What is body image?
Body image is a psychological concept referring to the perception we have of our bodies and is influenced by numerous emotions. Body image issues have greatly increased worldwide over the last 30 years and body dissatisfaction means you view your body in a very negative and critical way. Negative body image is a common symptom of eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder. It can leave a person feeling inadequate, anxious, depressed and hindering the ability to live with happiness and peace.
Beauty is a state of mind, not a state of body.
Many women, and now more and more men, struggle with their body image and self-esteem. When somebody has poor body confidence, they will often limit themselves by society’s standards and expectations. They make choices from an ‘unwell’ mindset, deciding to work against themselves, instead of with themselves. An unconfident individual doesn’t dress for themselves, doesn’t celebrate who they are and their external appearance is likely to reflect this. Essentially, they find themselves looking for validation from anyone or anything external.
Excessive worrying about your appearance could result in mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression. Body Dysmorphic Disorder is another type of mental illness relating to body image which is much more than feeling body insecure like many of us will admit we do. If you have or are suffering from Body Dysmorphia or other eating disordered thoughts and behaviours, the emphasis is so much on body image/body flaws/imperfections and weight, so trying to learn to love yourself and your body is a really tall task to set yourself.
We are not saying that all people with eating disorders and other disorders related to body image have been negatively affected by the media but this may often be a contributing factor. The media is, in part, responsible for several health and psychological issues in today’s society.
What many people don’t realise is that the issue isn’t your weight, it’s about how you view and respect yourself as a whole person. As women, our bodies are changing all the time. Weight can fluctuate with what’s going on in your life: lifestyle changes, age, whether you are having or have had children, how active you are and what kind of job you are doing.
The beauty, diet and fashion industries are all very profitable and marketing teams know exactly how to grab our attention and sell products off the idea that you aren’t pretty enough, thin enough or worthy enough.
These messages are teaching us to nurture an internal bully – because we view ourselves as inadequate, we consistently ‘apologise’ for what we assume are universally acknowledged misgivings. Couple this with the power of social media and the inescapable scrutiny upon our bodies, it’s hard for people to see that they can identify themselves by anything other than their appearance.
Obviously some people feel the pressure from the media more than others. Teenagers and millennials, in particular, seem to be feeling enormous pressure to fit in and comply with what the fashion and beauty culture is illustrating.
As a society we should demand change. We need to change the way the media depicts beauty and body image and must empower ourselves and avoid the crushing effects of unrealistic ideals on our self-worth and self-esteem by limiting our exposure to media images and advertising. Brands should be representing us in more realistic ways. A win-win situation. They continue to make money but we can keep our self-worth and self-esteem and not feel bad about our own body image.
Some brands are beginning to use real women in their advertisements and more celebrities are speaking out about body image now which is a good thing. There is beginning to be more representation, but there is a long way to go. It will take a while for things to change so in the meantime, next time you see media articles, ask yourself how realistic they are, whether they are relevant to you and most importantly, think about the effect they are having on you. Where you can control what you consume, do so.
Body positivity isn’t promoting obesity. It’s promoting a revolution against the highly critical, highly punitive cultural norm that we’ve all become accepting of, which is to criticise anyone who doesn’t fit into this very tiny demographic of what it is to be ‘normal’.
Reaching your ‘target weight’ won’t give you the happiness you’ve been searching for, because the critical voice that’s told you “you’re not worthy of love” is still there – it’s just going to find something else to trip you up with. The voice will keep you living in fear of any changes on the scale, and in turn, it’ll likely mess with your diet and your social life.
Instead, if we put all that determination and energy into learning to love and nurture our bodies, we would respond to their cues intuitively. This means that we would eat what was right for us at the right times, and we would respect our hunger and our fullness. In turn, our bodies would naturally morph into whatever is normal and comfortable for us as individuals.
A more attainable goal and a more realistic approach to improving body image is body neutrality.
This, if you like, is the middle ground between loving and hating your body. It is about learning acceptance and being grateful for your body but not about its appearance or size but what it is (your home) and what it allows you to do. Part of building acceptance, self-love and self-respect is acknowledging that there is no ‘right way’ to look. It’s very empowering to accept that you are so much more than a clothing size or certain body shape.
It is important to remember that every body is different. If every individual was to eat the same food, the same portion sizes and also do exactly the same exercise for a certain period of time, they would still not all look the same.
With body neutrality, there is less pressure as it affords the opportunity to accept and acknowledge that your body is at times not feeling good and that you can have more of a peaceful mindset as there are no positive or negative feelings or comments as you are so much more than just a body. (In other words, it’s acceptance without judgement). In this state, you can subsequently focus on your life.
Learning to be neutral about your body takes time. Learning to be positive about your body takes even longer.
Many people don’t realise that it is absolutely possible to create a toolkit of loving and caring resources that you can draw upon in times of need. Cultivating true love and acceptance for your body involves adopting a lifestyle where the communication between yourself and your body is entirely loving. Daily meditation and affirmations, or creating a vision board, are great ways you can focus your attention upon cultivating these loving responses to painful emotions.
