[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
Having a poor body image is the amalgamation of so many factors. Cultural, societal, or familial pressures; psychological distress; emotional hardships; everyday life. How physically active you are, how much you weigh, how much body fat you carry, how large or small you are compared to who you are around, how your clothes fit and the sizes of those clothes, what you ate and how you feel about what you ate. The media and the Photoshop inherent in the media. Diet talk and weight loss programs and...everything, really.
I have weighed the same weight for over four years without really trying all that hard. I try to eat when I'm hungry and stop when I'm full and mostly eat foods that I know are healthful. Sometimes I eat too many sweets or drink too much wine, feel like shit, and course-correct but for the most part, I have the diet bit dialed in. And even though I weigh the same and pretty much look the same, my perception of myself can swing from amazing to terrible in a matter of hours. Isn't that fucked up? Because I've been in therapy so long, I've learned that when I focus too much on my body there is normally a larger, underlying issue. And, even though I've been in therapy a long time and worked pretty hard on cultivating a healthy body image, I still fall into moments of disliking my body for how it looks or what I perceive that it lacks. The other night, I was feeling particularly puffy and gross and hating my body. The next morning I walked by the mirror and literally thought to myself, "wow, I look great." Nothing really changed in those few hours of sleep, except I was maybe a bit dehydrated when I woke up. My body was still my body and it was largely unchanged.
According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, body image is a person's perception of their physical self and the thoughts and feelings which result from that perception. There are four aspects of body image:
How you see your body is your perceptual body image. This is not always a correct representation of how you look. For example, many people perceive themselves as overweight when they are not.
The way you feel about your body is your affective body image. This relates to the amount of satisfaction or dissatisfaction you feel about your shape, weight, and individual body parts.
The way you think about your body is your cognitive body image, which can lead to preoccupation with body shape and weight. Some people believe they will be happier or feel better about themselves if they are thinner or more muscular.
Behaviors you engage in as a result of your body image encompass your behavioral body image. When a person is dissatisfied with the way they look, they may cover their bodies or take drastic measures to change their appearance.
According to this study, body dissatisfaction is incredibly common. Eighty-nine percent of women surveyed wanted to lose weight, compared to 22 percent of men. Sadly, only eight percent of women were happy with their weight and wanted to stay the same. The question I had, when reading this study is why. Why are so many women unhappy with our bodies? Why do we spend so much money and time trying to change how we look? We know it doesn't make us happier, and yet we continue to try to manipulate our bodies, pay for plastic surgery, and critique ourselves to death. What insanity.
Body image and body dissatisfaction are internal processes but can be influenced by several external factors. Family, friends, acquaintances, teachers, coaches, and the media all have an impact on how a person sees and feels about themselves and their appearance. In a 2005 study on the effects of idealized media images on college women, researcher Renee Engeln-Maddox found that being presented with just three advertisements featuring highly attractive female models caused many of the women to compare themselves and their own bodies to the idealized images they viewed. And in 2008, a meta-analysis confirmed the relationship between mass media images and the internalization of an unhealthy thin ideal in women, along with body dissatisfaction. Another study showed a significant relationship between internalization of the thin ideal and time spent on the internet. Instagram, in particular, seems to be particularly egregious. And while women experience body dissatisfaction more often, men are not immune. Anyone, when comparing themselves to "ideal" bodies, is prone to feeling less great about themselves.
A healthy body image means you feel comfortable in your body and you feel good about the way you look. This includes what you think and how you feel about your appearance and how you judge your own self-worth. Many of us probably have negative body images and don't even realize it, but there are ways to nurture a better body image.
- Avoid using negative words or phrases about food, weight, and body size/shape. Also avoid being around people who talk negatively about bodies or food.
- Limit screen time and understand that reality is easily skewed on a screen.
- Cultivate a community of supportive individuals.
- Move your body in ways that feel good and nourish your body with foods that feel good.
- Ignore any and all talk about miracle diets or products with lofty claims.
- Work on loving yourself for who you are and what you can do rather than how you look.
P.S. I'm under the impression that you know if you have a healthy or unhealthy body image, but if you need the internet to confirm what you already know, take a self-esteem quiz here. Read more about body image from the National Eating Disorder Association here, or do a guided psychological deep dive here.