How do you feel about your body? What do you think when you look at yourself in the mirror or picture yourself in your mind’s eye? Positive or negative, your body image will likely have an impact on your self-esteem. And for many people that can also affect their mental health leading to issues such as depression, obsessional thinking and eating disorders to name just a few.
Our body image can be based upon our past experiences. For example, the child who was called chubby by an aunt may grow into an adult who still believes that they are overweight. That person may fear being judged as it stirs up the feelings of the hurt child.
Body image perceptions can also be based upon comparisons we make with other people. As human beings we naturally compare ourselves with others, constantly evaluating our place in this world. This helps us to understand how we should look, feel and act, providing relief from anxiety about being different. The difficulty arises when we choose to compare ourselves to the unrealistic images that are often portrayed in the media.
Images in magazines, on social media or television may be filtered, airbrushed and focused on unrealistic body size or shape. They can easily set unrealistic expectations of how we should look. Many people are aware that these pictures do not provide an accurate representation for comparison but can’t help doing so. This is particularly true for people who already have a negative body image.
For example, if someone believes they are overweight, their mind may unconsciously become preoccupied with actively looking for evidence suggesting everyone else weighs less and discard any evidence suggesting they are a healthy weight. People with an eating disorder may even discard evidence that they are significantly and dangerously underweight.
Psychotherapy provides a safe environment to challenge any negative beliefs people hold about their body, and help them take a more compassionate view of themselves. But that’s only one part of the therapy. It is essential to try and understand the emotional distress that has led them to judging their looks and appearance in such a critical manner. If we ignore these underlying reasons it is all too easy to slip back into old patterns of behaviour.
If someone is unhappy with an aspect of their body, their mind may chose this aspect to fixate on as a solution for something else. I often hear people say, ‘I will be happy when I lose X amount of weight’ or ‘I will be happy when I have a cosmetic procedure’. The problem is that they could lose the weight or have the cosmetic operation and the underlying distress remains, which could lead to them setting a goal to lose more weight or have another invasive operation. So as a clinician the therapeutic work does not stop when we help someone to view their body in a better light, we also need to provide understanding and attention to the underlying distress that the person has potentially been facing.
I am often asked what people can do to improve the way they view their body, some tips that I often recommend is to:
Body image requires significant attention within the psychotherapeutic encounter, but I strongly believe that it is essential to keep an eye open for other areas that may be causing the person to feel unhappy.
If you enjoyed this blog then you can also Listen to our podcast where we spoke to Dr Christian Buckland to find out how to become more body positive.
The United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapists can help you find an expert therapist near you
The Samaritans 24-hour helpline, call: 116 123
Anorexia and Bulimia Care’s helpline: 03000 11 12 13
Beat’s helpline for under 25’s Helpline number for under 25’s: 0808 801 0711 (Daily 3pm-10pm)
NHS (England), call: 111
NHS Direct (Wales), call: 0845 46 47