The importance of a healthy body image:
How satisfied or unsatisfied we are with our body is not just a matter of our efforts towards looking a certain way. It’s deeply ingrained from cultural socialisation, interpersonal relationships, our personality tendencies, our physical characteristics combined with the influence of digital trends to shape the thoughts, feelings and beliefs we have on our appearance. Body dissatisfaction has been shown to be a significant precursor of unhealthy body related behaviors and negative emotional states (Grabe et al., 2008).
This can be seen with the increasing use of body shaping behaviours leading to potential unhealthy consequences such as unbalanced diet regimes or steroid abuse (Cafri et al, 2005; Grogan, 2008). This highlights that a healthy body image is a core aspect of physical and mental well-being and given this significance, it’s important to understand the risk factors and psychological processes that lead to an unhealthy body image.
How we view our bodies:
Most people care about their appearance to some extent. Humans are visual creatures and often make judgments about what they see before gathering further information (Kaas, 2013). It’s completely normal to feel good about a compliment on your appearance. Unfortunately however, caring too much can provide unhelpful thoughts on expectations if they don’t match up. These expectations can either come from ourselves or from others.
Our sense of appearance begins in childhood and develops over time (Grogan, 2008). There are a few contributors to the development of our body image which can be split into two categories.
- Past experiences.
- Current experiences.
Past experiences affect how we view our appearance the way we do, and current experiences from everyday life affect how we think, feel and react towards our appearance.
Past experiences that can influence our body image could include a parent who often complains or discusses their appearance or weight in front of their children. This can adopt the expectation from an early age that appearance and weight are important and therefore you must be concerned about these things. If weight and dieting are a common topic of conversation with friends and family it can lead to the expectation or pressure to ‘look’ a certain way. Body image issues are not uncommon for athletes who often hold a high regard to their appearance in line with their sports. There is a lot of focus on what to eat and how to train that can lead to an athlete being hypervigilant about their body and a pressure to ‘look a certain way’. This can lead some athletes to quitting sports, eating disorders and low self esteem. Different settings can also trigger body image issues. Some athletes may feel more comfortable in their body when they are around their teammates but this may then change when they are in a different setting such as with family or friends to a more self-conscious feeling. It’s important to recognise that how a person feels in their body is often not linear and rather a fluctuating feeling that can depend on many factors.
Current experiences include the trends we see in social culture that leads to physical ideals. For example, recently we have seen the rise in fitness culture with more women now appearing to favour a ‘muscular and lean’ look rather than aiming to be ‘thin’, which was the previous trend (Bozsik et al, 2018).
It is more than acceptable to have physique goals. The issue comes with placing a high self worth on these outcomes and exercising solely for a certain appearance rather than for health or fitness reasons (Simpson & Mazzeo et al, 2017). It doesn’t help that this focus on an unrealistic ‘body perfect’ ideal is transmitted and reinforced across social media. Placing pressure on yourself to live up to portrayed societal ‘norms’ that are in fact above-average outliers, can lead to unfavourable outcomes.
So what can we do?
Building awareness is key. In order to improve your relationship with yourself and your appearance you must first recognize the problem and avoid succumbing to the shallow criteria often pushed from external sources. Rather than placing focus on how you look, channel your energy and thoughts into how your actions are making you feel. When it comes to dietary choices and exercise, view them as a way in which you are caring and nurturing your body rather than a way of manipulating weight/shape.
How to improve relationship with your appearance:
You’re not alone. Body dissatisfaction is extremely common. Over ⅓ of adults in the UK have felt anxious or depressed due to concerns about their body image (Mental health foundation, 2019). However…
It’s important to recognise that we can change how we feel on the inside without changing how we look on the outside.
Here’s 5 steps to consider:
1. Identify your true feelings
‘I wish I looked like them’
‘I feel fat’
‘I’m not lean enough’
If certain negative thoughts arise on appearance or comparisons, it could be helpful to challenge those thoughts and dig a little deeper to identify what it is you really feel. Identify the situation in which these thoughts arise and label that feeling with an emotion (Insecure, self conscious, unworthy). When you identify the true feelings you can work to solve the real issue. For example, the real issue is not that you want to look like a certain person, the real issue is deeper than this and comes from identifying why you aren’t happy in yourself already.
2. Challenge unhelpful thoughts
‘If I think I look bad, others must also think I look bad’.
‘I can’t go swimming until I lose 5kg’.
Challenge certain thoughts when they arise, rather than accepting them. Keep a journal to identify the situations that trigger those unhelpful thoughts and how they affect your behaviour as a response. If there’s a resistance to journal or document your thoughts in any way – ask yourself why. Often this resistance is our reluctance to feel.
What events triggered the feelings about your appearance?
What were you saying to yourself during the event?
How did you react emotionally and behaviourally?
To get started on journaling or to gain some insightful tips on effective reflective practice, check out this article: 9 Tips for Effectice Reflective Practice
3. Avoid/ reduce body checking
If you find yourself to have body image issues, frequent body checking could reinforce the idea that appearance is important. Body checking includes weighing, staring in the mirror, pinching various body parts or making comparisons.
Is your weight/body really changing frequently?
Does checking your body make you feel any better about yourself?
What are you trying to find out after this body check?
4. Focus on other areas of your life
Identify other areas of your life that are important to you and that you enjoy. List the things other than how you look, that make you who you are. Compare those things with how you view your appearance. Does your appearance outweigh other areas of your life that you could work on? Family, work, hobbies, friends, sport, music are some examples of things that could be focused on other than weight/shape.
5. Focus on other abilities you have
Our bodies have an endless list of functions and abilities. Recognise, respect and honour your body for what it can do rather than how it looks. Make a list of the things that you appreciate about your body that do not include appearance.
Physical: Walking, stretching, strength, balance
Health: Healing, growing, breathing
Creativity: Cooking, Writing, drawing, reading, singing
Communication: laughing, talking
Senses: Sight, taste of food, sound of music
If changing your shape is a goal of yours, keep an eye on your approach to this goal and your reasons for doing so. Rather than aiming all your efforts on ways to influence your shape/weight, adopting health promoting behaviours such as regular exercise, regular fruit and veg intake and balanced meals that make you feel good, will often have a positive influence on your body composition as a bi product.
The ‘self-hate’ approach to any journey often promotes an unsustainable one.
If you notice any unhelpful behaviours or continue to struggle, consider reaching out to a professional such as a therapist or psychologist to help you work through some of these issues. It can be helpful to have an objective party to challenge your self deprecating beliefs and build a better awareness of, and relationship with yourself.
Bozsik, F., Whisenhunt, B.L., Hudson, D.L., Bennett, B. and Lundgren, J.D., 2018. Thin is in? Think again: The rising importance of muscularity in the thin ideal female body. Sex Roles, 79(9), pp.609-615.
Cafri, G., Thompson, J.K., Ricciardelli, L., McCabe, M., Smolak, L. and Yesalis, C., 2005. Pursuit of the muscular ideal: Physical and psychological consequences and putative risk factors. Clinical psychology review, 25(2), pp.215-239.
Dafferner, M., Campagna, J. and Rodgers, R.F., 2019. Making gains: Hypermuscularity and objectification of male and female Olympic athletes in Sports Illustrated across 60 years. Body image, 29, pp.156-160.
Grogan, S., 2016. Body image: Understanding body dissatisfaction in men, women and children. Routledge.
Kaas, J.H., 2013. The evolution of brains from early mammals to humans. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 4(1), pp.33-45.
Simpson, C.C. and Mazzeo, S.E., 2017. Skinny is not enough: A content analysis of fitspiration on Pinterest. Health communication, 32(5), pp.560-567.