This is a guest post from Amanda Ravary, who was a volunteer at our clinic and is now completing her Masters in Psychology at McGill University. She generously agreed to write a few posts for our blog, this one particularly touched me as it is a reflection of her experience sitting in on one of our group therapy sessions for individuals with eating issues.
Recently, I’ve been sitting in on group therapy sessions run by Dr. Jodie Richardson. Every week, different topics relating to eating issues are discussed. And this week, the topic was body image. I knew before the session started that even I would benefit from it. But by the end of the session, I was truly surprised by how much of an impact it really had on me.
Body image – what is it?
Everyone talks about body image. You hear about it everywhere and anywhere you go. Especially in today’s day and age, you’re always hearing about people’s problems with body image. It always seems as though it’s something that needs to be fixed. At least for me, that is. It’s always this concept about someone that isn’t entirely okay, something that’s been damaged over time.
Think about it, when was the last time you heard someone say, “I have a great body” or “I don’t think I need to change anything about my body”? Statements like those seem to be quite unusual and surprising. But even more so, these statements are almost unheard of.
But what exactly is body image even? This was the question I was first asked in this therapy session. Immediately, everyone seemed to have answers to this question. The bottom line came down to this: body image is your personal relationship with your body. It’s about the beliefs, perceptions, and thoughts you hold about your appearance and your physical body. It extends to include your feelings and sensations, as well as the functions and actions of your body. It’s really what you see your body to be, including everything it does and everything you perceive it to be. Yet, one thing I noticed when everyone was giving their answers, was that there tended to be a negative spin on it.
The question I was then asked was the following: how do you feel in your body? Without even looking around, I could feel the mood in the room change. It was almost as if a wave of tension took over the whole room. All of these people that were so quick to respond earlier, seemed to be in a state of dead silence. And then slowly people starting speaking up, voicing their personal feelings towards their body. And one by one, people expressed their lack of satisfaction with their body image, their almost hatred towards their bodies, their negative thoughts and perceptions about their appearance.
And that’s when I realized the extent to which negative body image really is a pervasive problem in today’s culture. Jodie went on to explain that there are many reasons why we have these negative views of ourselves.
One reason she mentioned was social pressures and influences. She explained that this could involve a variety of pressures from family, friends, media, and past experiences. This one really resonated with my personal experiences. For myself, the pressure from media and how that trickles down into my every day life really tends to make an impact. Every day you’re saturated with images in magazines, TV, movies, advertisements, and more, about the perfect body that you should be working over time to achieve. You’re told to go to the gym every chance you get and to eat a perfectly balanced diet (with no carbs obviously!). And all this so that we can look just like that perfectly skinny airbrushed model on TV. But we stop and think to ourselves, “Well it’s just TV, obviously no one in real life looks like that”. But when all you see are these images constantly, it gets harder and harder to just ignore them. And then people around you are so consumed by these images that they start influencing you more directly too. And this is when it really begins to take a toll.
Many of the people in the session had experienced family pressures to maintain a certain appearance. Negativity coming from certain family members seemed to be a significant factor contributing to their poor body image. Which makes sense, right? How can you ever have a healthy view of your body when those closest to you criticize it? Seems like quite the impossible task that some of these people have had to struggle against.
Do we really need to fix our body image?
Having a negative body image really can take its toll on people. Your body is what you live in everyday, and viewing it in a negative way definitely isn’t a way to live. Besides the fact that poor body image itself really influences our daily lives, it actually causes other problems too. Here are a few of the problems that are often found to come with negative body image:
· Low self-esteem
· Eating problems
· Lower subjective well being
· Less consumption of fruits and vegetables
· Less physical activity
So, we have these issues with body image that are already a big problem enough on their own. But now we have all of these secondary problems stemming from this core problem. Shows just how important body image really is, right?
We then discussed a very key distinction that I think most people (including myself) had never really realized. Jodie explained that your actual physical body is not always related to your body image. Meaning that, if you try to make changes to your physical body, this won’t necessarily change your body image. Many people in the group actually spoke up agreeing with this. Some explained that even after losing significant amounts of weight and finally reaching a target weight goal, their body image was still as negative as it was before the weight loss.
