Body Image: How to Overcome Body Image Issues
What is Body Image?
According to Oxford Languages, body image is the subjective picture or mental image of one’s own body. By itself, body image is a neutral term, and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with low self esteem. It simply describes how you perceive your body and present it to the world.
You can have positive, negative, or mixed feelings about your body image or appearance.
Why is Positive Body Image Important?
A person’s body image is an important thing because, for one, we don’t live in a vacuum.
Body image is complex, both psychologically and societally, especially in the age of social media. In a society that’s extremely “plugged in” and within which we’re heavily influenced by everything from billboards to instagram stories, it can be difficult to determine your feelings about something, even if that something is as personal as your own body.
We’ve been conditioned to have specific ideas about what it means to be attractive or fit, and these ideas don’t represent what everyone finds attractive. After all, cultural norms and personal preferences shift and change from year to year, and from century to century. More importantly, the images we’re inundated with often don’t represent what’s healthy or even attainable for most people.
Unfortunately, we may find ourselves internalizing these messages, leading to a skewed perception of how we “should” exist in the world, and of what steps we “should” take to make ourselves presentable, leading to some form of body image disturbance, or body image dissatisfaction.
Do We Need to Be “Beach Body Ready?”
A perfect example are the ad campaigns that begin running in spring, which ask “Are you beach body ready?” If you have a body and you go to the beach, you already have a beach body! Unfortunately, marketing campaigns push a “healthy weight” associated with a beach-goer in order to advertise something – a weight loss supplement, an exercise program, or swimsuits that “hide problem areas.”
Sure, we’d all like to be our best selves at the beach, but one’s body doesn’t have to match what you see on tv or the internet. Who decided that those best selves must be three sizes smaller, shaven smooth, and show nary a wrinkle or hint of cellulite?
Clearly, the ad executives who want to sell products. But the problem of a select few body types being displayed and accepted is broader than a couple marketing departments. The human body is unique, and your own appearance, image and self esteem don’t have to be tied to the idea of being in Olympic-caliber shape.
Our society as a whole – and we as individuals – often participate in sustaining these perspectives, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the process often starts when we are young children, before we’re equipped to handle it. They want us to lose weight, cut pounds, and engage in “eating healthy,” even to our own detriment over the long term.
The question is, how do we recognize body image issues, and what can we do about them?
The Dangers of Negative Body Image
Too often, we focus on characteristics of ourselves that we find displeasing, unattractive, or frustrating. If you’ve ever looked in the mirror and thought your hips look “too big,” or if you’ve spotted a pimple and thought “my face is disgusting,” then you’ve wrestled with negative feelings regarding your body image. Body image and self acceptance are tied together.
These disruptive thoughts may come and go, but if they seem frequent or persistent despite efforts to counter them, you may internalize those feelings and tie your self-worth to your appearance.
The resulting low self esteem can have wide-ranging impacts on your health and overall happiness, as numerous studies show that negative body image is correlated with a higher risk of behaviors like disordered eating (such as anorexia or bulimia), mental health issues like depression.
In fact, if you’re constantly obsessing about an aspect of your physical appearance, you may have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), sometimes referred to as body dysmorphia.
Body Dysmorphia Disorder
The Mayo Clinic defines BDD as “a mental health disorder in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance – a flaw that appears minor or can’t be seen by others.”
This disorder is characterized by behaviors like frequently checking yourself in mirrors, repeatedly attempting to “fix” the perceived flaw, seeking reassurance from others, or even undergoing procedures like cosmetic surgery.
While approximately 1 in 50 people (about 2% of the population) experience body dysmorphia according to the Cleveland Clinic, or general body dissatisfaction affects most people at some point in their lives, and it’s important to find ways to appreciate yourself and what your body does for you regardless of your appearance.
Below we’ll discuss how to cultivate a healthier attitude of body positivity, which can lead to a better body image, a greater degree of self esteem, and improve body image to the point that you can accept that you have the perfect body, no matter your shape.
