Over the years, I’ve met so many strong, smart women (and men) who were frequently tormented both by, and about preoccupation with attractiveness of physical appearance, weight, and / or shape. In fact, the ‘overvaluation of shape, weight, and their control’ is the central feature to Fairburn’s (2008) cognitive model for the treatment of eating disorders. It’s also really common to feel a sense of shame about this. We are all subject to messages that we should not only be beautiful (whatever that means) but that we should also be beautiful in a kind of effortless, not-caring-too-much-about-it kind of way. It’s no wonder that body image distress can be such an isolating experience.
And sadly, shame and isolation do nothing to soothe distress. Therefore a vicious cycle which potentiality perpetuates weight and shape distress and eating problems can be created.
It’s OK not to love your weight and shape
The body positivity movement has highlighted that it’s not simply our body shape or size which determines we feel about it, but well… how we feel about it. And thankfully most people are more educated about the frequent use of filters and airbrushing nowadays. In theory, most of us will now know that the majority of people don’t really look like the media images which we’re subjected to on a regular basis. However research suggests that even with this knowledge, it’s still super common to feel worse about your body following exposure to a (knowingly) altered image. And for some people this can be particularly bad. Why might this be?
Well, as much as we might like to think of ourselves as being purely rational beings, we rarely engage with anything on a solely rational, cognitive, factual level. And the more threatening a topic has become, the less rationally we are immediately able to think and feel about it. We can all be exposed to, and affected by experiences that make weight and shape feel important and threatening.
What causes body image distress?
Body image distress is often related to a fear of fatness. Much like any other phobia, this may be caused by a number of factors. Research suggests that this includes (while not being limited to):
- Different body shapes being marketed as ideal at different times and places (typically fuller figures are idealized in times of scarcity, with the opposite also being true)
- Bodies vary genetically in what weight and shape they are most healthy (meaning that luck of the draw dictates how close your body shape matches whatever whatever the current socially determined ‘ideal’ may be)
- Experience (and timing) of puberty
- Value judgement about food and bodies (as good vs bad, healthy vs unhealthy)
- Body-image focused bullying, exclusion from – or conversely, inclusion in peer groups where there has been some sort of appearance related contingency
- Subtle or explicit comments, criticism, praise and implicit messages around body image, worthiness and attractiveness
- Unwanted sexual objectification, attention, or trauma
- Experiencing others responding negatively towards our bodies (or frequently responding negatively towards their own, or others bodies)
Again, much like other phobias – the sense of threat itself serves to alter perception of the focus of threat (so someone with spider phobia is likely to perceive the same spider as being larger than someone who is less scared of spiders, and someone who is fearful of fatness is likely to perceive their own body as ‘fatter’ than someone else of a similar size). Feeling low in mood has also been shown to increase distorted body perception in women suffering with eating disorders (but not in those without).
Making peace with your body is a journey
Taking all of the above into account, it’s no wonder that accepting your body doesn’t happen over night. And it’s unlikely to happen just knowing that lots of images have been altered, and that people can be happy in bodies that differ from what is sold to us as conventional beauty (while each of these things are probably still helpful). Your goal might be to love, accept, or simply reduce distress associated with body weight and shape. And this might vary over time. Everyone’s journey is different, but things that might help include:
- Recognising exactly what your body image related thoughts and feelings are, and understanding where they came from
- Gently updating these with what you now know and feel as an adult
- Understanding what a healthy weight range for your own body might be
- Recognising bias (and the effects of this), not just in the media but also in who you may compare your body to, and how you evaluate your own body and broader sense of self
- Deliberately broadening your focus of attention (both appearance, and otherwise)
- Changing the way you use the mirror
- Resisting body checking and other activities that can amplify body focus
- Knowing that you are not alone in not loving your body every day
- Attending not just rationally, but also emotionally (i.e., with compassion, kindness and soothing) when feeling drawn into any body focused mindsets
- Using self-help materials such as these freely available from the Centre for Clinical Interventions
- Seeking professional help if you need it
Some days might be harder than others
Body image acceptance is not a fixed personal trait. It’s a state which we can all experience more or less of at any given time. Some days are bound to be harder than others. The hard days are no personal failing, but a sign that there is an emotional part of you that may need some attending to and healing. Just like our bodies, our thoughts and feelings related to appearance will never be ‘perfect’ and it’s OK not to love every part of your appearance. You don’t need to hate it either. Struggles are no sign of weakness, vanity, non-feminism, or any other sort of personal failing. The journey towards self-acceptance is exactly that. A journey. It’s being on it that counts.
© Charlotte Rose, 2022