The last time you walked by a mirror, did you avoid looking into it? Can you easily list off your body’s flaws? Do you often compare yourself to others?
If any of these felt familiar, you might have poor or distorted body image. “Body image is how you see yourself when you look in the mirror or when you picture yourself in your mind. It encompasses:
- How you feel about your body, including your height, shape, and weight.
- What you believe about your own appearance (including your memories, assumptions, and generalizations).
- How you sense and control your body as you move. How you physically experience or feel in your body.”
Negative body image is very common: Around 80% of U.S. women don’t like how they look, and 34% of men are dissatisfied with their bodies. (1) If you struggle to feel good about your body, you’re definitely not alone.
The consequences of negative body image
Negative body image can cause more problems in our lives than just not liking what we see in the mirror. In fact, depending on our personal histories, environment, predispositions, and health status, the ramifications of poor body image can include:
Dieting. When we don’t feel good about our bodies, we’re more likely to try out fad diets and other harmful weight-loss methods. In fact, the cultural pressure to diet comes from diet culture, “a belief system that focuses on and values weight, shape, and size over well-being. Variations of diet culture also include rigid eating patterns that on the surface are in the name of health, but in reality are about weight, shape or size.”
Both poor body image and dieting can also lead to disordered eating, such as skipping meals, restrictiveness around food, or compulsive eating.
And all three — negative body image, dieting and disordered eating — can lead to a full-blown eating disorder. Hating the way we look has also been linked to substance abuse and self-harm.
Constant comparison. If you feel like the ugliest person in the room, it’s going to be awfully hard not to check everyone else’s body, just to be sure. Comparing our bodies to other people is a great way to minimize our own beauty and maximize everyone else’s in ways that damage us beyond just feeling bad in the moment.
Pervasive feelings of self-consciousness. When your body is the only thing you can focus on, it feels like everyone else is staring at it, too. Who wants to feel like they’re on stage just trying to walk down the street?
An inability to advocate for ourselves. When you don’t feel worthy, it can be awfully hard to demand that we be treated with courtesy and respect. You might have trouble standing up to someone who’s treating you badly, from a school bully to a relative who wants to comment negatively on your body to a doctor who wants to prescribe weight loss for every ailment.
Fewer resources. The voices that tell us we and our bodies aren’t good enough are liars — and just as frustratingly, they’re thieves. Poor body image steals resources from us, slipping up behind us to steal money, time and energy while we obsess about our bodies.
Poor self worth and body shame can cost us:
- Mental energy and time (from all that comparison and self-consciousness)
- Opportunities at work, school, life, healthcare and/or relationships
- Money (for surgeries, cosmetics, shapewear or diet products)
- Physical energy (from hitting that treadmill when you’d rather be moving in ways you actually enjoy)
What causes negative body image?
Our beliefs about bodies — our own and others’ — are influenced in hundreds of ways, by thousands of sources, throughout our lives. Here are just a few of the people, companies and organizations that may have affected your body image, for better or (probably) worse. Do any of these resonate with you?
- Parents, siblings and relatives
- TV shows, books and magazines
- Social media
- Teachers and educational materials
- Gym class
- Pop culture
- Doctors and healthcare professionals
- Authority figures of all kinds
Discrimination, bias and stigma
When we see discussions of negative body image, there’s often an unspoken message: Just get over it! Just kidding — mostly. It’s easy to come away from these articles and discussions with the feeling that if you just work hard enough on your self esteem, you won’t care what the world thinks of you.
That may be true in some cases, and it’s an admirable goal, but it doesn’t go far enough, especially for people who live in bodies that are mistreated due to some aspect of those bodies. For people of color, people with disabilities and many others, moving beyond constant self-criticism doesn’t guarantee that the world will treat them well.
People who live in larger bodies face an extra burden, called weight stigma, in overcoming poor body image as well. It’s hard to think positively about your body when the very bones of your world — from bus seats to airplanes to blood pressure cuffs — are designed to exclude you.
