When you think of “body image,” you may not correlate it to health. What many people, both inside and outside of healthcare, don’t know is how much body image plays into our lives and the decisions we make. Many also don’t know how it impacts children and their future as they grow into adults.
It’s time we talk about body image — what it is, how it affects us and why this conversation matters.
How is “body image” defined?
Body image is how someone sees or views their self. It can be positive, negative or neutral and can differ day by day. Body image begins to develop as young as six years old. It is influenced by many things, including:
- All forms of media
- Culture norms
- Friends and family
- The size of objects (like a chair at a restaurant or on an airplane)
- And many, many more
The risks of poor body image
Body image often plays into body satisfaction, or how comfortable and confident you are in your body, and self-esteem, which is defined as the confidence in one’s own worth or abilities and self-respect. If one has low body satisfaction, it is very likely they will have poor self-esteem.
At first glance, you may not see how this impacts your health, but what if someone is held back from applying for a job, going to the doctor or pursuing a relationship because of the size of their body? Body image, body satisfaction and self-esteem have a larger impact on our lives than you may realize.
Those with poor body image and body satisfaction are at increased risk of:
- Eating disorders
- Using laxatives, anabolic steroids, weight loss drugs or other legal and illegal drugs
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Chronic dieting
- Self-destructive behaviors
- Avoidance of healthcare
Eating disorders are of particular concern when it comes to body image. To put some things into perspective, let’s shine some light on how common eating disorders are in our country. 30 million people of all ages in the U.S. have an eating disorder. Eating disorders are also the deadliest mental health disorder in America, killing someone every 62 minutes.
How do we move toward better body image?
Focus on body neutrality and respect first
We can’t just expect to go from zero to 100 overnight. Instead of trying to love yourself or have body positivity, first focus on feeling neutral about or respect toward your body.
Address negative feelings
Next, write down everything you don’t like about your body and how these feelings and thoughts have held you back from certain experiences.
For example, I hated my body so much that I avoided buying a swimsuit and going swimming for 4 years because I was so embarrassed and didn’t think I deserved to be in public in a swimsuit. Grieve these feelings and lost experiences. Think about and explore how much hating your body keeps you from living your life.
Start thinking about how your body serves you
What are some things that aren’t related to looks that you can focus on instead? My body is a great machine because it helps me breathe, digest food, walk, sleep, etc.
What are some personality traits you love about yourself? I love my brain because I’m witty and intelligent. I love my sense of humor and how it lights up a room.
Focusing on more than just your looks can help you see that your body is more than its appearance.
Are there people in your life who make you feel bad about yourself? Are you following certain people on social media who constantly make you feel worse about yourself? Set boundaries to protect yourself. Unfollow people who make you feel bad. Talk to the people surrounding you and ask them to not talk about dieting or make “fat jokes” in front of you. You may need to cut people out of your life who can’t respect those boundaries.
Start focusing on your needs
You deserve to take up space. You have every right to be on this earth and live your life. It is not your responsibility to fit cultural molds. If someone has an issue with your body, it’s their problem, not yours. You can’t change the body you were born in. Just like you can’t change a disability or a foot size. Focus on taking care of your needs.
Consider talking with a weight neutral therapist and dietitian
I emphasis weight neutral because then you can avoid any sort of diet-related talk. It is okay if you still want to lose weight, but first you need to accept the body you are in. You cannot accomplish that when pursuing weight loss.
Start treating your body with respect
Do you work out because you feel like you have to in order to be a certain size or make up for eating certain foods? Do you self-harm because you don’t like your body? Do you go on juice cleanses to punish yourself for eating donuts? Work on stopping these forms of punishment and instead work on treating yourself with respect. Seek help if you feel like you are struggling with physical, eating disorder and substance abuse types of self-harm.
- Find out how to build a healthier relationship with food.
- Schedule a mental health check-in.
- Learn about meta-emotions (aka feelings about feelings).
About the author
Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN
Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN, is a clinical dietitian and wellness coordinator in the Baylor Scott & White Health wellness department.