(*If you think you may be struggling with certain issues mentioned above, such as an eating disorder or BDD, we recommend seeking professional help from a therapist or counsellor.)
How to Overcome Poor Body Image
Psychology Today notes that we can begin to have thoughts and opinions about our bodies when we’re only three years old, which means that adults present in our lives at that young age influence how we view ourselves and our own bodies. Studies have demonstrated that a lack of social support from parents is associated with body dissatisfaction in young adolescents (Helfert and Warschburger 2011), and the negative effects of this criticism follow us into adulthood.
For example, weight-bias and fat-shaming have been shown to actually increase weight-gain, rather than curb it. In fact, the effects of weight-bias and a body shame culture are compounded in a person’s life when they internalize negative messages about themselves. One study even demonstrated that people who were more self-critical had triple the odds of a metabolic disorder diagnosis (Vogel 2019).
This means that it’s essential for your overall health and wellbeing to work on not simply accepting, but truly appreciating your body. Self love can keep you healthy!
How to Jumpstart Your Journey to Body Confidence:
1. Recognize Negative Thoughts
Negative thoughts are insidious – initially, you may not realize your internal dialogue is critical. Take note of what you’re thinking and feeling when you get dressed, look at yourself in the mirror, or feel the urge to cover-up at the gym. Work on being objective by removing opinions or words with bad connotations from your self-talk as much as possible.
Pro tip: If you wouldn’t say it to a friend, don’t say it to yourself!
2. Refocus Self-Talk
Once you’ve learned to identify critical thoughts, begin working to replace them with positive attributes. This may be hard initially, particularly if you feel negatively about more than one physical characteristic. Reframe your self analysis to identify what your motive is for criticizing yourself in the first place, and then focus on the purpose of your body and its abilities.
Does it get you from place to place? Does it help you create art? If you’re struggling to remember positives throughout the day, write affirmations on sticky notes; writing and reading affirmations ground you, and boost self esteem.
3. Avoid Comparisons
It’s hard to avoid the type of media images that reinforce the idea that there are “ideal” body types, which other people have and you don’t. As a psychologist from the Cleveland Clinic, Ninoska Petersen says, “You can be reading a magazine and on one page there’s an article about how to love yourself the way you are, and then you flip the page and there’s an ad for a diet plan or an anti-aging cream.”
Remember that what you see on TV, in ads, and on instagram influencers’ feeds is not necessarily real. Photoshop exists, filters exist, and people are trying hard to look perfect for the camera – don’t compare yourself to unrealistic standards!
4. Keep Body-Positive Company
Those closest to us influence how we view ourselves, so surround yourself with supportive people who appreciate you exactly as you are. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to exercise more to feel healthier or wanting to try a new moisturizer to smooth a few wrinkles, ensure you’re not doing these things because you feel pressured to keep up with trendy friends or critical family. Especially if you have a larger body, keeping positive company will help you develop a better relationship with your body image and reduce self consciousness, particularly if you’re able to find people who relate to your body image concerns.
5. Do Things You Love
Yes, this sounds extremely cheesy. But it’s legitimate advice – focusing on attaining an ideal physique is not going to help you achieve self-actualization. Enjoying life and committing to activities or causes you feel strongly about are what will help you reach your potential. There’s no time for fat talk and the thin ideal, no time for restrictive eating or letting the unhealthy fashion industry push you into eating behaviors or thought patterns that make you feel inadequate.
If you’re not sure what you love, try things out – remember that your body is only one part of you, not the sum total, and it’s your experiences that make you whole.
The takeaway from this discussion is that wrestling with both male and female body image problems can certainly be difficult, but it isn’t unusual – almost everyone will struggle with some kind of body dissatisfaction at some point in their lifetime.
However, negative perceptions of your appearance don’t have to weigh you down, and they shouldn’t keep you from doing what you love. We’re here to experience everything the world has to offer, and it’s hard to do that if you have to yell over the sound of your own self-critical monologue. Think about what you want to achieve in life, and then ensure that every day you’re working to build yourself up, rather than tear yourself down.