October 25, 2015
By Lisa Linardatos, PhD, Psychologist
As a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, I see the negative effects of body dissatisfaction often. This isn’t surprising, right? Messages that our bodies need to be improved are everywhere. According to these messages, to be a desirable woman you should be thin and fit, and to be a desirable man you should be muscular and fit (McCreary, 2011; Petrie & Greenleaf, 2012; from Gillen 2015). In fact, it seems it’s become the norm to NOT like our bodies. Liking our bodies may imply that we’re weird, lazy, or vain.
Liking our bodies – is it really worth it?
For many, developing a positive body image is an uphill battle. The way we think about, and how we feel about, our bodies is so ingrained that changing these thoughts and feelings is comparable to learning to a new language. Also, because it’s so common to put down our bodies, we may feel like social freaks for actually thinking and saying nice things about our bodies. Another common reason people have trouble developing a positive body image is that they’re worried that if they are actually accepting of their bodies they’ll “lose control” and become “fat” and “lazy.” Given all the obstacles in the way of developing a positive body image, is it really worth it?
In light of the title of this blog post, you have probably guessed that what I’m going to say is, yes, actually, it is worth it. Research shows that individuals who appreciate and accept their bodies report less depression, higher self-esteem, fewer unhealthy dieting behaviours, and greater intentions to protect their skin from UV exposure and damage (Gillen, 2015). Another study demonstrated that, in overweight women, improving body image increased healthy eating behaviours, such as eating mindfully and avoiding opportunities to overeat (during weight control) (Carraça et al., 2011). What’s more, in a study with adolescent girls, lower body satisfaction predicted the use of behaviours that may place individuals at risk for weight gain (e.g., self-induced vomiting, taking diet pills), and also predicted lower levels of physical activity and lower fruit and vegetable intake (Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2006).
Although beating ourselves up for the way we look might motivate us in the short term (e.g., “I look so gross; I really need to lose weight.”), research shows that when the motivation to take care of our bodies comes from a place of respect and acceptance, we are better at taking care of them. If you are really struggling with body image issues, this research may not be enough to convince you that being more accepting of your body is worth it. However, I do hope you take the time to read my suggestions below, as you might recognize yourself in some of them and gain a new perspective.
How to improve your body image
I’ve compiled a list below of various tips and techniques for improving body image. Some of the things I recommend are ideally done with the help of a mental health professional. I also draw a lot from this great resource: The Body Image Workbook: An Eight-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks (Thomas Cash, 2008), which I highly recommend for helping you in your body image journey. Additionally, helpful and easy-to-read resources on eating disorders can be found at the Centre for Clinical Interventions website.
1. Make a commitment. Make a conscious decision to work on improving your body image and start small. Try to view body positivity on a continuum. Maybe today you like your body hardly at all, but maybe in a few months you like your body “sort of” or “sometimes” and so forth. Change is difficult. Changing our thoughts and feelings about ourselves, our ways of being that are highly ingrained, is especially difficult. Although it will take work and commitment, like any challenge, you will undoubtedly grow and learn from the process.
2. Develop a critical eye. Be a critical consumer of the media. Notice and inform yourself of the unrealistic ‘‘ideal’’ body shapes portrayed in the media, reflect on how they might affect you, and learn about the various methods that the media employs to create a ‘‘perfect’’ image of beauty (McVey et al., 2010). If you’re really motivated, challenge the media. Write to advertisers, programmers and producers letting them know how you feel about the constant portrayal of images that lack in diversity and represent unrealistic beauty standards. To get started, check out this local initiative, the Québec Charter for a Healthy and Diverse Body Image: https://douglas.research.mcgill.ca/documents/press-release-charter.pdf.
3. Appreciate diversity. Appreciate diversity and surround yourself with positive role models. Celebrities everywhere are taking up the cause. Check out Scarlett Johansson’s makeup-less selfie on her Facebook page and her comments about how images in the media have the support of designers and make-up artists and are altered with Photoshop. Follow Beauty Redefined or Amy Poehler’s Smart Girlson Instagram to read tons of body positive messages from celebrities and otherwise. Or, simply observe how young children play, carefree of how they look, dirty with mud, messy hair, completely engaged in the moment and full of joy. It didn’t matter then; maybe it doesn’t have to matter as much now?
