Building a Healthier Body Image
Do you ever look in the mirror and tear yourself apart? Do you believe that you’d finally be happy if you “could just lose those stubborn fifteen pounds”? If so, you are not alone; most Americans, especially women and girls, report dissatisfaction with their bodies. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), by age 6, girls begin voicing concern about their weight, and by elementary school, 40-60% of females report feeling concerned about becoming overweight. By adulthood, 86% of women say they suffer from negative body image and want to lose weight. Ultimately, how you view your body impacts how you view yourself and the world around you. The experience of poor body image also increases the risk of engaging in harmful behaviors, such as dieting and other weight control behaviors.
First, what is body image?
Body image refers to your experience of embodiment; it involves your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that relate to your physical appearance. How you feel about your body is a mental representation of how you perceive yourself in the world. As a licensed psychotherapist who treats eating disorders, I see many clients with longstanding histories of complex and unhealthy relationships in how they relate to their bodies. For many, their negative body beliefs developed in childhood or early adolescence. And, due to various factors, they learned to equate their worth to that of their body size. If the number on the scale ever goes up (even slightly), they often express how it ruins their day and causes them to feel worthless.
It’s important to note that body image struggles do not occur in a vacuum; no one is born hating their body. Body hate is learned in a variety of ways, including (but not limited to) the pressure to live up to a “thin” ideal represented in popular culture or media, being bullied or teased, and interpersonal influences (like family or peers) who place an undue emphasis on appearance. Regardless of origin, poor body image is linked to lower self-esteem and other psychological difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. If you’ve struggled with your appearance for a while, changing how you feel about your body may not be easy. However, healing is always worth it.
It’s impossible to heal from a space of self-hatred, which is why the path toward healing body image struggles starts with building greater self-love and awareness. Instead of “burning it to earn it” or focusing exclusively on “calories in versus calories out,” how wonderful would it be to start exercising and eating from a space of love and enjoyment?! The great news is – you can! Here are some helpful tips for how you can begin to build a healthier body image:
– Notice and challenge any negative, automatic thoughts. For example, instead of just accepting the thought of “My stomach isn’t flat enough,” try challenging this belief by declaring that “My stomach allows me to absorb nutrients, which contributes to my health and enables me to do what I love.” Also, if you’ve given birth or are planning to, you could highlight how your stomach exists to nourish and carry new life. The point is that when you begin to pause and objectively examine your automatic thoughts, you’ll become more effective at challenging them so that you can feel better.
– Limit your exposure to media that portrays images of idealized (and often photoshopped) bodies.
– Dress in clothes that fit you now and help you feel good about yourself. Now is a perfect time to get rid of those jeans you had in high school!
– Surround yourself with people who lift you up and honor your uniqueness. Choose to hang with people who aren’t so body-focused. Set boundaries with those who do not.
– Consider all of the amazing things your body can do. Instead of cooking or working out based on a number goal you’d like to see on the scale – tune in to how your body feels and seek to honor it with self-care practices and meals you enjoy.
– Incorporate mindfulness into your everyday routine. When you’re more mindful of how you feel, you can guide yourself to nourishing your mind, body, and soul to give yourself what you need.
– Talk to yourself like you would a friend. The next time you find yourself struggling with negative body-related thoughts, try talking to yourself like you’d talk to a friend. When your critical inner voice condemns you, you often end up in negative cycles of self-sabotage. However, when your inner voice plays the role of a supportive friend, you can feel safe enough to see yourself with greater clarity and make any necessary changes to feel happier and healthier.
– Focus on your passions and develop who you are as a person. Remember: you are SO much more than your appearance. A crucial aspect of having a healthy body image is to stop obsessing over your body. Your body isn’t just an ornament to look at; it’s a vessel for you to connect with your passions.
Anaïs Nin said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Thus, having the courage to honestly examine your negative body image beliefs to step outside of your conditioning is the anecdote to living a more fulfilling life. You deserve a chance to break free from the chains of your inner critic to experience true freedom. Also, by practicing body acceptance with every chance you get, you may just create a powerful movement of strong, happy, and capable women who can (and will) change the world!