Body image is defined as the perceptions, feelings, and thoughts about one’s body. In a society where the thin ideal and other difficult-to-attain beauty standards are considered requirements for a successful life, it is no surprise that most of us have adopted a negative body image. Many people spend their whole life trying to achieve the perfect body thinking that that will bring love, achievement, and acceptance. However, the perfect body that we see in the media doesn’t exist (even actors and models are airbrushed) and it won’t bring us happiness. Finding ways to improve your body image is essential to overcome dissatisfaction.
Desiring to have a different body is risky because the body we are trying to attain is an unattainable body for the majority of us. Our bodies are not designed to be as thin as is shown in the media, we require energy to survive. Furthermore, a negative body image is also risky because it is associated with higher levels of dieting, dangerous weight loss measures, binge eating, depression, poor self-esteem, social anxiety, and lower quality of life. It has also been recognized as one of the most significant risk factors for eating disorders. That is another reason to overcome negative body image.
Accepting your body
Accepting your body is possible if you realise that a different body won’t bring you happiness; if you are ready to give up the never-ending search for perfection, a perfection that doesn’t exist. Accepting your body is the door to a more fulfilling, less stressful, and less demanding way of life.
The first step to overcoming poor body image is realising that trying to change your body won’t take you anywhere and, then deciding that you want to accept your body. We are not talking about liking our bodies, just accepting and being more neutral about them. You can consider your ideal body to be a thinner one, and still appreciate the body you have. Accepting your body is a decision; you can do it if you want to!
What keeps negative body image going?
The second step to overcoming negative body image requires stopping the behaviours that we do – sometimes unconsciously – that perpetuate the negative body image. In this article, you will learn what are those behaviours and how to stop them.
1. Appearance-focused attention
When we have a problem or a difficult situation, many of us tend to focus on that issue, worrying and ruminating about it. If our problem is that we have a body that doesn’t fit society’s beauty standards, it is very common to start obsessing about it.
If we constantly think about our body, we are continuously sending signals to our brain that there is a problem that needs to be solved, we are emphasising the fact that our body is faulty and requires a change. This is a big setback for accepting your body. If we were okay or just neutral about our bodies, we would not need to think about it.
How often do you think about your feet, your nails, or your fingers? Chances are that you don’t do it much because you don’t think there is nothing wrong with them, you are just neutral about them.
Without us even noticing, our behaviour is highlighting that our body is defective. If we want to overcome negative body image and accept our body, it is important to stop thinking so much and paying so much attention to our appearance. In order to do so:
- Become aware each time you think about your body: it is often helpful to write those thoughts down. The more aware you become of your thinking, and the more skilled you are at spotting your thoughts, the more power you will have.
- Stop the thoughts: you can use this thought-stopping technique. In a nutshell, this tool involves recognising you are having a thought about your body image or appearance and stopping it immediately. To stop it you can imagine a big stop signal in your mind, shout STOP out loud, or even clap your hands. Do something that disrupts the thought.
- Re-orient your attention to something else.
- Stop the thoughts again: the thought will come back to your mind once and again, that is what you are used to doing. Keep stopping the thoughts and re-focusing your attention every time that happens. The habit will ease with practice.
2. Avoidance and safety behaviours
The second behaviour that many people do is avoid situations or engage in behaviours that made them feel better in the short term, but that in the long term reinforce the idea of rejection to one’s body.
You may avoid places, like the beach or the swimming pool. You may avoid meeting with certain people, places like the gym or social situations. Anything you do to avoid feeling bad about your body will fall into this category of behaviours.
Likewise, safety behaviours are things people do to cope with fearful situations. For example, someone might wear big, loose, and long dresses that cover the whole body to avoid the fear of being judged by others. They are a form of avoidance and although they can provide short-term relief, they feed into the problem. If you hide your body under big dresses to avoid others seeing you, you are sending a message to your brain that there is a problem with your body. The goal is to change those signals sent to the brain, to stop telling the brain that your physique is faulty and to accept your body a bit more.
As explained by the Centre for Clinical Interventions, avoidance is a vicious circle. People that avoid situations or activities obtain short-term relief that keeps them doing the behaviours. Additionally, those behaviours lead to more fear and anxiety in the long run, which increases the probability to use those behaviours to obtain quick relief.
The only way to break this circle is to stop avoiding situations or employing safety behaviours. This can reverse the whole vicious circle.
Approaching feared situations is easier said than done, though. To help you, you can use a tool used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), known as a behavioural experiment. During a behavioural experiment, you become a scientist to test whether your worse fears become true or not.
First, you can break down your avoided situation into smaller steps, so they are easier to face. For instance, if you avoid going to the gym for a workout, you can break down this task in:
- Going to the gym for 5 minutes
- Going to the gym for 10 minutes
- Going to the gym for 15 minutes
- Going to the gym for 25 minutes
- Going to the gym for 40 minutes
- Whole workout in the gym
You start by exposing yourself to the different steps. In this case, you would start by going to the gym for 5 minutes. Before running the experiment, you would ask yourself:
- What do I think will happen when I do this experiment? Rate how strongly you believe this prediction (0-100). For example, everybody will look at me at the gym and I will feel extremely embarrassed (90)
- Define your experiment: what will you do to test your prediction, when, for how long, and with who. Make sure the experiment is appropriate for you to do and break it down into smaller steps if needed. For example, I will go to the gym on my own next Thursday at 6 pm for 5 minutes. I will only enter, use a machine and leave.