4. Challenge your thoughts. Challenge your thoughts and assumptions related to your body image. Whether it’s because of insults from peers, family messages, or societal influences, your private body talk may be harsh, inaccurate, and overly critical (e.g., “I look like a whale.”, “My thighs are disgusting.”, “Who would want to date me if I look like this?”). Your private body talk might be especially loud when you’re standing in front of a mirror, shopping for new clothes, or getting ready for a special event. Some common assumptions that often underlie private body talk include: “My worth as a person depends on how I look.”, “The first thing people will notice about me is what’s wrong with my appearance.”, “If I looked like I wanted to, my life would be much better.”, or “I let my weight get out of control, so I don’t deserve to like my body and liking it will make things worse.”, to name a few. Even though these thoughts and assumptions might feel true, it doesn’t mean they are true. Let’s explore these thoughts and assumptions in more detail…
A main theme in the assumptions listed above is, “If I don’t look a certain way, I’m not worthy and people won’t like me.”Of course, people do notice physical appearance and they may judge you because they hold unrealistic beauty standards too, but remember the simple phrase, “beauty is as beauty does.” Actions do speak louder than looks, and appearance only takes us so far. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience where we thought someone was really attractive when we first met them, but after getting to know them they seemed less attractive. Think about the important people in your life. Are they all “perfect” in terms of their looks, and does it really matter? Personality, warmth, friendliness, authenticity, sense of humour, and social sensitivity all contribute to how attractive we find someone and are important factors in the maintenance of relationships (e.g., Stavrova & Ehlebracht, 2015). Also, the fact that we might assume that someone might like us only because of our looks doesn’t give others much credit, as it implies that others are superficial and shortsighted. Finally, remember that often the media wants us to feel like our looks = our worth, so that we buy that new face cream that can magically erase wrinkles or try that new exercise machine that will give us rock-hard abs.
Another common assumption underlying body negativity is, “I let my weight get out of control, so I don’t deserve to like my body and liking it will make things worse.” People often feel, for example, that if they have unhealthy eating behaviours, they don’t deserve to like their bodies. If you have this assumption, please take a moment to ask yourself, how will punishing yourself in this way help you move towards healthy eating? If you were a teacher or a parent, would you take this stance in helping a child gain control of their potentially unhealthy eating behaviours? To a certain extent, it might make sense to make ourselves feel bad for what we consider to be “bad” behaviour. And, in fact, punishing ourselves in this way might be motivating in the short-term. However, in the long run, what is likely to be more effective in motivating behaviour is compassion and understanding (Stoeber, Hutchfield, & Wood, 2008; Terry & Leary, 2011). One reason this might be the case it that the negative emotions associated with shame and self-blame might increase our struggle in moving forward. Also, remember the research above that says if we like our bodies we actually have more healthy eating habits.
Caveat: Challenging long-held assumptions and negative thoughts is a tough task, and requires a lot of guidance and practice. It is highly recommended that you consult with a mental health professional who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy to assist you with challenging your thoughts.
5. Develop self-compassion. As I mentioned above, even if we engage in unhealthy eating behaviours, we can still like our bodies, and liking our bodies will help us to have healthier bodies. So, how can we have compassion for a behaviour that we feel is bad? With the help of a friend, dietician, or psychologist, take some time to educate yourself and look at the facts. More than ever before, our lifestyles are sedentary and we are surrounded by food that is engineered to be super-tasty (Fairburn & Brownell, 2002). Combine this with the fact that the diet industry is often encouraging and promoting diets that set people up for developing unhealthy eating habits, and it is hardly surprising that many individuals struggle with some form of an eating disorder or obesity. Instead of beating yourself up for the way you look and how you eat, why not do what is effective? We can effectively develop healthy eating habits by reducing negative emotions, especially shame, and increasing our knowledge of healthy eating habits. Instead of that harsh, self-critical voice, try talking to yourself about your image and eating behaviours in a compassionate but educated, firm but loving voice.
