On a recent trip to California, I went on a hike in Runyon Canyon, a park nearby my daughter’s apartment. One of the things about this trail is that for a good stretch of it, dogs are allowed off leash. Even if you are not a dog lover, you cannot help but smile and laugh watching the dogs run, leap, and interact with each other and the many hikers.
During this same climb, I overheard two women chatting behind me. One was commiserating with her friend concern and unhappiness regarding comments her teenage daughter had recently been making. Seems she was miserable about her body, feeling “fat” and “ugly” compared to her other friends. The more I ease dropped (I just could not help myself) the more it became apparent this woman’s daughter was suffering from poor body image. According to her mom, her weight was well within the healthy range, and she has “quite a lovely figure.”
I hiked on and began thinking about body image. Why is it that so many people in America suffer from such poor body image? I would like to think it was because I was in Hollywood, where even the most confident might struggle comparing themselves to the abundance of stars and models. However, in my own home town in New Jersey, I watched too many of my daughter’s friends struggle, have met way too many women my own age who still express body dissatisfaction, and have even come across it with male clients over the years, this overwhelming disappointment that you can never be thin enough, muscular or toned enough, or beautiful enough. The effort and energy many are exerting to “look better” is not only exhausting, but also severely decreasing their happiness and life-satisfaction.
If you study history or literature, you can see that all cultures throughout time have been concerned with appearance and physical attractiveness. However, in these modern times, it seems as if normal concerns have turned into obsession for far too many. Technology and the media are much to blame. In advertisements, on billboards, in magazines, and in the movies and TV, thin and attractive individuals are portrayed as having more fun, being more successful, wealthier and happier. Pictures of models are air brushed and photo-shopped, making them appear perfect! An accomplishment us mere mortals could never achieve, no matter how hard we try. Aside from the media’s influence, dissatisfaction with one’s body is often noticed in individuals who grew up in overly critical households, where negative comments were often made concerning looks. Those with low self-esteem are vulnerable as well, although sometimes it is the poor body image that leads to poor self-esteem.
Before we can attempt to understand how to address and improve negative body image, let’s take a look at what it actually is. Miriam Webster Dictionary defines body image as a subjective picture of one’s own physical appearance established both by self-observation and by noting the reactions of others. Wikipedia defines it this way; “Body image refers to a person’s perception of the aesthetics and sexual attractiveness of his or her own body. A person’s body image is thought to be, in part, a product of his or her personal experiences, personality, and various social and cultural forces. A person’s sense of his or her own physical appearance, usually in relation to others or in relation to some cultural “ideal,” can shape his or her body image. A person’s perception of their appearance can be different from how others actually perceive him or her.” Clearly body image is based on perception, not fact.
When a normal, healthy concern with being and looking our best becomes an obsession that begins to severely disrupt normal daily life and activities, it is defined as Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). If left undiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to serious psychological problems, eating disorders, or even suicide. (1) You don’t have to be diagnosed with BDD, or suffer from an eating disorder to be affected by dissatisfaction with your body. If you are unhappy with your body shape and this dissatisfaction is preventing you from socializing or being confident around others, then you have a poor body image.
Distorted or poor body image is most often noticed or diagnosed in the adolescent population, but it is just as persistent in adulthood. Statistics tell us that more than 80% of women are dissatisfied with their bodies, and the problem starts young: 65% of young girls think they are too fat and dabble in dieting at an early age. In adolescents in particular, poor body image has been shown to correlate with increased incidence of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, both of which can lead to serious health problems and in extreme cases, death. Even in those that don’t develop eating disorders, depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies are more prevalent to those with poor body image. (1)
Although more often diagnosed in females, the male population is not immune. An Australian study showed a marked increase in BDD noted in boys and men in the past twenty-five years. Teenage boys who are dissatisfied with their bodies are more prone to taking steroids, a dangerous practice that could lead to severe illness or death. (2)
If the result of a poor body image could be anything from decreased life-satisfaction and happiness to the potential of being fatal, how can we help ourselves, or those we love, foster a positive body image?
The answer to this question goes way deeper than just working to improve your body to be the best it can be. There’s nothing wrong, and there are many positive outcomes, to working on improving your body, especially when weight is compromising your health. As a matter of fact, obesity has been correlated highly with poor body image. It is no surprise that studies show when overweight or obese individuals begin an exercise and/or healthy eating regime, they report increases in confidence, self-esteem and a decrease in negative body image. (3) These changes in lifestyle habits can be quite helpful, but only if accompanied by a mind-shift as well.
