This 2-part blog series looks at how unhelpful thinking and behaviour patterns contribute to having negative feelings towards body and how to change them. The first part looked at stopping excessive body comparison, forming a more compassionate and holistic relationship with self. It can be found here.
Being unhappy with body image affects one’s life in so many ways, for example intimate relationships, but more surprisingly even women’s ability to perform tasks. A study found that women who saw themselves as an object also performed less well on a task (Gay & Castano, 2010). So on the days when you are feeling particularly unhappy about your body, how much do you believe in your abilities to carry out your job or any other challenges you face? This can have a significant impact on your working life and career.
This blog post focuses on the last 2 remaining steps towards a more positive body image: stopping asking for feedback and changing extreme eating and exercising regimes.
Stop asking for feedback and learn to rely more on yourself as a source of support
Do you constantly ask other people about your appearance: seek feedback and reassurance from others? The old phrase “Does my bum look big in this” particularly if used constantly is contributing to your body insecurities. Asking other people for reassurance may temporarily make you feel better, but if you don’t believe it yourself, this boost in mood may be short lived. You may even doubt how genuine the comments are and they make you perhaps even paranoid or at least focused on thinking about how you are perceived by others.
By focusing on your bodily features rather than you as a person with many qualities, seeking feedback takes you away from seeing yourself holistically. Once the boost you experienced after a compliment or reassurance has faded, you may feel, for example, anxiety or shame in relation to your body and need more reassurance. It is a vicious cycle.
Tip: Get to really know your body inside and out: it’s shape and size, listen to your body and what it needs. Dress for the size you are, not for the size you wish to be. It is important that you feel good and comfortable in whatever you are wearing. If you wear your outfit with a smile, it doesn’t matter even if you wear a bin liner.
Once you start to see yourself more holistically and practice self-compassion, you don’t need to rely on the reassurance from others; even on a day when you don’t feel so good, you can rely on yourself as a source of support. Be your own best friend! Find ways to comfort yourself such as repeat a supportive statement, practice meditation, carry around a small meaningful object or a picture that brings lovely memories for you.
From extreme dieting and exercising regimes to having harmony in the body and mind
Do you have good foods and bad foods? Many women have a love-hate relationship with food. They eat food items that they love and then feel guilty for it, because they may be bloated or think that once eating “bad foods” is going to make them fat. Body image dissatisfaction often comes with “yo-yo dieting”: constantly being on and off on a healthy eating and exercise plan. It is also common to set unrealistic and impossible targets and when the plan does not materialise, one feels guilt, shame or perhaps angry with the body, which has in some ways failed. Do you recognise this? Having very strict eating and exercise plans are another way of communicating to yourself that you and your body are not good enough.
Tip: Let’s go back to thinking about the loyal friend. Would you starve your friend or make them feel guilty for missing a gym session or having a peace of cake? Healthy eating which allows flexibility and moderate exercise are beneficial for the mind and body.
If it has been a long time since you have eaten well and it is difficult to hear the messages your body sends about its needs and you don’t really know what balanced healthy eating is, perhaps seeing a nutritionist would help to get you started. Think about how can you make your body feel good from the inside.
Exercise is for the mind and body too. Practice exercise which makes you feel good about your body and helps you to relax as well challenge you if you wish, such as yoga or pilates. Focus on what feels good rather than just losing weight and slimming down.
The 5 steps to a more positive body image are:
Stopping constant comparison
Self-compassion and becoming a friends with the body
Forming a holistic view of the self
Stopping asking for feedback on appearance and relying on yourself more
Having right kind of nutrition and exercise bringing harmony for the mind and body
You may have felt unhappy about your body for a long time. You can make a start towards a more positive body image today. However, remember to be patient and practice self-compassion. Like any change, it takes time to adopt a new way of being; there are times when things move forward and then you take a step back again. That is part of a change process. When you become aware of how you treat and view your body, then you can make changes: one step at a time.
If you feel that you would like to have help with becoming friends with your body and forming a more holistic view of yourself, therapy can support you on your road to a more positive body image.
Written by Dr Mari Kovanen, a Chartered Counselling Psychologist, offering psychological therapy in Reigate, Surrey. Get in touch if you would like to have support.