Americans spend billions of dollars on weight-loss and workout programs in order to try to achieve the “perfect body.” Advertisements promise confidence, improved self-esteem, impeccable health, and romance once the perfect body is achieved.
The myth that we are presented with is that we are just not trying hard enough if we aren’t thin.
The ads, and even our healthcare system, do not acknowledge the scientific evidence that body size and shape are under significant genetic control. Body composition is a lot more complex than simply calories-in and calories-out.
What is body image?
Body image can be described as a mental image of what we think we look like. Body image is not necessarily how we look, but how we think we look. It is dynamic. That is, body image is dependent on the situation or mood. For example, you may have a more positive body image if you are out enjoying yourself on a nice hike. In contrast, you may have a poorer body image if you are anxious in a social situation.
Body image is developed over time, often through comparing yourself to media images and friends. Additionally, messages from peers, family members, and other significant people in our lives mold our body image.
Furthermore, if you live in a larger body than what our culture deems healthy you are also having to navigate weight stigma and bias. To learn more about weight stigma and bias: http://www.uconnruddcenter.org/weight-bias-stigma.
Three steps to improve your body image:
1. Aim for body acceptance, first
Fortunately, there is a push or movement for body positivity. The intention is great — promoting body love no matter what size and shape — I am all for it. But, it is a long reach going from body hatred to body love. There is a lot of work in between that has to happen in order for total body love.
I work with clients on body acceptance first. Body acceptance is just what is sounds like, acknowledging that there may be parts (maybe even a lot) that you don’t like about your body and then some parts of your body that do you like. If you can’t think of a few things that you like about your body try thinking about what your body does for you. For example, your body allows you get to work or school, it is the vehicle for socializing with friend and family, or it allows you to participate in your favorite hobbies.
Ultimately, acknowledging that your body is not all bad — that there are some good parts and some other parts you are feeling uncomfortable with.
2. Acknowledge that bodies are diverse
Body composition, size and shape are highly genetic and change with age. One body size or type is not better than another, despite what the media (and even the healthcare system) says. It is not fair or accurate to compare your body to models, for example, as they are likely models because of their genetics. Just like all of our bodies are not genetically predisposed to being a basketball player or a jockey.
Notice that some of your favorite people come in diverse bodies. Seek out mentors, groups or communities where the focus is on other things beside bodies.
3. Change your thoughts (It is more effective than changing your body)
If you often think your body is bad, not good enough, or wrong you will continue to have body dissatisfaction. Remember body image is how we think about our bodies. The trick to improving your body image it to change how you think about your body. Changing our thoughts can in turn change how we feel and our behaviors. Use the N.E.D. technique below to help improve your body image.
Notice what you say to yourself about your body. When you look in the mirror or getting dressed what thoughts do you have. Thoughts are not facts. “I hate the way I look,” is an example of a thought.
Evaluate if the thought is 100% true. Using “I hate the way I look” as an example again, a more accurate thought may be “I don’t like they way I look in this outfit, but when I wear different clothes I think I look OK”. Or “It may be hard for me to like my looks, but I have lots of friends who often compliment me.” Or “I don’t always hate the way a look, just now I am feeling that way.”
Decode your thoughts, they usually have some other hidden meaning (usual something to do with self-worth). With the example above maybe you are generally not feeling particularly positive or maybe you are going into a new social situation and you are feeling insecure.
Here is another example:
Notice the thought. You are getting dressed in the morning and you say to yourself. “Gross, look at all this cellulite on my thighs.” This is the thought you are having about your body.
Evaluate this thought — is it 100% true? Consider changing your thought to something more accurate. Such as, “Is this really gross that I have cellulite? Many people have cellulite, it is normal, and I don’t find them gross.”
Decode the thought. Get curious, “Am I associating my cellulite with my love-ability or worthiness?”
This may feel a little awkward at first. The key is to practice this technique and it will get easier with time. Writing your thoughts in a journal or on your phone is a great way to become more proficient at this. Remember your thoughts are not necessarily facts.
Improving your body image takes time. It doesn’t happen over night. It takes practice and lots of it. Think of it like a muscle that you are trying to strengthen. The Body Image Workbook by Dr. Thomas Cash is a great resource to help improve your body image.