What does it mean to have body image issues? Are these made worse by trying to be normal? Oftentimes, the more “normal” you try to be, the worse your issues can get. Let’s break it down and learn what a healthy body image can be with 9 tools to heal.
What are body image issues?
Your body image is how you think, perceive, sense, and see your body. Body image issues arise when what you see in the mirror or what you feel in your body is not necessarily an accurate portrayal of what your body looks like. When this happens, your body image issues become body image concerns.
For example, if you have body dissatisfaction, you may look in the mirror and see certain features larger or smaller than they are. Either way, it causes body image distortion and body image disturbance.
You may “feel” fat (even though fat is not a feeling) but are not fat. You may sense your clothes are too tight, but they fit you just fine. I’ve worked with clients who struggle with eating disorders such as anorexia and are skeleton thin yet see fat all over their body. This lack of positive body image leads to low self esteem, disordered eating, body dysmorphic disorder and mental health challenges.
Body image issues made worse by trying to be normal with dieting.
Diets are a normal part of our society. However, body image disorders are fed by diets. You might engage with a diet, feeling dissatisfied with how your body looks or feels and think a diet will improve body image. But it does the opposite. Diets lead to more negative body image and body dissatisfaction. Diets feed the mindset that you’re never good enough. Therefore, low self esteem ensues.
Distorted body image frequently comes from dieting, over exercising, eating disorders and or other mental health issues. For example, anxiety, low self-esteem, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Perfection only feeds body dissatisfaction.
In addition, I see perfectionism directly linked to poor body image. The need to be perfect often shows up in needing to have the “perfect” body. However, perfection is very subjective. Young women diet thinking they will attain the perfect body, look just like those girls on instagram, and finally be free of body image distortion.
Sadly, that intention never gets met long term and only creates more and more body dissatisfaction.
Body image issues begin when you’re young.
According to the organization NEDA, the National Eating Disorder Association, negative body image involves feelings of shame, anxiety, and self-consciousness. Negative body image awareness often begins at a young age and can last a lifetime.
In her book, “Body Image Handbook of Science, Practice and Prevention” (2nd Ed.), Linda Smolak finds that by age 6, girls can start to express negative thoughts or feelings about their bodies, shapes and weight. Forty to 60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are fearful of being fat.
Diane Neumark-Sztainer, in her book, “’I’m Like SO Fat’ Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices About Eating And Exercise in a Weight Obsessed World”, found that ½ of teen girls and 1/3 of teen boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting and taking laxatives.
Body image issues compared to what appears normal.
A healthy body image is associated with an understanding and acceptance for your body shape as well as a sense of comfort in your body.
There is recognition that some days you may not like what you see in the mirror. You are able to separate that and not let it define who you are as a person.
There may be times you feel full from eating, but there is no guilt or shame associated with that full feeling in your body.
You know it will pass. It means being able to exercise because you enjoy it, not because you must push yourself to lose weight.
A healthy body image includes having a healthy relationship with food. It includes being able to eat without fear of certain foods. There are no “good” foods or “bad” foods. You eat when you’re hungry and you stop when you’re satisfied.
What are the main causes of body image problems?
The causes of body issues vary from person to person, but one common cause is comparing yourself to others. This habit leads to feelings of worthlessness and low self esteem.
1. Social media: people who look at too much social media are more likely to develop body issues than those who don’t. Photos posted of body goals and body ‘perfection’ on social media will make those who look at it feel worse about their own body.
2. Media: the media is extremely influential. Seeing so many people in magazines and advertisements as role models creates body issues, because you compare yourselves to them.
3. Negative comments: if you take someone else’s comments as gospel, this will crush you. Think about who you are giving credibility to determine what is acceptable for your body. Only you get to decide that.
4. The body ideal: it’s what you think the perfect body would look like, and also what society tells us the body should look like. No body matches this silhouette exactly or fully.
You might be thinking, “I compare myself all the time! Or “I don’t think I’m that much different than other women who struggle.” I agree, you think this struggle is normal! It does not have to be. First, look at other normal behaviors you engage in that is making your negative body image worse.
Body image issues made worse by trying to be normal with these 7 behaviors:
- Dieting – when you see ads or commercials or even know of family or friends on diets. Suddenly, you may feel like you “should” also be dieting and not eating certain “bad” foods.