- Conduct the experiment.
- Observe and write down what happened, what did you observe? Did the prediction become true? Did you feel as bad as you predicted? Were you able to cope? For instance, three people looked at me at the gym, but most of the people ignored me and continue doing their workouts. I felt a bit embarrassed thinking that people were going to look at me but not as much as I predicted. I managed well and it wasn’t that painful.
- What have you learned? For example, most people won’t look at me and judge me due to my body in the gym, they mostly continue doing their thing. Some people might look at me, but if that makes me feel embarrassed, it is for a short time, and I can manage it.
- Repeat the first step until you feel more confident to try the second step in your list. Continue doing this until you can approach the situation.
3. Body checking and reassurance seeking
When we are worried about our looks, it is common to check those areas we are unhappy with or to ask our loved ones if we look okay. We usually do this to either confirm that there is a problem with us that needs attention or disconfirm it and feel better about ourselves.
A certain amount of body checking and reassurance seeking is normal and adaptative. Most of us look at the mirror sometimes to make sure, perhaps, that our face is clean, to check if we need to shave or to make up. Never checking your appearance can be a sign of neglect, and that other extreme is not positive either. The right balance of body checking is ideal.
Take a look and reflect on how often you check your looks:
- Looking at the mirror
- Looking at your reflection in reflective surfaces (e.g., a shop window)
- Weighting yourself
- Measuring specific areas of your body
- Checking specific areas of your body by touching, or mentally examining that part
- Comparing your body to others
- Checking pictures of yourself
- Thinking of the fit of your clothes
- Asking others if your appearance is okay
- Any other similar behaviour
How much time do you spend doing these things daily? How do you feel when you do these behaviours? What happens to your mood afterwards? What happens with your body image concern?
Body checking and reassurance-seeking have a series of negative consequences:
- Reduced focus and capacity to concentrate on other things.
- Time-consuming. It prevents you from doing other valuable things.
- It feeds the obsession with your appearances.
- These behaviours need to be repeated over time to get the desired short-term effect.
- It reinforces the idea that there is something wrong with your body, which can increase anxiety.
Another issue with this behaviour is that often body checking is inaccurate. By focusing on a small area of your body, you are not seeing the whole picture, and you are judging your body unfairly. Moreover, the way we feel might impact the way we see ourselves at a given moment. Have you ever met someone you thought was not attractive, but after getting to know them better, you started finding them attractive? If you don’t like your looks, you will feel upset about yourself, and that can influence the way you evaluate your body. In other words, your feelings can distort the way you look at your body.
It is also common that we compare ourselves unfairly only with people we consider more attractive than us (upward comparisons). We rarely compare ourselves with someone that is bigger than us, or less attractive (downward comparisons). This is quite an unfair and dangerous judgement that doesn’t allow us to evaluate objectively our appearances.
To accept your body, it is essential to reduce body checking and reassurance seeking. Unfortunately, there is not an easy way or tool to achieve this. You can do this by stopping completely, or by reducing the behaviour gradually.
You can stop behaviours immediately, like not looking at your belly in the mirror. First, realise where you usually do these behaviours. It might be that every time you go to the shower, you check your stomach. Then stop yourself before doing it. You can help yourself by re-focusing attention on the present moment.
If you are not ready to eliminate the behaviour, you might want to reduce it gradually. For instance, if you weigh yourself every day, you can create a list of smaller goals until you reach your final objective:
- Weigh me once every two days
- Weight me two times a week
- Weigh me once a week
- Weigh me twice a month
- Weigh me once a month
To maintain the lack of behaviour and make it easier for yourself, once you stop or reduce the behaviour, reflect:
- What did you notice when you reduced it?
- What happened to your mood?
- And your ability to focus on other activities?
- What happens with your body image concern?
4. Appearance-altering behaviours
Using too much make-up or cosmetic products, following strict diets, over-exercising, or spending too much time fixing one’s hair are examples of appearance-altering behaviours. Anything you do to change excessively the way you look.
As we mentioned before, some level of appearance-altering behaviour is positive. It is okay to care about your appearance and try to look clean and smart. The problem comes when these behaviours are disproportionate and time-consuming.
How often and for how long do you do the following:
- Dieting to lose weight
- Exercising to lose weight
- Making up
- Using hair treatments
- Doing your hair
- Beauty treatments
- Looking on the internet for ways to change your body
- Other similar actions
As you reflected before, what do you think are the consequences of the above (at a financial, physical health, social, and emotional level)? How does this impact your daily life? What happens to your mood and body image concerns?
In the short term, changing your appearance may decrease your body dissatisfaction. However, this only keeps your attention on your looks and feeds another vicious circle. Ultimately, your brain can always find something new that is not perfect that needs to be changed.
As with body checking and reassurance seeking, the only way to reduce appearance-changing behaviours is by stopping immediately or stopping gradually. You can read again the previous point and follow the same steps.
As you can see, these behaviours can be very common and frequent, and they maintain our body dissatisfaction. Overcoming negative body image requires us to notice when we do these things and stop or reduce them. In the beginning, this will feel very difficult. Remember that you do these things because you obtain a short-term reward. Also, they might have become a habit. Achieving these goals is possible. Be persistent and, more importantly, be kind to yourself.