You skip the gym because feelings of shame take over as you imagine how uncomfortable it will feel to move your body in front of the judging eyes of other people. Or you spend hours each day thinking about how much you dislike your body or wish it were different. You look in the mirror at every slight “imperfection”, the critical thoughts taking over. You watch your kids play in the pool from your chair because you’re self-conscious in a swimsuit. How you experience your body directly impacts how you enjoy life.
Fixation on how our bodies steals our time and robs us of joy.
How Did We Get Here
Body image struggles are something all of us deal with on some level. We can’t expect to be in love with our body every day. And we don’t want body-focused negativity to take up so much time and energy that it holds us back from the things we enjoy. Body image is impacted by so many things; what we learned or saw growing up, external pressures like the media, cultural ideals, like thinness, and even traumatic experiences. As children we often hear family members talking about the newest diet they’re on or what they need to change. It’s not a surprise that the majority of people, in particular women, are dissatisfied with their body.
What is Body Image?
Body image is a term used to describe a variety of ways that we experience our bodies. It includes beliefs and memories, thoughts and emotions; it even encompasses how you physically experience or feel in your body.
4 Aspects of Body Image
It can be helpful to think of body image in 4 different ways:
Perceptual Body Image: This is the way you see your body. Which is not always an accurate representation of how you actually look.
Affective Body Image: The way you feel about your body. Feelings may include happiness or disgust but are often summarized as the amount of satisfaction or dissatisfaction you feel about your weight, shape, and body parts.
Cognitive Body Image: This is the way you think about your body. This can lead to a preoccupation with body shape and weight.
Behavioral Body Image: These are the behaviors you engage in as a result of your body image. When you are dissatisfied with the way you look, you may isolate or engage in excessive body checking.
Helpful Tips/Where to Start
- Reflecting or journaling: Think about when you first began to realize that smaller bodies were often valued more than larger bodies? Who did you learn this from? What were the messages you heard or saw? What are your thoughts and feelings about your own body?
- Come up with your own matra. For example, twin sisters and body image researchers Lexi and Lindsay Kite, have coined the phrase “Your Body is an Instrument, Not an Ornament”. This helps remind people to embrace what their bodies are capable of instead of obsessing about how they look.
- Cultivating a safe social media experience: Avoid “influencers” that promote intentional weight loss and dieting and be mindful of people who frequently post before and after pictures. It sends the message that there was something wrong with your body before and that our bodies are projects that need fixing. Instead follow individuals who promote body diversity and respect, including Lindsay and Lexi Kite, Ragen Chastain, and Kristina Bruce.
How Therapy can help
Working with a therapist who is knowledgeable about body image is a great start. They can help you open up, at your own pace, to explore the root causes of your body image concerns as well as assist you in identifying limiting thought patterns and unhelpful behaviors. They can also help you uncover if you are struggling with body dysmorphia or an eating disorder.
What could you do with those extra hours?
Fixating on how we look takes time and energy away from the things we value most, like heading to the gym to take our favorite class and splashing in the pool with our kids. Body dissatisfaction often comes from the fear of disconnection with others; we fear not being accepted for who we are.
So rather than letting your fears drive disconnection, I challenge you to reflect on this instead: How might your connections with others deepen if you embraced vulnerability and went to the gym or got into the pool with your kids?
Melissa Manganello, APSW