The way I once spoke to myself was often scathing, condescending, mockingand downright unkind, especially around my body shape, weight, and perceived flaws and imperfections. And then I was stopped in my tracks by a single question: Would you talk to your best friend the way you speak to yourself?
No, I certainly would not.
But a negative body image can result in us doing many things we would likely be surprised by if we could see ourselves from the outside. It should be noted that many individuals experience body image issues without turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms or negative behaviours, but for others it can make us push away friends and potential partners if we don’t believe we are attractive enough, and it can lead to yo-yo dieting as we convince ourselves that being slimmer or curvier (or whatever) will make us feel better about ourselves.
A significant number of people are concerned by at least one aspect of their body; however, a negative body image conveys an overwhelmingly general disappointment towards one’s body shape, weight, size, and appearance. Negative feelings and thoughts towards one’s body are defined as body dissatisfaction or body image distress. This negative perspective of one’s body image is often a symptom, or predictor, of an eating disorder. Body image distress usually occurs among those with mental health disorders – including food addiction, depression, and anxiety.
Negative body issues among adolescents have been found to affect 50% of girls and 30% of boys. However, this rises to 80% of women and 40% of men in the adult population. As a result, many individuals attempt dangerous fad diets, excessively restrict food, purge, use laxatives, obsessively exercise, or even undergo plastic surgery to try and resolve the feelings of dissatisfaction.
What is negative body image?
The development of a negative body image is a multidimensional construct that comprises an individual’s conditioning, childhood, beliefs, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and behaviours.
There is a range of body-related behaviours indicated with body dissatisfaction that includes body-checking behaviours, such as frequent weighing, pinching of flesh, and mirror observation.
A negative body image can result in numerous psychological and physiological disorders. These may include:
- Depression, anxiety, and stress
- Low self-esteem and self-worth
- Substance use
- Food addiction, anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders
- Social isolation
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Body preoccupation
- Body avoidance
- Intense fear of weight gain
- Body dysmorphia
- Muscle dysmorphia
Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a psychiatric disorder classified as a type of anxiety-related obsessive-compulsive disorder. More than 1 in 20 girls aged 17–19 in the UK may have BDD. This disorder is highly distressing for the sufferer and is defined by having a preoccupation and misperception with an aspect of one’s personal appearance.
Although negative body image issues are more common among females, recent research has demonstrated a growing problem among males. Muscle dysmorphia is of increasing concern within this demographic as studies indicate approximately 10% of UK male gym members experience muscle dysmorphia. This disorder is characterised by a preoccupation and dissatisfaction with appearance, along with a perceived lack of muscle definition and mass.
So, how can you tackle a negative body image?
Challenge your misperceptions
Negative body image can become so ingrained that, unfortunately, it is often one of the last symptoms of an eating disorder to go following treatment. Additionally, it is important to note that it may be impossible to become entirely free of body image concerns as the perfect appearance is a concept perpetuated throughout our society. That said, there are a variety of successful interventions proven to help counteract negative body image.
These interventions are numerous and widespread, so it is vital to find the ones that work best for you. You may find that one proves successful or incorporation of a few is best. Potential options include cognitive-behavioural therapy, fitness training, media literacy, self-esteem development, and gratitude.
Stop that negative inner chatter
Stop engaging in negative self-criticism. By listening to that voice in your head which shames you and is hurtful and damaging, you are perpetuating a detrimental cycle. Avoid these judgements, counteract them, argue back, and change the language.
Compliment yourself each day. Choose an area of your body that you like – there is one, I assure you! It may be your skin, hair, ankles, eyes, shoulders. Compliment yourself and take some time to enjoy that area through touch and visual appreciation. The more you do this, the more that voice will change its tone.
Once you get a handle on your inner critic – and simply being aware they are there is a sign of enormous progress – you can start to get to the nitty-gritty of change.
Challenge avoidance and body checking
If you are used to body checking multiple times a day or undergo the opposite – hiding your body from yourself and others – try to make gradual steps to change this. If there are clothes that you are afraid to wear outside, start wearing those clothes indoors – wearing them in the house allows you to get used to them and build confidence. If you want to engage in body checking activities, try a gratitude based intervention to act as a positive distraction.
Keeping a gratitude journal is a wonderfully positive daily exercise. Start each day with five things you are grateful for, and you will quickly discover that your mindset shifts. Maybe you are thankful for having a home, the sunrise, that first cup of coffee in the morning, hugging your child, or taking part in outdoor activities. There are any number of things, however small, we can be grateful for, and as you practice this exercise, it will become increasingly challenging to keep to just five.
Self-esteem strategies focus on building healthy coping skills, finding resilience, and identifying your unique skills and positive traits. There are some fantastic interventions for the treatment of body dissatisfaction as it helps shift the emphasis from the body towards the person as a whole. For example, balancing core beliefs, making adjustments to unhealthy rules and assumptions, and tackling automatic negative thoughts.
Exercise is known to boost our endorphins and make us feel energised and optimistic. Improving fitness can also improve body image by encouraging individuals to focus more on their overall health and energy levels and less on their appearance.
Buy clothes that fit now
All too often, we buy clothes that do not quite fit – but we want them to. We think they will motivate us to reach that ideal weight or size, but all they do is cause us psychological harm. Embrace your body the way it is today. Buy clothes that you love that flatter you the way you are now. This will increase your self-esteem and self-worth exponentially.
Dr Bunmi Aboaba is a food addiction coach and leading authority on food addiction, helping clients achieve a healthy relationship with food to meet long-term health goals.
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