We work with clients to manage their disordered thoughts and behaviour, gain a sense of empowerment, and build self-esteem and body confidence on these foundations.
We do this by providing them with tailored treatment programs that attend to their individual clinical needs throughout their recovery. These include nutritional therapy which involves encouraging sufferers to be mindful and intuitive with food – listening to their body and acting in a self-caring way towards this.
We teach sufferers that they are worthy and from our community, they gain a sense of love and belonging that they retain in their hearts long after they’ve graduated from their program. This isn’t about a BMI or a food plan, it’s about being taught how not to be afraid and how to love with your whole heart.
We run a Body Image Group and a question that comes up regularly is: “what does it mean to love your body and is it even possible?” If your eating disorder could answer, it would say that you can only love your body if you are a certain size or weight. And sure, you might feel as though your body is more acceptable when you reach your goal weight or size, but the feeling can’t last because your eating disorder is never satisfied. Your eating disorder can’t allow you to feel completely satisfied with your body, because if you did you wouldn’t need it anymore. So, it finds something else to change about your body and the vicious cycle of body hatred and unhappiness continues.
When you’re caught up in this cycle it might go something like this:
- Your jeans feel too tight or you catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror and see something you don’t like
- This leaves you feeling distressed, angry, frustrated, and disgusted
- You make a plan about how you are going to change the parts of your body that you don’t like by turning to food or exercise (the eating disorder) to either comfort or punish yourself
- You feel satisfied that you’re doing something to feel more acceptable
- You feel determined and empowered when you recognise that your body is changing
- Your goal is reached and you look in the mirror only to realise that there’s something else you want to change
- This leaves you distressed, angry, frustrated, and disgusted
- You turn to your eating disorder to help you to change what you don’t like.
The first step in breaking this cycle is acknowledging that it exists, and that it will continue to fuel your eating disorder behaviours over and over again until you can find a way of breaking it.
Once you acknowledge the power and the toxicity of this cycle it’s important to consider the possibility that the entire cycle is absolute eating disorder BS. Your eating disorder isn’t the only thing that can leave you feeling satisfied, determined, and empowered. This cycle is nothing more than a socially conditioned response fuelled by the critical voice of your eating disorder. Fundamentally, something else is really driving your negative body image and it has nothing to do with what your body actually looks like.
Your eating disorder will tell you otherwise, but it’s a liar. If you really think back to what was happening for you and what you were feeling before you realised how tight your jeans were or before you looked in the mirror, you’ll find your trigger. Triggers for your negative body image cycle might include memories, social situations, negative self-comparison, thoughts about being ‘not good enough’, feeling anxious or stressed, being angry and feeling unable to express it. Whatever it is, your trigger is something that you believe you have no power or control over and so your eating disorder guides you to turn to the one thing you have been socially conditioned to believe you have control over – your body. Once you find your triggers, understand where they might come from, and learn how to address them in a more self-compassionate way, this cycle will be broken.
This process is not easy, however, especially because of our socio-cultural environment and the messages it sends us about how we need to change our bodies in order to be successful, beautiful, or acceptable. This is why another critical part of recovery is developing resilience to these messages and finding ways of challenging them within yourself. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all, though, is learning that you can love your body if you find a way of accepting and loving yourself as a whole person – without the eating disorder.
In group we look at:
Challenging your eating disorder voice – Noticing and fighting against impulses to harm yourself through destructive behaviour. You find freedom when breaking the rules that your eating disorder has set for you.
Reaching self-acceptance – Accepting your body for what it is and what it allows you to do. It is so important not to neglect your body but to love and care for it and listen to it, after all, it takes care of you.
Focusing on the positive – Spending less time blaming yourself for every mistake or flaw and more time appreciating the positive aspects of your life and yourself. Thinking positively gives you more opportunity to feel positive. It is important to feel good and nurture yourself.
Dressing to impress yourself – Expressing your sense of style and finding clothes that make you feel good. Celebrating and expressing your own sense of style will help you radiate confidence and boost your self-esteem. Your beauty or self-worth has nothing to do with your shape or weight.
Creating your own ideals – We don’t have to conform to society’s view of what’s beautiful, beauty encompasses more than physical characteristics. We are all beautiful and embracing that is an important part of self-love.
DON’T SUFFER IN SILENCE
We believe in inspiring and empowering all women to move beyond destructive coping strategies and to learn how to love who they really are. There is a more meaningful future out there waiting for you, free from trauma, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, anxiety and depression, and we are here to show you the way. Reach out to our friendly advice team confidentially today to learn more about how our outpatient clinic and/or online program can be tailored to you.
WRITE FOR US
Have you got a story or learnings to share about your mental health? Then we’d love to hear from you. Whether you want to talk about your own recovery journey or how you have supported a loved one with their healing, you could give others hope who are experiencing something similar. We’re open to all ideas and you can absolutely remain anonymous if you prefer.