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Body image is defined as how you see your physical body and also the thoughts and feelings you have about your body. It encompasses thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, feelings and actions. Your body image makes up the part of your overall self-esteem that relates to your appearance. The amount that this influences self-esteem varies; some people find that the way they look means little to them but for others it can have a huge impact on their self-esteem and self-worth.
Body image can be talked about in a few ways but for this blog I’m going to refer to it mostly as being negative, positive or neutral, defined below:
Negative body image = dissatisfaction, preoccupation and worry about how your body looks, sometimes associated with active efforts to change the body.
Positive body image (body positivity) = going through your day without thinking or worrying about your body. It means appreciation of what your body does for you, listening to its needs and processing appearance-related messaging in a way that protects yourself (e.g. resilience to images of the so-called ‘perfect body’ in the media).
Body neutrality = feeling neutral and non-judgmental about our bodies. It can be very difficult to be positive about all aspects of our bodies all the time. Our bodies are also changing ALL THE TIME so we need some resilience, acceptance and self-compassion for ourselves. This is probably more realistic than out and out love for our bodies.
There is a lot of crossover between both body neutrality and body positivity, as they both involve the following:
1. Treating your body with dignity
2. Meeting its basic needs
3. Making it comfortable
So now we’ve had a brief look at what body image means, let’s bust some common body image myths.
This myth is reflective of our society's obsession with looks. But surely it’s not possible to have positive body image if you don't like the way you look?! For women in particular, we've been taught that being attractive is the best chance we have of finding happiness, love and success. We're taught that the entirety of our worth is bound up in how we look.
But as well as none of this being true, you also don’t have to think you’re beautiful to have positive body image. What it does mean is realising that how you look is not the only factor that you can use to establish how you feel about yourself. It means that you recognise that you are SO much more than how your body looks – you are your values, your personality, the way you interact with others, your strengths (and weaknesses – we’re all human), your drive. You’re a rich, interesting and unique human being that has so much more to offer than how much space you take up in the world.
This brings us neatly to the next myth…
Can you imagine NEVER feeling bad about your body? I just don’t think this is humanly possible, we all have bad days, days where we just feel kind of crap or anxious or just like everything is difficult! Including liking the way our body looks.
Positive and negative body image are not two ends of the same spectrum, they’re actually on completely different spectrums. Meaning it’s perfectly possible to feel simultaneously good and bad about your body. For example, you might recognise the need to nourish your body and take care of it and at the same time feel kind of crap about the way your thighs look when you sit down.
This is actually pretty normal, but what we want is to try and prevent the negative thoughts and feelings from taking over and stopping us from taking care of ourselves. From nourishing ourselves with enough food, from moving our bodies in ways that feel good, from asking ourselves what we need and giving it to ourselves.
Okay, so much to unpack here. I won’t even get into the issues of why there’s no such thing as a generic ‘normal’ weight for a human being – we’re a complex, diverse species meaning what’s the 'right' weight for me right now won’t be the same as for you and even that WILL vary over time. Read more about the link between weight and health here.
But anyway, what we know from looking at current research is that when we consciously try to change our bodies (believing that when we’re a particular clothes size then we’ll have good body image and like ourselves) we’re buying in to cultural expectations of our bodies and arbitrary measures of beauty.
What we know is that you can have good body image at whatever weight, size and shape you’re at. This is because positive body image means accepting who you are, realising that there’s no perfect way for a body to be and respecting all the incredible things it allows us to do – hug our loved ones, enjoy food and extract nourishment from it, walk in the fresh air and feel a cool breeze on our skin.
What often happens is that when people consciously try to lose weight and they get to their ‘target weight’ they realise that they still don’t feel good about themselves. Because there’s always going to be something to change – so when does it stop? People in all shapes and sizes of body (even those fitting our cultural expectations of beauty) can have negative body image and body preoccupation (i.e. obsession). Nobody is safe when we place more emphasis on how we look than who we are as people.
This just isn't true. And actually, quite the opposite happens. When you have respect for your body you’re a LOT more likely to want to take care of it and find ways of making it feel good – i.e. moving it in ways that you love, making sure it’s well nourished, performing regular self-care etc.
If you constantly feel that your body isn’t worthy, why would you be motivated to take care of it? What we’ve learnt over the years is that shame is NOT a good motivator for behaviour change and only exacerbates negative body image and an inability to move forward. Point in practice - if shame worked to help people lose weight we wouldn’t have any people in bigger bodies because fat shaming is so systemic in the UK. But this just ain’t the case.
In fact a paper from 2015 explains that women with positive body image are more likely to practice intuitive eating, use sun protection, conduct regular breast self-exams, and engage in vigorous exercise – no matter what size their body is.
Body image is an extremely important issue and one that relates to everybody, as we all have bodies and we all have thoughts and feelings related to them. There have been many surveys looking at how we as the UK population feel about our bodies and as these figures show, it makes for harrowing reading…
• 2/3 UK adults say they're trying to lose weight most or all of the time
• In the past year, one in five people have felt ‘shame’ and just over one third have felt ‘down or low’ because of their body image
• Roughly a quarter of men think that there is a ‘perfect male body’
• 80% of disabled people state that the way their body looks has an impact on their mental wellbeing
• 1/3 of British adults feel anxious or depressed about their body image
• 66% of children feel negative or very negative about their body most of the time
• 23% of transgender people feel very negative about their bodies most of the time, compared with 12% of cisgendered people
• 89% of adults feel a social pressure to look a certain way.
Image credit: World Obesity Federation
Negative body image detrimentally impacts on self-esteem and can have consequences across all areas of life including health, jobs, education and socialising. It’s related to chronic low self-confidence, mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, disordered eating practices and can even progress to body dysmorphia, eating disorders and in extreme cases suicide.
Research has shown that being dissatisfied with your body (no matter what shape or size you are) is a predictor of poor health. Researchers asked 170,000 adults in America their actual weight and what their ideal weight was; what they found was that the gap between those two weights was a better predictor of mental and physical health than BMI. Showing that body dissatisfaction has a stronger negative health effect then being fat.
This should show how extremely important body image is - it affects so many of us and body dissatisfaction is at an all-time. And yet negative thinking about our bodies is normalised in our culture - you’re almost weird if you don’t chat shit about your body or feel bad about it. And yet feeling miserable about our bodies doesn’t have to be a normal part of being the human experience.
So, how can we improve our body image? Well, since this blog is already long enough I’m going to leave this for a future blog post, so I can really dig into some helpful, practical things you can be doing to change your perspective and invite more self-compassion for your body into your life.
This stuff is hard, so if you’re looking for some further support get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org or book a free discovery call using the link below.
House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee. Body Image Survey Results: First Special Report of Session 2019-21. https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/2691/documents/26657/default/
Mental Health Foundation (2019). Body image: How we think and feel about our bodies. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/body-image-report
Mintel (2016). Attitudes towards healthy eating – UK – February 2016. https://store.mintel.com/report/attitudes-towards-healthy-eating-uk-february-2016
Muennig P et al (2008). I think therefore I am: perceived ideal weight as a determinant of health. Am J Pub Health. 96(9): 1662-68. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2007.114769
Tylka TL & Wood-Barcalow NL (2015). What is and what is not positive body image? Conceptual foundations and construct definition. Body Image. 14:118-29. doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2015.04.001.