This is part 3 of the series – Why Size Doesn’t Matter!
No one has straight lines on their bodies, so I guess it makes sense that our body image is not so linear either.
What is Body Image?
- NEDA – What is Body Image?
- What is and is not Positive Body Image
- What is Healthy Body Image, Anyway? (part ⅗ in a series of articles from Women’s Running about how to #fixgirlssports)
- Factors that Influence Body Image (part ⅘)
That is a complicated question…
Body image is more than what we see when we look in the mirror. It is how that image reflects who we judge ourselves to be as a person as well as in appearance. I will highlight four concepts that make up body image to talk about a bit more: self-esteem, appearance, health, and values.
If we evaluate our self esteem to be good, low, bad, or something else, that concept is one of the things we then use to judge ourselves.
Self esteem is inherently evaluative, meaning we compare ourselves to others to come up with our representation of self esteem. This causes some problems, because it means that we are always ranking and judging.
In her self-compassion research, psychology researcher Dr, Kristen Neff reports that she noticed that women judge their esteem more by their appearance than other elements of self-esteem like achievements, material success or a sense of self efficacy. Since these elements all come into play when we are children, the patterns tend to pervade our lives.
This is mostly important because the research indicates that positive body image is more closely related to self esteem than it is to any negative body image. In other words, you must improve your overall self-esteem and/or self compassion to improve body image, regardless of your size or appearance concerns.
You know how your first impressions of someone are not always right? Well, many other facets of how we see ourselves and others impact our self reported body image satisfaction.
Yes, some part of body image is, actually, about appearance. What we consider attractive, whether personal preference or learned behavior, influences what we think about our bodies.
Throughout history, the appearance ideal has shifted, twisted, and morphed into all kinds of forms. From Barbie to 90’s supermodels to Twiggy to Venus (Greek goddess and Willendorf) every era and culture has had different female beauty ideals that significantly influence what we think we should look like. What era we grew up in, what media we attend to, and what our romantic partners think will also influence our appearance self assessment. Not to mention all the traits we are born and develop that are not necessarily all about our physical body – How tall are you? What is your gender identity? Hair and eye color? Skin tone? Personal style?
Who did you think was pleasing before you were an adolescent and developed your own sexualized self concept? A lot of us will say our mothers – not only because she was our caregiver (though that part is really important), but also because we saw something in our moms that was different than what they saw themselves. For example, I will probably always think that pale skin and dark hair are attractive because my mom had those traits and I have positive associations with those (and with my mom in general).
Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, and there is not going to be a consensus about what is the most attractive. Therefore, it is important to assess your appearance by an ideal that is in the realm of reality. Whatever your appearance ideal might be, think about if it is actually what you like – or just what you think you should.
When you have a significant health issue, it can drastically alter how you perceive your body. Again, this is more about perception than about the facts of the situation. Aside from chronic illness, puberty, pregnancy, and menopause are times when our health has a significant effect on our body perceptions.
Another aspect of health is mental health, and the disorders that most impact body image are known as eating disorders. Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, OSFED, ARFID, and body dysmorphia all impact our evaluation of weight and shape. Body image distortion is a criteria for diagnosis of most of these, in differing ways and degrees. But more about that in the next section…
If we believe appearance to be important or not, it has an impact on how we interact with the world. But if we hold appearance, beauty, or health high in our values assessment then they will have a more significant impact.
If we hold other things in higher value (like my personal top three values of genuineness, creativity & knowledge), it does not automatically mean that we change our appearance self assessment. No matter our values, we are all equally susceptible to believing that these things are important. However, it does give us some ammunition to fight against the prevailing attitudes – if we engage critical thinking.
We are exposed to between 6,000-10,000 “impressions” per day – it was 500-1600 in the 70’s for comparison. This is just advertising and does not take into account the other media, family, workplace, or other social messages we see every day. Because these numbers are so high, we have to do a lot of conscious challenging to counter these messages.
How does Body Image Affect us?
When we have a healthy, realistic, or positive view of our bodies, we interact very differently with the world.
Two of the main symptoms associated with eating disorders are “body image distortion” and “fear of fatness.” This is not to be confused with fat phobia and weight stigma – we will get to those in a minute.