6. Write about it. Try to understand how your current views of your body developed and how they are maintained by doing an expressive writing exercise (Cash, 2008), ideally with the help of a mental health professional. The expressive writing exercise, as outlined in the Body Image Workbook, Second Edition (Thomas Cash, 2008), asks you to express your deepest thoughts and feelings about significant body image experiences that occurred during your childhood, throughout your teen years, and that are still occurring today. By doing so, you may start to recognize that how you feel about your body is at least partly due to how you were socialized, and not based on an objective fact that there is something wrong with your body. The goal is to empower yourself to identify how inaccurate and unhealthy body image messages are influencing your thoughts and feelings about your body today.
7. Get involved in body positive activities. Take a class that allows you to be more in touch with your body and its needs, an activity that will allow you to appreciate it more. A few common examples include dance, yoga, and relaxation classes. Through these activities you can nurture a better relationship with your body as you connect with it in a fun and respectful manner and witness how it changes and grows and learns.
8. Have fun and be creative with your appearance. Remember when you were young and you got to choose what to wear for Halloween? Maybe a TV show inspired you or maybe you relied on your imagination to create your own costume. Maybe you got together with friends and came up with something super-scary or funny and ironic and had a blast doing so. What if each and every day we had the freedom to create an appearance based on what inspired us? What if our bodies could be viewed as canvases on which to express our identity? More than ever before, we are exposed to and have the chance to be inspired by fashion trends from all around the world. We have access to clothes and accessories in an abundance of colours, textures, patterns, styles, etc. Once we remove the boundaries around how we “should” look, the pressure is off and creativity and positivity blossoms. Instead of looking at our clothes and ourselves with feelings of shame, maybe we can welcome the opportunity to have fun, express ourselves, and let our imaginations run free.
Some final thoughts
I know that liking our bodies is something most of us struggle with daily. Changing this attitude about ourselves is no small feat and realistically it’s probably something we will struggle with to a certain extent for the rest of our lives. In trying to overcome these difficulties, I often find it helpful to wonder what my 80-year-old self might think of me today. I would like for that future self to be able to look back on this life and feel like she tried her best to focus on what really matters.
**Stay tuned for next month’s Part 2 of Why You Should Like your Body and How to Do It!**
**For more self-help and mental health resources, check out our resource section!**
Carraça, E. V., Silva, M. N., Markland, D., Vieira, P. N., Minderico, C. S., Sardinha, L. B., & Teixeira, P. J. (2011). Body image change and improved eating self-regulation in a weight management intervention in women. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act, 8, 75.
Cash, Thomas. The body image workbook: an eight-step program for learning to like your looks. New Harbinger Publications, 2008.
Fairburn, C. G., & Brownell, K. D. (Eds.). (2002). Eating disorders and obesity: A comprehensive handbook. Guilford Press.
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.
Hildebrandt, T., Loeb, K., Troupe, S., & Delinsky, S. (2012). Adjunctive mirror exposure for eating disorders: A randomized controlled pilot study. Behaviour research and therapy, 50(12), 797-804.
McCreary, D. R. (2011). Body image and muscularity. In T. F. Cash & L. Smolak (Eds.), Body image: A handbook of science, practice, and prevention (2nd ed., pp. 198–205).New York: Guilford Press.
McVey, G. L., Kirsh, G., Maker, D., Walker, K. S., Mullane, J., Laliberte, M., … & Banks, L. (2010). Promoting positive body image among university students: A collaborative pilot study. Body Image, 7(3), 200-204.
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.
Petrie, T. A., & Greenleaf, C. (2012). Body image and sports/athletics. In T. F. Cash (Ed.), Encyclopedia of body image and human appearance (Vol. 1) (pp. 160–165).San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.
Stavrova, O., & Ehlebracht, D. (2015). A Longitudinal Analysis of Romantic Relationship Formation: The Effect of Prosocial Behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 521-527.
Stoeber, J., Hutchfield, J., & Wood, K. V. (2008). Perfectionism, self-efficacy, and aspiration level: Differential effects of perfectionistic striving and self-criticism after success and failure. Personality and Individual differences, 45(4), 323-327.
Terry, M. L., & Leary, M. R. (2011). Self-compassion, self-regulation, and health. Self and Identity, 10(3), 352-362.