A few decades ago or even a few years ago, no one spoke about body image. However, that does not mean that people didn’t suffer from low self-esteem related to body image earlier. It simply means that no one talked about it. And now we do. There are many reasons for it, the biggest is the rising media influence on how we see our bodies because the affect has been widespread. Body image is not just a personal matter or choice anymore, we are now dictated by glossy magazines, larger-than-life screens and celebrity sizes. We are told that we all have to look a certain way.
Knowing that 95% of the world population will never be able to achieve that perfect body means that 95% of the population would feel bad about how they look at some point or the other. Therefore, it becomes important to address the issue. Another reason we need to address this issue is because body image is closely linked to self-esteem. When confidence is low, body image goes down and vice versa. So, here’s all about body image.
First things first, What is body image?
Body image is how you see your body, how you feel about your body, how you think about your body and the way you behave as a result of your perceptual, affective, and cognitive body image.
Body image is not only influenced by our own beliefs, but it’s also influenced by the image and ideas held by our family, friends, and society as a whole. Currently, we live in a world that places tremendous value on physical beauty and the media has served as a powerful tool for transmitting and reinforcing this value. From a very young age, we are surrounded by images that tell us what is beautiful. We need to change that narrative and become who we are as we seem fit (and not anyone else).
Is body image bad?
No, we all have a general perception of ourselves and that’s perfectly normal and necessary. However, body image can be either be negative or positive, unhealthy or healthy. The concern arises from unhealthy or negative body image.
Can Body Image be positive? What’s positive body image?
Having a positive body image means that you have a realistic perception of your body
- You recognise that there’s no one standard of beauty.
- You value who you are instead of how you look like.
- You are able to separate your physical appearance from your self-esteem.
- You don’t spend a lot of time worrying about weight or food.
Who is more prone to body image issues?
- Those who already have low self- esteem.
- Those with critical and judgemental family and peer circles.
- Those who have some other concern or worry and they try to control how they look like so to take their mind away from their worry.
- Perfectionists, those who internalise comments or aim for perfection in everything.
- Girls with higher BMI and boys with lower BMI
- Those who have undergone a physical change due to surgery, pregnancy, etc.
So, though we all have a certain perception about our body, few of us are more vulnerable to negative body image. Very often, negative body image develops when we internalise media images or the comments from our family members. Equating body size to happiness is another reason for an unhealthy body image.
How do I know if I have a Negative Body Image?
People with a negative body image see their bodies in an unrealistic way. They may have a distorted perception of specific body parts, or their body’s overall size and shape. Common signs of a negative body image are:
- Shame, anxiety, or guilt about your body.
- Checking mirror again and again or shying away from the mirror completely.
- Believing that your body is not thin, beautiful, or fit enough.
- Equating physical appearance to your self-worth.
- Feeling physically uncomfortable or awkward.
- Self-destructive behaviours, such as extreme dieting, compulsive exercising, or disordered eating.
- Extreme anxiety and depression.
- Frequent comparisons with others.
- Feeling trapped in an alien fat body.
- In extreme cases, Body Dysmorphic Disorder may occur. BDD is a condition in which people become so obsessed with their distorted body image that it affects their jobs, education, and personal relationships.
Tips for a better body image
- Focus on your positive qualities, skills, and talents. Write them down and read them often.
- Useaffirmations (self-talk). Affirmations are positive statements and are used in present tense and in first person. For example, “I feel powerful”, “I am enough”, “I am becoming the best version of myself!”
- Remember that media’s idea of beauty is not attainable by 95% of the population.
- Take your power back. Don’t quietly listen to comments that body shame you. Speak up. In fact, be an advocate for change.
- Catch yourself each time you criticise yourself.
- Catch yourself criticising others as well. Negativity is a habit.
- Have a realistic view of the world. Know that just because someone looks perfect on the outside, doesn’t mean they have a perfect life as well.
- Let someone else describe you. We tend to be harsh on ourselves. Our loved ones may describe us better.
- Journal how you feel. Have a mood-food diary. Being aware of your thoughts and emotions can be very helpful to establish a healthy body image.
- Play a sport and this is especially relevant for teenaged girls. Team sports ensure that the young adolescents are focusing on being faster and stronger rather than being thinner.
- Change the focus from your body to you as a ‘whole person’. You are more than just a body. You are a warm, kind and capable person.
- Dress up, take care of yourself and respect your body.
- Practice media self-care. Avoid shows that portray unrealistic body standards.
When to seek help?
- When your negative self-talk is hampering your life or keeping you from progressing.
- When most of your decisions are based on how you feel about your body.
- When negative body image is making you very depressed or anxious and affecting other areas of your life, be it social, personal, relationship or work.
- When you over-catastrophise or over-generalise with thoughts such as, “If I am fat, I am a loser”.
- When your energy is depleted because you are focusing so much on this inner conflict between who you are and who you want to be.
What happens in therapy?
Your therapist or counsellor will work with you to uncover and understand the source of your negative body image and low self-esteem. Usually Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is then used to correct the distorted thinking process though there are many different modalities that can address this issue. Your therapist will assess what may work the best for you.
How can parents ensure a healthy body image in their kids and teens?
Children as young as three, start becoming aware of the body talk around them. They pick up cues on how to view their bodies and these views influence their body image later on. It therefore, becomes very important for parents to be mindful of their body-conversations around their kids. Here are a few things that you, as parents can do:
- Lead by example. Embrace who you are physically.
- Adopt body neutrality. Accept all body types and don’t talk excessively about being too fat, too thin, too short or too anything that has to do with the physical appearance.
- Focus on your child’s traits, qualities, ability and effort rather than appearance. It doesn’t have to be, “you are so pretty” always. It can also be, “you are hard working,” or “you are so cheerful today!”
- Discuss the body image portrayed in social media together with your child.
- Encourage a healthy and positive way of looking at oneself.
Watch my talk on How to Build Self Esteem with Positive Self Image, a conversation initiated by Mindfully Sorted (India). (Please do note that part of the conversation is in Hindi).