When you look in the mirror, do you like what you see?
If you said yes, you’re in the minority.
It’s more likely that you feel disappointed, frustrated, upset, and even disgusted. You might scrutinise certain parts of your body, like your thighs, face, arms or waist. Or you might avoid reflective surfaces at all costs!
If you fall into this category, you’re not alone. Being unhappy with our bodies has been very common for a long time – researchers coined the term “normative discontent” to describe how normal it was for us (women in particular) to dislike our bodies, back in the 80s!
Fast forward 30 years and men and women have become more dissatisfied, not less.
Body Image in Western Society
So why do we care so much?
Somewhere along the line, we started to get mixed messages about what our body shape means about the kind of person we are. In Western society, being thin, muscular, toned, etc started to carry other meanings – like successful, dedicated, hard-working, and happy. On the other hand, overweight became tied up with meaning lazy, unhappy, lonely, and unsuccessful.
It’s hard not to believe messages we see all day, in magazines, on TV, on the internet. So it’s easy to get stuck thinking that we need to lose weight or tone up in order to actually be happy and desirable. But the flip side is that we start to see parts of our body as things that make us unhappy, undesirable, and unsuccessful, which amplifies our negative feelings overall and toward our bodies.
The problem is our body shape is largely outside of our control, particularly when we move past judging just our size and begin scrutinising our muscle tone, facial features, hair, and bone structure. Some things we just can’t change – so do they really reflect our personality and quality of life?
In a society where we judge character by body shape, we discount other (arguably more important) qualities – like kindness, commitment, loyalty, humour or wit. We risk judging ourselves, and others, on a purely shallow basis – which often leads to disappointment and discontent. More intense body dissatisfaction can lead to problems such as depression, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders.
In order to rebuild a compassionate relationship with our bodies and ourselves, we need to let go of valuing our character by our physical shape, and think about all the other things our bodies can do (and what they can’t).
How to Improve Your Body Image
The National Eating Disorders Association in the US created “10 Will-Powers for Improving Body Image” – a list of actions to take to do just that.
- Twice a day, everyday, I WILL ask myself: Am I benefiting from focusing on what I believe are flaws in my body weight or shape?
- I WILL think of three reasons why it is ridiculous for me to believe that thinner people are happier or better. I will repeat these reasons to myself whenever I feel the urge to compare my body shape to someone else’s.
- I WILL spend less and less time in front of mirrors especially when they are making me feel uncomfortable and self-conscious about my body.
- I WILL exercise for the joy of feeling my body move and grow stronger. I will not exercise simply to lose weight, purge fat from my body, or to make-up for calories I have eaten.
- I WILL participate in activities that I enjoy, even if they call attention to my weight and shape. I will constantly remind myself that I deserve to do things I enjoy, like dancing, swimming, etc, no matter what my shape or size is!
- I WILL refuse to wear clothes that are uncomfortable or that I do not like but wear simply because they divert attention from my weight or shape. I will wear clothes that are comfortable and that make me feel at home in my body.
- I WILL list 5 to 10 good qualities that I have, such as understanding, intelligence, or creativity. I will repeat these to myself whenever I start to feel bad about my body.
- I WILL practice taking people seriously for what they say, feel, and do. Not for how slender, or well put together they appear.
- I WILL surround myself with people and things that make me feel good about myself and my abilities. When I am around people and things that support me and make me feel good, I will be less likely to base my self-esteem on the way my body looks.
- I WILL treat my body with respect and kindness. I will feed it, keep it active, and listen to its needs. I will remember that my body is the vehicle that will carry me to my dreams!
If you are struggling with how you feel about your body, and worried about how it is affecting your life, consider booking an appointment today. Together we can change the relationship you have with your body, and with yourself!
Author: Tiegan Holtham, B BSc (Hons), M Psych (Clinical), MAPS.
Tiegan Holtham is a Clinical Psychology Registrar based in Loganholme, providing therapy from within a strength-based framework. She enjoys working with children, adolescents, adults and families with difficulties such as body image issues, eating disorders, self-criticism, perfectionism, and anxiety. Tiegan is a full member of the Australian New Zealand Academy for Eating Disorders (ANZAED) and the National Eating Disorder Collaboration (NEDC).
- Levine, M. & Smolak, L. (n.d.). 10 “Will Powers” for Improving Body Image. National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/10-will-powers-improving-body-image
- Polivy, J., & Herman, P. (2007). Is the body the self? Women and body image. Collegium antropologicum, 31(1), 63-67.