- Exercise – is a very normal part of life, one that is regularly recommended by doctors and mental health professionals. If you have a distorted body image, exercise can be a huge trigger. You may analyze calorie consumption and exertion, as well as obsess over body appearance.
- The scale – is a normal object seen in most people’s bathrooms. This is a trigger because the number on the scale is often associated with worth, value and success. A certain number can mean you’ve finally attained a level of lovability. Or, a number can mean failure and worthlessness.
- Shopping – is a normal part of life. How many times have you gone shopping to leave feeling “fat”, worthless and think to yourself the diet starts tomorrow?
- Special occasions – celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, holidays are all a normal part of life. For two main reasons, this is a trigger. First, the day comes, and you cannot find anything to wear and everything you own makes you “feel” fat. Second, you start to ruminate about what you’re going to eat.
- Certain foods – there can be certain foods that have become fearful. I had a client who used to fear donuts.
- Certain people – there may be people in your life that cause you to feel especially self-conscious. Clients tell me that they dread visiting certain family because they always get critiqued on their body.
These triggers exist in daily life. My hope is to raise your awareness so that you can focus more on your self esteem and mental health vs the story you tell yourself that contribute to negative body image.
What is the most important contributor to a healthy body image?
The most important of all the traits associated with a healthy body image is not attaching identity or worth to your body.
You see your body as an active participant in your life but not what your life revolves around. Your body is simply a part of you, and you get to enjoy it.
Having a healthy body image sounds lovely doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be great to not obsess about your body and what you’re eating? Or, to not hyper-focus on what you look like? Wouldn’t it be great to not worry about judgement from others? I would imagine the answer is a heart-felt “YES!”
Body image issues can get worse the more “normal” you try to be. Normal behavior for someone with a healthy body image can be the exact triggers for those of you that struggle.
Tools to combat body image issues
- Soul searching – explore what you believe about where true beauty comes from. If you don’t judge others, then why judge yourself? If you believe that true beauty comes from within, then it’s time to apply that same belief to yourself.
- You are a whole person – see yourself more than just a body, a clothing size, or a number on a scale. When you see yourself as a body only, then you are objectifying yourself. Others will treat you as such and this will keep feeding the problem. If you see yourself as having worth outside your body, then others will treat you the same as well.
- Positive people – if family or friends judge people’s bodies, then limit your time until those comments and judgments don’t trigger you. Until then, surround yourself with people who support the body positivity movement. You deserve to surround yourself with positive people who don’t judge themselves or others.
- Social media awareness – infuse positivity in your social media connections. If you’re following certain people or topics (like dieting and fitness) that trigger you, then please take a break. Switch to more positive body acceptance messages and people. Follow accounts that support body satisfaction and body positivity.
- Stop comparing – comparing yourself only ignites your insecurities on body image and leads to poor self esteem. By applying this one tool you will shift from the negative body image to more satisfaction over your physical appearance.
- Make a list of everything you value – for example, family, health, time, generosity, and kindness. Shifting your focus from your own appearance to what you value is transformational.
- Limit your time with the scale – you are more than just a number. If the scale is a trigger, then you can remove it temporarily. I know for many this can feel like you’re losing a limb. If you weigh yourself daily, then start to wean off slowly, eventually removing it from your sight.
- Minimize body checking – try not to body check every time you see your reflection or look in the mirror. Find a quality on your body you like and focus on that quality or trait.
- Positive self-talk – mantras help shift your mindset from negative to positive. You can start with mantras that speak loving compassion toward yourself. For example, “I am learning to accept my body.” “I am learning to find my beauty within.” “I am learning to love who I am.” “I am worthy no matter what the scale says.” Find mantras that feel true and say them for at least 2 minute per day.
Body image issues are pervasive and can intensify the more normal you try to be. Learning what your triggers are and using the recommended tools can help you shift from distorted body image to a healthier relationship with both your body and with food.
Lesley Goth, Psy.D has created an online program that teaches women how to have healthy sustainable weight loss. Ditching the diet mentality, learning how to have a lifestyle approach to food, body, and self-care, creates sustainable weight loss and comfort in your body. To know more or to see if this program is right for you, click here.