Body image is a mental representation of what an individual believes their body looks like when they look in the mirror or view photos of themselves. Individuals may have distorted images of what their body looks like and it may have little resemblance to what others see. These distortions are influenced through internalized messages received from family, peers, societal expectations, and social media. Thoughts and feelings towards one’s body may range from positive to negative and can tend to fluctuate on different days and times in one's life. When an individual has persistent negative thoughts and feelings about their body it can lead to severe and dangerous mental health conditions such as disordered eating behaviors and body dysmorphia.
All genders can have body image issues, although more women than men struggle with body image issues beginning in pre-teenage years throughout adulthood. As young as age three, children gain awareness of thoughts around their body and are heavily influenced by the ways they hear their parents speak about their own body. Parents often overlook how influential they are in shaping their children's (especially a daughter’s) ideas about their body and worthiness as a person. When an individual does not fit the Western ideal of attractiveness or beauty (thin, yet curvaceous) it is even more difficult to gain acceptance for any perceived flaws.
Signs of Poor Body Image
- Chronic weight-controlling behaviors (eg. dieting, fasting, substance use, purging, laxative use)
- Excessive exercise patterns
- Checking behaviors (checking reflection, measuring body parts, pinching fat)
- Preoccupation with weight, size, shape, or appearance
- Avoidance of situations that cause shame or self consciousness (eg. beaches, swimming pools, etc.)
- Constant comparison
- Seeks constant reassurance from others (“Do I look fat in this?”)
It’s understood through research that social media use is associated with increased body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Social media largely portrays perfectly curated lives, filtered and edited photos, setting unrealistic ideals for how a person can look. We need to be conscious as we take in these images because humans naturally will want to compare themselves to what they are exposed to on the regular. If we are inundated with daily reminders of unrealistic images we can quickly mistake perfect body types for worthiness as a human and lose sight of our own self worth.
A more severe and complex condition a small percentage of the population suffers from is body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), which is different from typical appearance concerns and body dissatisfaction. BDD is characterized by excessive appearance-related preoccupations, repetitive or compulsory behaviors, and causes significant distress or impairment in an individual’s functioning in major life areas. The preoccupation is with one or more perceived defects or markedly excessive concern where there is a slight physical anomaly. These individuals can tend to pursue plastic surgery at higher rates to fix these perceived flaws. If you or someone you know may have BDD, evidenced based treatment and support is necessary in order to begin a road to recovery.
So how does an individual improve their body image and relationship to their body? Read along.
Intentionally place more curiosity and emphasis around the utility of your body. Begin bringing awareness to what your body does for you each day without you ever having to think about it. Instead of fixating on the appearance of a specific body part, exercise gratitude for the functionality of that body part. For example, don’t like what your thighs look like? Exercise gratitude for the fact that your legs allow you to explore beautiful countries when you vacation, or whatever that body part allows you to do in your life that is meaningful to you. Try redirecting your thoughts like this next time you find yourself fixated on perceived flaws.
If practicing more loving self talk feels really inauthentic at first try viewing yourself in a more neutral way. Challenge yourself to learn and appreciate the vast and complex functions our body does for us each day as we live our life. This can remove the focus from external appearances to the fascinating system of the human body and bring more acceptance.
Instead of having any expectations to love what your body looks like, still see yourself as worthy of getting your needs met - mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Being perfect should not be the prerequisite to having self respect and taking care of yourself. A way to build more confidence is to look within. How well do you trust yourself? To build confidence one must build self trust - that means showing up for yourself and keeping promises to yourself for what you committed to, especially on days that you don’t feel like it (or that you don’t believe you deserve it). When we behave differently we can start feeling differently and work on negative belief systems that promote unhealthy patterns of behavior.
Note: If you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, visit nationaleatingdisorders.org to learn about recommended treatment options.
Erica Basso is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist practicing statewide in California. She helps guide women in overcoming anxiety, perfectionism, and relationship challenges. To learn more about working with her, visit www.ericabassotherapy.com.