Many people are tormented by toxic beliefs about the unworthiness of their body. Negative body image can perpetuate an unhealthy relationship with food, or in more extreme cases lead to an eating, or mental health disorder. To transform a negative body image, and heal from disordered eating, we need to learn to accept and love the body we have, as well as understand the causes of negative body image that hurt us all.
My client, “Rebecca” (a composite of many women I have seen in my practice) has struggled with a negative body image since the onset of puberty.
“My body is disgusting”, she says looking down.
“I avoid looking in mirrors, and I dread social situations because I feel that people are thinking that I am fat and ugly.”
You are not alone
For 30 million people in US, and 1.5% of women in Canada a relentless preoccupation with food, weight, and body image causes significant anguish. Every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder.
Our body image is what we believe about our appearance, and how we judge our body, including our height, shape, and weight. Beliefs such as only other people are attractive, and one’s own body is a sign of personal failure cause feelings of anxiety, sadness, and shame. Beliefs about one’s body that cause severe emotional distress, the inability to function, and compulsion to undergo unnecessary plastic surgeries, is called body dysmorphia disorder (BDD).
There was a time in my life when I hated my body. Between the ages of 12 and 23 years, I went through periods when I deprived myself of the necessary calories that I needed to be nourished, or gorged myself rather than slow down to enjoy my food. For a brief period, I made myself vomit after overeating which only caused more damage.
When I look back on it, several forces shaped my negative body image, and my unhealthy relationship with food. The first one is lineage. Both my mother and maternal grandfather had an eating disorder. How people looked, whether they’d gained or lost weight, were readily discussed in judgemental tones.
I knew if I was slim, I’d get acceptance and acknowledgment. I also knew that I didn’t want to be in the category of those who gained weight and were silently mocked for it.
Be Thin to Be Beautiful = Negative Body Image
Our North American culture’s judgment and intolerance of bodies that don’t conform with a specific, increasingly skinny vision of beauty played a part in my unhealthy body image. Like the thirty-seven percent of girls in grade nine and 40% in grade ten who perceive themselves as too fat, I too grew up believing that to be accepted I needed to be beautiful, and to be beautiful I needed to be skinny.
As Naomi Wolf writes in the Beauty Myth,
“…inside the majority of the West’s controlled, attractive, successful working women, there is a secret “underlife” poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control”.
Rigid notions of beauty don’t only affect women and girls. Men who have a lot of body hair, or whose body doesn’t match the dominant stereotype of manliness are just as prone to take steroids, engage in disordered eating, and undergo invasive cosmetic surgeries to conform with manufactured ideals of beauty.
Since 2000, overall plastic surgery procedures have risen by 115 percent. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, nearly 64,000 cosmetic surgery patients in 2014 were aged 13-19, and experts believe this number is bound to rise.
In her blog on how to have a positive body image, clinical psychologist Elizabeth Halsted discusses how hetero-centric, and racial stereotypes negatively impact queer and non-white individuals ability to feel comfortable in their bodies.
We need to step back and examine to what degree how we see our body is influenced by a socially constructed and normative vision of beauty.
When our starting point is the belief that “my body is faulty and unacceptable because of how I look”, we become a slave to achieve a version of ourselves that is externalized and out of reach.
Steps to cultivate a positive body image:
- Step back and examine the thoughts and beliefs that you have about your body. Reflect on where these beliefs came from, such as negative messages from family, peers, and media.
- Step back and notice when you are being critical of yourself and others, such as comparing yourself to others, or judging yourself or other people’s appearance.
- Actively appreciate the body you have by noticing all that it does for you, such as breathes, digests, helps you to accomplish tasks, and allows you to just be here to hear a bird sing, see the sun shine, and receive the love in your life.
- Accept and value human beings, including yourself, regardless of your/their weight and shapes. Remember that a person’s physical appearance says very little about their character and value as a person.
- Accept and live comfortably with the notion that there are normal variations in human size, shape, and weight, and that the shape we might wish to have might not be the size or shape we are biologically designed to have.
- See food and exercise as instruments for self-care rather than a means to become more skinny, and “beautiful”.
- Seek help from kind and compassionate friends, family, and professionals to help you nurture a healthy body image.
- Become a political activist for people of all body sizes.
To transform negative into positive body image we need to acknowledge the sources of negative body image, and stop punishing ourselves for not having “the perfect” body. We don’t have to conform with an image of beauty that is artificial, and beyond our reach. When we are compassionate with ourselves, we can appreciate what our body can do, and benefit from its inner wisdom. Learning to eat and exercise in a way that is appropriate and helpful is important, as well as celebrating our natural body shape.
If you or someone you know is interested in a Loving Your Body support group, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Klein
Comorbidity of Anxiety Disorders With Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa Walter, H. Kaye, M.D. Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D. Laura Thornton, Ph.D. Nicole Barbarich, B.S. Kim Masters, B.S. (Am J Psychiatry 2004; 161:2215–2221)
The Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, James I. Hudson, Eva Hiripi, Harrison G. Pope, Jr., and Ronald C. Kessler, Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Feb 1; 61(3): 348–358.