This kind of goes against what most people think. It always seems that if you change your body, you will reach a state of happiness. And this is what you tend to hear in the media all the time too. You’re always told that if you make changes to you body, you will feel good about yourself. The grass is always greener on the other side, right? But, apparently, this isn’t actually the case.
Since our body image isn’t tied to physical changes in our body, we need to work on body image specifically to change it. The only way we are ever going to be able to even appreciate changes in our body, is if we first learned to accept and love our relationship that we have with our body. Otherwise, changes we make to our body will go unappreciated. And what would be the point of that?
How do we change our body image?
So, now the big question: how do we change our body image? If we can’t do it by changing our physical bodies, there must be other ways to do it. First, we need to change the relationship we have with our body. People tend to refer to and act as though their bodies are objects. Just like when you are trying to change your body, you treat it as an object that needs some work. Instead, we need to start seeing our bodies as an integral part of ourselves – not some extra component that needs to be changed. Your body is what you live in, it is part of you. It is not a secondary object. The first step is to start treating your body less like an object, and more like an important part of yourself.
Jodie then went on to explain a new concept to us called self-compassion. At first I seemed very skeptical about this idea. But then she had us carry out an exercise that really changed my views in a drastic way. She asked us all to close our eyes and listen to what she was saying. She first asked us to imagine the voice in our head that spends its time critiquing our body. She said to picture that voice, and to put a face to it. She asked us to really imagine everything possible about this voice and the image we had put to it. Think about how this voice sounds, what the face of it looks like, what is it telling us, how do we look and feel when this voice is talking to us.
After this exercise, I was surprised by how much it moved me. To really sit back and think about that voice in your head that’s always critiquing you and putting you down, really changed my perspective on my body image. Why should I let this voice put me down? For myself, simply just realizing this voice existed and putting a face to it, opened up my eyes to the possibility of change.
Many other people in the group tended to be moved by this experience to. I think it came as a surprise to most people how powerful that exercise really was. I felt saturated in the emotions coming from the majority of the people in the room.
Jodie then continued and asked us to repeat the same exercise. Except this time, we had to imagine a voice of compassion, instead of a voice of the critic. Again, we had to imagine all the aspects about this voice and the face we put to it. You could see the change in the overall mood of the room after this. It was almost as if a wave of relief took over. Some people even shared their experience as to what they imagined their voice of compassion to be. Everyone pictured a face and voice that was warm, kind, and comforting. This voice was the one that supported them and understood their feelings.
The idea of self-compassion involves having an understanding of your own suffering and failures. It means having compassion for yourself as you would normally for a friend or family member. Instead of criticizing yourself or ignoring your own pain, take that compassion you normally extend to others and share some with yourself.
Jodie then left us with the idea that next time we heard that voice of the critic, maybe it would be possible to call on the voice of compassion to take over. It might sound easier said than done, but I think with practice this might truly help at overcoming some of our negative views towards ourselves.
The session ended with one last concept to think about. Jodie suggested for everyone to make a personal intention. This would be something that you want to achieve for yourself. However, she said that instead of framing it in a negative way, make it positive. We always tend to make goals for things we need to stop doing, but what if started working towards things we should start doing?
Here’s an example: Instead of saying, “I want to not have a poor body image”, try saying “I want to work on having a more positive relationship with my body”. Give yourself something to work towards, not something to avoid. If your intention seems too big, try breaking it down into smaller sub-goals. That way whenever you reach one of them, you can enjoy your success one step at a time.
Gillen, M. M. (2015). Associations between positive body image and indicators of men's and women's mental and physical health. Body image, 13, 67-74.
Cash, Thomas. The body image workbook: an eight-step program for learning to like your looks. New Harbinger Publications, 2008.
Neumark-Sztainer, D., Paxton, S. J., Hannan, P. J., Haines, J., & Story, M. (2006). Does body satisfaction matter? Five-year longitudinal associations between body satisfaction and health behaviors in adolescent females and males. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39(2), 244-251.