No amount of rejecting body shame will end the stigma imposed on certain bodies (and the poor treatment that goes with that), so as we proceed, we’ll be keeping in mind that not all bodies are treated equally.
Why should I improve my body image?
A client once looked me in the eye and said something along the lines of, “My body isn’t supposed to be this size. I don’t want to accept that. Why should I work on loving it?”
That’s a fantastic question, and it’s a really important one. There’s another thought that often comes up when I discuss this with clients:
“You have to really love your body before you can change it.” Once again, there’s the assumption that everyone wants and needs to change their body.
I am here to tell you that you don’t have to change your body. There’s no moral obligation. But in a culture that puts extreme pressure on people to conform physically to certain standards, it can sure feel like you’re obligated.
But no matter how much we might want to change our bodies, the chances of doing so are vanishingly small. We just don’t have a way to make people’s bodies significantly smaller in the long term. In fact, most people who lose weight by any means gain that weight back within five years.
Learning this can make both learning to love your body and meeting any body-related goals you have hopeless. If we can’t change our bodies, why even try to love them?
Working on your body image is a positive chance that you can make in your life right now, no matter what kind of body you live in. And it’s a worthy endeavor whether you do or don’t eventually accomplish the body changes you want, because the cultural forces that tell us our bodies aren’t good enough will always be there.
(This is also why I follow a Health at Every Size philosophy myself and with clients, if they choose. Health at Every Size focuses on bringing healthy behaviors into your life without worrying about your body size.)
What comes up for you when you think about pressure to change your body and the very small chance of actually achieving a major body change? It’s okay to feel angry, frustrated, stuck, sad, or any other emotion that comes up for you. These feelings may come up consistently as you begin to work towards a healthy body image. Sit with them as often as you’re able. They’re important indicators of your true feelings about yourself and your body.
Benefits of a healthy body image
There are real benefits to having a healthy body image. For one thing, being at peace with your body can be a huge relief. You can reclaim all those resources we discussed above, and stop spending them in a desperate attempt to be acceptable to yourself. In addition, you can:
- Take care of your body with respect and love
- Start seizing opportunities and advocating for yourself with confidence
- Ignore a lot of the social and cultural pressures that want us to obsess about our bodies
- Focus on goals and dreams that aren’t centered on changing your body
Dear Sister(not just cister),How can you do ANYTHING if you are constantly talking shit about yourself?Posted by Desiree Lynn Adaway on Friday, July 13, 2018
What does this mean for larger bodies?
Though a positive body image allows us to ignore a certain amount of social pressure, people who live in larger bodies experience extra pressure to change their bodies, not all of which is easy to ignore. Some external forces and influences won’t change no matter how we feel about ourselves, because confidence is important, but it isn’t magic.
What does that mean for how you live and your self image? It mostly means that you do the best you can from day to day, and work to separate external influences (such as the big bulleted list above) from your own feelings about your body. The more that you can refuse to internalize those messages, the healthier your own body image will be.
Body image and our changing bodies
As we age and move through our lives, our bodies will always continue to change. We might gain weight, lose weight, accumulate scars and wrinkles and stretch marks, or see other changes in our physical selves.
That’s why improving our body image is ongoing work for most people. It’s normal and okay to need to revisit it occasionally, even if you’ve done a lot of work and found body peace in the past.
- Teens, Social Media And Body Image, Heather Gallivan
If you’re ready to work toward being at peace with your body, I’d love to help. I OFFER VIDEO COUNSELING FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE!! If you’re looking for counseling in Plano, Texas contact me here or at 469-850-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org for a free 15-minute phone consultation. My name is Danesa, and we can see if we’re a good fit! I’m also happy to connect you to another great therapist in the area.
My specialties include anxiety, depression, eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating; overeating or compulsive eating, and body image issues. My office is in Plano, Texas, and conveniently located near Frisco, Allen, and McKinney.