We need to work first at accepting and loving our bodies, no matter what the size and shape. Rarely do we think about who we are as a unique individual or the magic of what our bodies can do for us. It’s a strange phenomenon when you think about it. Our bodies are really just the vehicles that take us through our lives, not who we are. And what an amazing vehicle it is! Once you begin to think of all your body does for you, you’ll begin to appreciate it and feel gratitude.
Your legs carry you from place to place and up and down stairs. Your arms allow you to hug your loved ones, or lift your child. Your stomach digests the food you eat, and expands to accommodate a growing fetus. Our eyes see the beauty of the world that surrounds us, and our ears hear the sound of our friend’s laughter or our favorite music. I could go on and on. When we marvel at what our body is capable of, it should increase our desire to take great care of it. Nourish your body with foods that will keep it well, and exercise so it stays limber and strong. That way, you can do the things you love to do. Think healthy, not skinny!
When you catch yourself slipping into negative self-talk (e.g. my thighs are so big, I hate my stomach, my nose is crooked and ugly, etc.) stop immediately. Counter balance that thought with a loving one. My eyes are bright and curious, my smile is warm and inviting, I am a good person! You would never say some of the critical things you say to yourself, to your best friend. It’s time to become your own best friend, and treat yourself with kindness and respect. By the way, if you do hear your friend putting her/himself down, don’t commiserate and join in with mutual complaints and put-downs. Find something about their personality to compliment, and genuinely share what you find best in them.
How we behave, how we interact, and how we contribute to the world we live in, is what makes us who we are, not the shape of our bodies. We each have our own strengths and talents. For some, creativity plays a role; through writing, acting, music, art, or comedy these people provide entertainment for others. Some people use kindness and empathy to bring comfort and care to those they encounter. Perhaps your strength is cooking, organizing, teaching, or decorating. When we share our talents with others, we impact their world and bring greater happiness to it. And the recipient doesn’t care what shape your body is in. They just appreciate the gifts you share. Ask your friends and loved ones what they enjoy most about you. I bet no one will mention anything related to your body, just your personality and nature.
Now that you’ve begun to appreciate your uniqueness, how about the people in your life who you look up to, admire, or seek as role models? What is it about them you value? I guarantee it’s what is inside, not what you see on the outside.
If you are making an effort to decrease your body size, while doing so, wear clothing that fits well and makes you feel great. If you’re bothered by the size on the label, cut it out! Dressing in baggy apparel in an attempt to hide your body will end up making you feel frumpy. Do whatever makes you feel pleased with your appearance when you look in the mirror.
As you begin to accept and love your body, don’t forget to thank it with some pampering. Massages, scented body lotions, and warm baths will have your body and your mind feeling great. Many have found that exercise, especially yoga, Thai Chi or dance, make them feel more connected and loving towards their bodies.
As you continue on the road to love and acceptance of your body, don’t forget the younger generation. If you are a parent, aunt or uncle, older sibling, or play a role that impacts the young, please do everything possible to foster positive body images. By all means, educate the need to eat well and exercise, but for health reasons, not to change physiques. Never criticize your own body in front of a youngster, and of course, never criticize their body! Help them recognize their personal strengths and talents that have nothing to do with their size or shape. Compliment their attributes, not looks. And if you ever feel a concern that extremely poor self-esteem, disordered eating habits, or obsession with looks is becoming a problem (for yourself or a child), do not hesitate to seek medical help.
As I continued to hike and watch the dogs that day, it struck me. They come in every shape and size. From the tiniest with short little legs, to the largest with long, lean limbs, they climb and run. No matter what shape or size, their tails wag nonstop. In California, most owners choose to adopt rescue dogs, rather than purchase purebreds. So these “mutts” truly are a mix of every type known, and they are all beautiful in their own unique way. No body image problems amongst these animals. They were living in the moment and reveling in what their bodies could do. Perhaps we humans could learn a thing or two from them.
Article: Boost Your Body Image
1. Negative Body Image Related To Depression, Anxiety And Suicidality, from Science Daily
2. The Man Behind the Mask: Male Body Image Dissatisfaction, from Australian Psychological Society
3. Body Dysmorphic Disorder, from the Mayo Clinic