“Body image” is the personal relationship we have with our bodies. This includes our beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions that pertain to our physical appearance. Our feelings about our body — how it looks, feels, and moves — can be a major part of our entire self-image. But what shapes this body image?
Why we struggle with loving our bodies
Many factors contribute to and shape our body image:
1. The media
The media plays a strong role in the development of our body image. Pictures are airbrushed and compilations of different body parts from different actresses or models are often put together to provide a picture of the “perfect” body.
2. Cultural attitudes
Cultural depictions of ethnicity and race also play a role in the development of body image. For example, in certain cultures, i.e., the African American culture, larger-sized and curvier female bodies are more accepted. Do these cultural norms influence our body image? Yes, they do.
3. Parents and loved ones
Personal factors in our lives contribute to the development of our body image. Our families of origin play a role in the experiences occurring in our younger years that impact how we feel about our bodies. Verbal messages and modeling by parents or loved ones can influence a child’s developing body image
4. Our peers
Our peers and friends can influence our body image. In our younger years, peers can be merciless with teasing and can also be highly competitive regarding physical appearance, particularly among females, but increasingly, among males.
5. Athletic environments
Let's face it: many athletes struggle with body image
. In particular, professional athletes, jockeys, gymnasts, dancers, and ice skaters experience a high degree of dietary restraint, drive for thinness and body image concerns, as these factors contribute to success in their sport.
Other factors also affect how we view our bodies.
- A history of abuse — Physical, sexual, or verbal abuse can influence body image.
- Temperament — A person’s temperament (degree of control and perfectionism, for example) can affect one's body image.
- Emotional or mental health issues — Mood disorders, depression, and anxiety can determine how a person feels about themselves in general, which can transfer into feelings regarding their body
Loving our bodies and accepting them
Strengthening our relationships with our bodies is a long and challenging process. However, with commitment, perseverance, strength, hope, and support, we can learn to develop a healthy and loving body image.
Thankfully, there are many ways to do this:
- Identify negative thought patterns. Identify negative thinking patterns and counter them with positive or neutral thoughts (i.e., affirmations). This can greatly affect your body image if used consistently.
- Focus on function, not appearance. Look at your body in terms of its function instead of its appearance. Our bodies are amazing when you objectively consider all the things that our bodies do for us. Without a body, we wouldn’t be able to live!
- Eliminate self-destructive behaviors. This could even include behaviors like trying on a variety of clothes before you leave the house or berating yourself and your body as you look in the mirror. Instead, try this: look in your closet and pick out one outfit to wear. Before you leave, briefly look in the mirror to make sure that you are put together appropriately. Relax and just go with it.
- Practice self-care. Practice self-care — including physical relaxation and mindfulness. Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing your awareness on the present moment while accepting your feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. This is a key technique in connecting the mind and the body and mindfulness is used often in eating disorder treatment work.
- Love yourself. Look in the mirror and offer affirming, positive statements to yourself. Decrease the time spent on your appearance, including any preoccupation rituals, and decrease your tendency to hide your body.
- Seek professional help if necessary. Finally, experiential type activities can be helpful. Body tracings, videotaping your body, processing feelings and thoughts, mirror work, visualization, and movement therapy/yoga are all key components to a person being able to experience their body in a new way. If you are interested in learning more about these interventions, look for a therapist with experience in body image counseling.
- Be a positive role model. Parental influence can be another key piece. Parents can do many things to model a positive body image for their child. Positive self-talk, self-care, and messages about others and themselves can all contribute to a child’s view of themselves and others.
Body love and eating disorders
Research shows that a negative body image is one of the highest predictors of a person’s relapse with an eating disorder. And, when a person is being treated for an eating disorder, body image is one of the most difficult things to change.
A person may even cease their eating-disordered behaviors but still persist with a negative body image.
It is extremely important to increase awareness about body image issues and the relationship with eating disorders in our society. Education needs to occur with the intention of finding continuing treatment options to deal with these concerns. We must also address body image concerns that are inherent in eating disorders.
- Carolyn Jones RN, LPC, CEDS, CEDRN