficient sleep, she stepped away from her early-to-market online media company The Huffington Post a few years ago to build a new company, called ThriveGlobal.com, a wellness portal. She has published two bestsellers on sleep, Thrive and The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night at a Time. Her own wake-up call came in 2007, when she passed out at her desk from exhaustion. So she set out to find science to back up her assertion that sleep was the secret to success in all aspects of our lives. One key corporate takeaway she encourages is building nap or meditation rooms into the workplace to prioritize “well-being over burnout.”

Back in Canada, Carolyn Plater is one of the owners of Hoame meditation studio. She has a Masters in Social Work and has done addiction and trauma counselling. And she also has a client base of people struggling with insomnia. “Meditation,” she says, “is what will get you out of a rut. It is mandatory for my [private practice] clients. There are studies on studies showing its efficacy for sleep disturbances. But you can start with 10 minutes a day to see your own measurable results.” Her business partner at Hoame, Stephanie Kersta, is a psychotherapist who teaches cognitive behavioural therapy to clients suffering from chronic insomnia. “Sleep is the issue of our time,” she says. “It can be hard work, changing sleep habits and schedules, but it is an investment in your well-being.”

To recap the basics of good sleep hygiene: dark room, a very regular sleep schedule and absolutely no brain-wave disrupting screens in bed or even in the hour leading up to bed.

The fun quotient

Taking on a fresh project or a new pet, a new sport or club or group can be the most invigorating thing you can do for yourself. Joining a curling team might not make you look better on the outside, but the camaraderie will go a long way to making you glow.

Activity is a basic human need, according to Dawn Devries, an academic from Florida who studies purposeful leisure in senior adults. Of the six dimensions of wellness, she writes, beyond intellectual, spiritual, emotional and physical, the final two – occupational and social – require activity and company. She defines purposeful leisure as doing something you value, in which you are engaged and satisfied, involving interaction that uses your time wisely.
The urge to make a contribution is also a driver to grow and to learn our entire lives. Staying active and part of a community, she writes, can minimize depression and isolation, provide structure and routine and maintain function. In other words, if you don’t use it you lose it.

You can also apply the principles of Flow, the book and theory from Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, to leisure activity. He has identified the point at which people are happiest – which is when they are involved in an activity that is completely absorbing. This optimal state is engaged and fulfilling, and it blocks out all the trivial worries in life. Basically, it means being in the zone. Large, messy, ambitious cooking projects are what get me in that groove outside of work, but his point is that you find what you love and lose yourself in it. That feeling is what makes you feel better: the ultimate inner makeover.

A version of this story was published online on March 12, 2019