What thoughts come up for you when you look in the mirror? Chances are they are not very positive.
“I look fat”; “I need to get back in the gym”; “I wish my (enter body part) didn’t look like this.”
As isolating as this experience can feel, you are not alone in struggling with your body image.
Poor body image affects many of us, resulting in shame, low self-confidence and even causing us to avoid some activities. In the UK, one in five adults felt shame and a similar number felt “disgusted” because of their body in the last year. The UK Mental Health Foundation found 36 percent of girls and 24 percent of boys avoided exercise due to appearance worries and here in the UAE, researchers found high levels of body image dissatisfaction amongst male and female students. It’s clear from looking at ourselves, friends and those in the public eye however, that there isn’t a straightforward relationship between how we actually look and how we feel about our bodies.
What is body image?
Put simply, it’s the relationship you have with your body. This includes the thoughts you have about your body: “I’m so glad my body is healthy and strong” versus “If only I were thinner, my life would be better”. It’s the feelings you have about your body (pride, gratitude, shame or disgust) and how these thoughts and feelings impact how you treat your body. That includes making sure you attend necessary medical check ups, eating well and staying active to engaging in strict diets or ignoring medical needs. One study found teens who feel better about their bodies were less likely to use cigarettes or alcohol. It’s worth remembering that our bodies change over time, due to ageing, or a faster change, due to pregnancy or an accident, so our body image may also fluctuate over the course of life.
What is body image investment?
We aren’t born with body image dissatisfaction. In fact it is often from the age of 8 through 10 that worries about our appearance creep in. We learn from family, peers and the media about the value of looking — or not looking — a certain way. Diet culture reinforces thinness as a valued goal that represents self-worth. It’s at this stage that we become invested in our appearance as a measure of self-worth. So, if you learned through these different messages that your appearance is the most important part of you, you are likely to spend more time judging yourself, setting stricter standards for your ‘ideal’ body, and engaging in dieting, exercising, and other appearance-focused behaviours to try and get the body you want. The bigger the gap between how you think you should look and how you see yourself, the greater the disappointment, dissatisfaction or disgust. And the more we ‘label’ ourselves — ‘I’m fat’ or ‘I’m ugly’ — the more we believe it to be true.
3 keys to body acceptance
1) place less importance on our appearance as a measure of our self-worth
2) view ourselves through a more compassionate lens
3) appreciate the wonderful and vital things that the body does for us every day to keep us active and healthy
Working towards having a healthier relationship with your body is like working on any other relationship — it requires committed action over time. The harsh, critical voice will continue to be there in the beginning, but the goal is to keep showing up for yourself with compassion and care until the harsh voice no longer feels the need to speak up. Remember, whatever you practice gets stronger.
5 ways to get there
1) Focus on what you like about your body
It may be your smile, your hair, your eyes, your arms. The more you focus on the parts you don’t like, the more magnified these real or perceived flaws will become. Aiming for acceptance and appreciation can feel more realistic than loving your body all the time.
2) Focus on the function of your body
This takes you away from how how it looks or the number on the scale. Appreciate your ability to hug a loved one, hit a great serve in a tennis game, convey your personality, go hiking, give birth and much much more. Shift from an observing and critiquing perspective to fully participating in whatever you are doing.
3) Cleanse your social media feed
Even 15 minutes of appearance-focused social media leads to lowered mood and increased body dissatisfaction. Follow accounts that don’t include body or fitness-focused images or switch to body positivity accounts.
4) Think about your self-worth in a broader sense
Your self-worth is about so much more than your appearance. For example, maybe it’s your social intelligence, creative ability, championing causes you feel passionately about, or your empathy, support, and mentorship of others. What qualities do you like in other people that you share? Often we appreciate our friends’ kindness or bravery but dismiss such qualities in ourselves.
5) Engage in physical activity
Do this preferably with others and outside, for example team sports, gardening, walking, yoga. These help you connect with and appreciate your body and recognize skills you may overlook. Being with others while engaging in activity supports the switch from observing to participating.
Dr Victoria Mountford
Dr Victoria Mountford is a clinical psychologist and joint lead of the eating disorder service at Lighthouse Arabia in Dubai. Dr Mountford has written three books on the subject of eating disorders and was part of the founding team that developed FREED, the first early intervention eating disorder service in London, England.