Negative Body Image (and what to do about it)

Poor body image can lead to the development of an eating disorder. Improving body image is a crucial goal in the course of treatment and an essential factor in the full recovery from an eating disorder. For most adolescent and adult women in today’s America, achieving the perfect body has become the dominant measure of self-worth.

This unhealthy preoccupation with physical appearance and self-image is reflected in body image statistics like these from the National Eating Disorders Association:

  • Four out of every five 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat.
  • 80% of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance.
  • The average American woman is 5’4” and weighs 140 pounds.
  • Her “ideal,” the average American model, is 5’11” and weighs 117.
  • 35% of “normal” dieters progress to pathological dieting.
  • 20-25% of pathological dieters develop partial or full syndrome eating disorders.
  • Americans spend over $40 billion on dieting and diet-related products each year.

Thinness has become a symbol of power, moral superiority, and even a measure of fitness/wellness itself. Unfortunately, few of us have peace of mind when it comes to our bodies and our appearance. No one is immune to the ever-changing cultural beauty standards and the pressures to be thin. Many women believe that their lives will be magically transformed when their goal weight or dress size has been reached. This keeps females of all ages caught up in the relentless pursuit of thinness—a quest that all too often results in body shame and body loathing, low self-esteem, and body image disturbances.

Our goal is to provide you with information that will give you a better understanding of body image and how to promote a better body image for women of all sizes and shapes.

Body Image Definition

Body image is an extremely complex concept. It goes far beyond simply feeling that “I love my body” or “I hate my body.” Our body image begins to form at an early age and is influenced by our parents, caregivers, peers, and life experiences. The development of self-esteem, a strong identity, the capacity for pleasure, and the ability to connect emotionally to one’s self and to others are all linked to a positive body image.

Each of us has a picture of ourself in our mind’s eye. That image, coupled with our belief about how others perceive us, constitutes our body image. Body image also involves how we actually feel living in our bodies. Many women, although obsessed with their bodies or individual body parts, have actually cut themselves off from body feelings and sensations. Others continue to perceive themselves in outdated images left over from childhood. And most tend consistently to overestimate their own size and shape and punish themselves for falling short of perfection.

Signs of a Negative Body Image

Body image problems occur along a continuum that ranges from mild dissatisfaction to severe body-hatred. Body image disturbance is generally seen in conjunction with self-esteem issues, depression, eating disorders, or sexual abuse.

A person may be suffering from body image disturbance if she:

  • Is unable to accept a compliment.
  • Is overly affected in her moods by how she thinks she looks.
  • Constantly compares herself to others.
  • Calls herself disparaging names like: “Fat.” “Gross.” “Ugly.” “Flabby.”
  • Attempts to create a “perfect” image.
  • Seeks constant reassurance from others that her looks are acceptable.
  • Consistently overstates the size of her body or body parts.
  • Believes that if she could attain her goal weight or size, she would be able to accept herself.
  • Subordinates her enjoyment of life’s pleasures or pursuit of personal goals to her drive for thinness.
  • Equates thinness with beauty, success, perfection, happiness, confidence, and self-control.
  • Compartmentalizes her body into parts (thighs, stomach, buttocks, hips, etc.) rather than feeling connected to her whole body.
  • Has an ever-present fear of being fat—even if she is slim.
  • Has an overriding sense of shame about herself and her body.

How to Help Someone with a Negative Body Image

No matter what their size or shape, individuals can learn to make peace with their bodies through self-love and acceptance. Recent studies indicate that self-esteem and body-esteem are very closely linked and have little relation to actual physical attractiveness. Thus, the true indicator of a good body image is high self-esteem—not the ability to fit into size 6 jeans.

Here are some ways you can help someone with a negative body image develop better body esteem:

  • Base your compliments on attributes other than size, weight, or shape.
  • Minimize “diet” and weight talk.
  • Never joke about or shame anyone because of her weight or size.
  • Examine your own attitudes about weight and size.
  • Raise your own and others’ consciousness about the cultural bias regarding thinness.
  • Believe that a person’s body image distortion is real (not just attention-getting), and respond in an empathic manner.
  • Be knowledgeable about professional resources for help. These include dietitians, psychologists, body image specialists, etc.
  • Discourage dieting or weight-loss fads; instead, promote a wellness lifestyle.
  • Don’t equate thinness with happiness.
  • Remember that there is no “ideal” body. Beautiful bodies come in all sizes and shapes.

If you or anyone you know is exhibiting the warning signs of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, it is important to seek professional counseling as soon as possible. Research suggests that early intervention provides the best chance for a full recovery. If untreated, these disorders can become part of a destructive cycle, which can continue for years and may eventually lead to death.

For body image disturbance, it is also imperative to seek treatment from an outpatient therapist or to join a support group. Individual therapy, nutritional counseling, group therapy, and more intensive structured programs are available at all Renfrew locations.

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