Now that we are in February any New Year’s Resolutions may have started to slip. Did you start a diet and exercise program hoping that you would become more body confident and happier about your body image? Perhaps you are not quite happy about how your resolution is coming together.
Being dissatisfied with body image takes many forms. Many individuals who are unhappy with their body image compare themselves to media images and to other people. They worry about how your body might be perceived by others and how clothes look on them. Women also often engage in negative self-talk and criticise their body parts. They may engage in activities, such as dieting and extreme or sporadic exercising with the hope that they can change their body, but often the plans slip at some point which leads to such feelings as shame, disappointment, and anger with self for not being able to stick to the plan. When someone is unhappy with their body, there may be “fat days” when their behaviour changes and they, for example, avoid social contact because they don’t feel confident enough to speak with particular people.
If you recognised any of the above, you are not alone. The estimates of how many women and men are dissatisfied with their body image vary depending on the study. It is estimated 50-90% of women are unhappy with their body and Body Image Dissatisfaction is on the increase in men too.
Your body is a significant part of your sense of self and who you are. Your body is not only visible to others, but you can express your personality through your body by how you dress and move. For many the body has become more of an object and has lost its connection with the mind. This is likely to lead to distress in the form of anxiety, low mood and problematic eating and exercise behaviours. It can also affect intimate relationships if you do not feel confident and comfortable being naked in front of your partner.
If you are unhappy about your body image, you may be engaging in behaviours that perpetuate your dissatisfaction with your body. By changing these thinking and behaviour patterns you can change how you feel about your body. Some unhelpful behaviours you can work on and change today, others may take more time and/or require support from a therapist. This is the first part of the article and will focus on stopping excessive comparison, moving from being self-critical to self-compassion and moving from being mostly focused on the external to having a more holistic view of the self.
Stop excessive comparison
Do you spend a lot of time reading fashion or celebrity magazines and comparing your body to the images? Do you also compare yourself against your peers? Research shows that repeated exposure to airbrushed media images increases body image related anxiety (Dittmar, 2009). Social comparison is a natural human behaviour. However, if one constantly compares to unrealistic, airbrushed images or to peers with different body shapes, anxiety about body image is likely to increase and make you unhappy.
Tip: Go cold turkey on celebrity magazines and limit accessing other sources of media images. It may sound harsh, but if you are spending a lot of time on social media looking at images which highlight your concerns about your body and give you a skewed view of the variety of normal body shapes, you are likely to feel worse about your body. Instead engage in activities where you see a lot of different sized bodies: small, tall, slim or fat and the different shapes from apple and pear to cone and athletic. We all have different body shapes and rather than trying to be something unrealistic, let’s make the best of what we have. Enjoy your amazing body!
From self-critical to self-compassion
Do you engage in “body bashing”? Many women who are dissatisfied with body discuss “fat days” with their female friends. Others may completely hide their thoughts and feelings from those close to them. Many women criticise their reflection in the mirror by pinching the fleshier parts of the body and then say to themselves “fat”.
Would you be so harsh and critical of a good, loyal friend? That is what our body is; a friend, who helps us to go about our day and do amazing things. Constantly criticising the body and focusing on negative self-talk focuses your mind on the negative and on specific parts of your body that you are dissatisfied with. The more you criticise the worse you feel. If you wish to feel better about yourself and your body, now is the time to become friends again with your loyal friend, your body, who is serving you well.
Be kind to your body like you are kind to a close friend. When your friend has a bad day, you support them and be accepting that everyone is allowed to have a bad day, it is part of being human. Similarly, your body needs nurturing: compassion and acceptance, good nutrition and moderate exercise. By becoming more accepting of your body as it is and having an outlook of your body being an amazing part of your sense of self will change your relationship with your body. Celebrate the body you have, you are unique!
Exercise: Write a compassionate letter to your body highlighting your body’s best parts and as well as the parts you are less proud of, but remember be kind and compassionate. Also notice the amazing things your body can do for you. (Modified version: original version A compassionate letter to self by Dr Kristin Neff)
From focusing on the external to having a holistic view of yourself
How do you feel about yourself in general? Many women who are unhappy with their body are also feel insecure in other ways. Body image may receive more attention and body receive more criticism on the days when things don’t go to plan or perhaps one is upset about something. Do you feel that if your body is not “perfect” or the way you would like, you cannot love yourself? Many women who are unhappy with their body spend a lot of time and effort trying to improve the external being (your body) by diet and exercise, choosing the right clothes that create the illusion of the body being a particular shape.
By focusing mostly on your external self (your physical body), you ignore your internal qualities and your view of yourself is skewed. This is likely to increase you distress and make you unhappy not only about your body but in general about yourself.
If you are worried about how the opposite sex views you, perhaps you are looking for love. The old cliché beauty is in the eye of the beholder fits. In general, other people see you as a combination of personality and physical being. Perhaps it is worth knowing that research has suggested that that men find a wider range of females attractive when they know something about the women’s personality (Swami et al., 2010). Let your personality shine through!
For your emotional well-being it is important to know yourself as a person with many qualities both internal and external. Like all of us you have qualities that you like and those that you would rather not have, but they are a part of you and that makes you unique. Really get to know yourself and listen to your needs: what you really want and what your body needs.
By having a holistic view of yourself as an individual with many qualities, your bodily feelings receive less attention and have less of a meaning. You may wish to seek support of a therapist to increase your self-awareness and getting to know who you really are as a person. Having a strong sense of self and being accepting of who you are as a person helps you to feel more accepting of your body.
Exercise: List 20 of your personal qualities – how would a very close friend/partner describe you?
This first part of the article focused on reducing comparing to unrealistic images, increasing self-compassion, and forming a holistic view of yourself as ways to learn to form a more loving relationship with body. The second part of the article which will be out on 25/02/16. It will look at stopping asking for feedback and extreme eating and dieting regimes. Part 2 here.
Loving or even liking your body is not easy when we live in a very image rich society. There are a lot of (hidden) messages about very limited beauty ideals. However, only you can decide how much you let the external messages influence you and determine how you should be. If you feel you need help with building a protective shield to reduce the impact of media images on you, therapy can help you with that.
Get in touch! I offer a free 15min phone consultation if you would like to talk about how therapy could help you. I look forward to hearing from you. firstname.lastname@example.org
Dittmar, H. (2009). How do “body perfect” ideals in the media have a negative impact on body image and behaviours? Factors and processes related to self and identity. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 28(1), 1-8.
Swami, V., Furnham, A., Chamorro-Premuzic, T., Akbar, K., Gordon, N., Harris, T., & Tovée, M. J. (2010). More than just skin deep? Personality information influences men’s ratings of the attractiveness of women’s body sizes. The Journal Of Social Psychology, 150(6), 628-647.