Body image distortion means that a person does not accurately assess what they see in the mirror – generally, they see someone much larger than they actually are. It works much more rarely in the opposite way.
Fear of fatness is the fear of gaining weight to the point that they would evaluate themselves as “fat,” which is also confusing because they may already see themselves that way due to the distortion that they are experiencing.
As a therapist who specializes in working with clients struggling with eating disorders, body image is one of the most insidious and difficult to treat aspects of recovery. There are several reasons for this, but one is that our self-perception tends to change much more slowly than the physiological changes are occurring – if you rapidly gain or lose weight, you tend to see yourself in kind of a static way despite evidence to the contrary. It often takes more than a year for your self-perception to normalize.
Another is that malnutrition, which comes from not eating enough no matter what your weight is, comes from restricting your food intake. Every eating disorder (excluding body dysmorphia) involves restricting your food intake in some way. And malnutrition, in turn, causes depression, anxiety, and increased negative self evaluation.
The Minnesota Starvation Experiment, from 1945, exposed some of these effects of malnutrition. There are several interesting facets to the study – one of which is that “starvation” was considered eating 1570 calories a day, and another was that about 10% of participants were excluded because they “broke” their diets or did not lose “enough” weight on this plan. They all experienced significant psychological and physiological changes including depression and obsession with food despite being unable to eat anything outside of the protocols. The study did not measure the effect on participants self evaluation, specifically, though potential implications are profound.
Once a person has recovered from their eating disorders physiologically they will be able to fully recover psychologically.
The last reason gets its own category…
Weight Stigma & Fatphobia
These are pervasive, and even more insidious because they are largely accepted as reasonable. Fatphobia is dehumanizing. Weight stigma is present in every interaction. It will take significant change as a society to challenge these beliefs – and most of us will not do so.
How many times have you heard someone describe a food as “bad” – or themselves as “bad” for eating it, wanting it, or enjoying it? How many times have you heard deprivation described as “good?” That simple example is hard to escape – we have assumed that thin is”good” and fat is “bad” for most of the last 100 years – for women. Men have not had the same expectations, of course. A “fat cat” or a “big daddy” is not an inherently negative thing for men – but can you say the same about “fat cow” or “big momma?”
If you want to read more about this, please check out the other blogs in this series:
- Why Size Doesn’t Matter (part 1) – about the fashion industry and sizeism
- Why Weight Doesn’t Matter (part 2) – What Can We Do? To find advocacy, cultural, and philosophical ideas that may be helpful
- Creating and Anti-Diet Culture
- Stop Weight Bias
- 5 Ways to Fight Weight Stigma in Everyday Life
Developing a Positive Body Image
Positivity and mindfulness are two things we tend to actively fight against when we’re talking about our bodies. The number one rule about body image is COMPASSION.
Focus on function
Focusing on how amazing your body is everyday can be very helpful – think about all the ways it is working behind the scenes and the miracle of engineering that it truly is.
Comparing yourself to others is almost always a losing battle – we rarely see the full picture when we do this, and it takes away so much from us!
Keep talking about it
This is a topic that we do not discuss enough – it makes many of us uncomfortable. Why should talking about food, appearance, and our bodies be so weird and usually negative?
The most important thing you can do is stop engaging in negative self talk around others, and cultivate compassion for yourself. That means talking positively about yourself to others, and talking about it when people say negative, stigmatizing, or hurtful things about others’ bodies or food.
As with most things in life, it is easier to start early and keep it going than it is to change gears in the middle of your life. If a child never hears adults talking that way, they will not learn it – but since this is the world we live in, it is important that we counter the negative messaging and teach kids to treat themselves and others with respect – teaching kids diversity is not just about gender or race.
- Developing a positive body image for kids
- Body Positive.org
- 10 steps to developing health body image
- Mirror Exposure Therapy
- 9 Simple Tools For a Stronger Body Image (part 5/5)
Body Image Challenges
Here are some exercises that might be helpful:
- The Dressing Room Challenge asks you to speak mindfully about yourself, body, and the clothes you are trying on in dressing rooms with a mind towards others who may be there.
- Mirror Challenge asks you to describe body part neutrally
Look for my next BI series to lay out a framework – which starts with becoming more aware of your body image thoughts.
If you want to keep talking about this, reach out!