Words by our Director Alysha Coleman
Body image refers to the perception of one’s physical self. Body image encompasses a number of internal processes: our thoughts, feelings and behaviours related to our body.
Negative body image can easily be dismissed as a cultural norm of living in Sydney in 2017. However, this widespread experience seems to be causing significant psychological damage to the women we speak with. Negative body image can cause high levels of life dissatisfaction and distress. Women who visit our practice are psychologically and behaviourally consumed by the effects of negative body image. Preoccupied by thoughts about their body or what they eat, and spending lots of time criticising, checking or avoiding the parts of their body they loathe. Negative body image tends to cause a person to press the pause button on living their happiest, best life. Countless women tell me they can’t go to the beach, date, or enjoy a meal until they have their idealised body.
What causes negative body image?
- The media: The $64 billion dieting industry and the media are powerful forces. With social media, there is daily consumption of images that promote unrealistic notions of how one ‘should look’. Social media also prompts comparative thinking; another known risk factor for developing negative body image.
- Low self-esteem and/or depression: Pre-existing mood problems or an unstable view of ourselves make it more likely to develop.
- Personality traits: People with perfectionistic, high-achieving tendencies or an ‘all or nothing’ thinking style are at a higher risk of negative body image.
- Teasing: Many of our clients describe experiencing taunting or bullying about their appearance or weight, regardless of their actual body type. This could be as minor as a parent or family friend making comments about what you should not eat when you were young.
- Dieting loved ones: If loved ones express body image concerns or a weight loss focus, this increases your likelihood of negative body image.
- Body size: Because of the current thin physique valued by society and the media, those with a larger body size are more likely to experience body image dissatisfaction.
Signs of negative body image
- A significant proportion (more than 25%) of self-worth defined by appearance
- Spending a significant amount of time thinking about appearance and ways to change it
- Engaging in excessive ‘body checking’ or ‘body avoidance’ behaviours such as analysing particular body parts in the mirror, adjusting clothes, avoiding mirrors or being in environments where disliked body part may be exposed
- Using negative terms to describe one’s appearance
- Feeling like one can’t have fun, go out, wear swimmers, go on a date, holiday etc., until one’s appearance has changed
- Excessive time and energy spent trying to change one’s appearance (dieting, buying clothes, beauty or cosmetic procedures)
How to improve negative body image
Working with a therapist is the best way to move towards self-acceptance. Therapy should involve:
- Education about how negative body image develops and the factors that perpetuate the process
- Adjusting distortions in perception through body image exposure paired with a non-judgemental, mindful stance
- Behavioural experiments to change avoidance and checking behaviours
- Exploring and expanding a sense of self beyond appearance
- Reconnecting with fun and enjoyment in life, despite not having one’s ideal body
- Learning to engage in balanced eating and exercise with a health (rather than appearance-related) focus
helping people to heal negative body image.
Another option to improve negative body imagine is to try an online program like The Unstoppable Program. Developed by Taryn Brumfitt who is well known for her powerful documentary ‘Embrace’ and spreading body acceptance with The Body Image Movement. The program can be found at www.theunstoppableprogram.com