Most people would agree the media today is inundated with unrealistic portrayals of women’s bodies. Because of practices such as choosing primarily thin, young, white women to sell products and using Photoshop to erase natural “flaws” and “imperfections,” to name a few, we are not exposed to a diverse (one might also say realistic) array of people. Consequently, generations of people grow up believing their appearance is inferior because it is not widely represented or considered to be “ideal.”
In my practice, I frequently work with women who are struggling with anxiety. Concerns related to weight and body image almost always come up as a contributing fact—in no small part, I believe, due to the media messages regarding the “ideal” body. Many people today have a tremendous fear of being judged for weight gain or their size. Fears and insecurities surrounding the body may take many forms. Some may fear being passed up for promotions or being looked down on at work due to weight stigma or sizeist stereotypes. Other individuals might fear never having a romantic relationship because potential love interests consider their size unacceptable.
Fears contributing to general feelings of anxiety may not always be rational, but unfortunately, weight stigma is a real concern in our society. The size-based discrimination and prejudice many people experience is likely to contributes to or exacerbate feelings of anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. Thus, these feelings of anxiety in particular may be more difficult to address. Further complications often result when, in an effort to achieve what societal messages suggest to be an “ideal” body, people develop unhealthy relationships with food and their bodies to achieve this ideal.
From one fad diet to the next, the message is often the same: restricting food and ignoring the body’s natural hunger cues will lead to perfection. Instagram and other social media platforms are filled with pictures of plates of vegetables and videos of workouts meant to inspire. Whether a diet is low-fat, low-carb, or sugar-free, it does not often promote the development of a healthy relationship with all foods.
Take the current trend of clean eating as an example. Clean eating moralizes and judges foods by designating some as “clean” (and therefore acceptable to eat) and implying that consuming foods not considered clean results in the ingestion of dirty or toxic substances. Cleanses, or highly restrictive fasts meant to rid the body of perceived impurities, are increasingly popular, and people talk about “cheat days” as if they are committing a crime by eating sweets or processed foods. It is common to see posts in which people apologize for eating “unclean” foods or say they are being “bad” for eating them.
Clean eating has become prevalent enough that the term orthorexia nervosa was developed to help describe it when taken to an extreme. Though orthorexia is not currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, it bears similarities to other eating disorders. People with symptoms of orthorexia are often so fixated on living a “clean life” that they restrict their food intake to certain items and exercise excessively for purported health reasons. This fixation can have a serious impact on a person’s mental and emotional well-being as well as their physical health and social life.
This may seem like a radical idea, but you are perfect just the way you are, regardless of your size. Your worth is not determined by a number on the scale or a size of clothing. Focus on the beauty and strength you find in yourself and build on those aspects.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to include nutritious foods into our diets or making sure we exercise to keep our heart and bodies healthy. But somewhere along the line, eating became an act that was no longer intuitive. Years of yo-yo dieting, eating on prescribed schedules, or restricting entire food groups has taken its toll on our physical and mental health, to the point where we no longer trust our own bodies to tell us what, when and how to eat. Movement and physical exercise are no longer simply enjoyable activities, but rather the means to a thin end.
So, what is the answer? How can a person combat body anxiety amid internal and external pressures and messages faced on a daily basis?
The following five ways can help you begin to let go of anxiety and become better able to practice self-love.
Start to build trust in yourself.
Instead of constantly fighting your body, learn to trust it. Intuitive Eating is a philosophy that focuses on teaching people to trust their food desires and hunger cues. Many dietitians are teaching the people they work with to listen to the body’s messages, whether they desire “good” food or “bad” food. It is often a long process, but once your body learns you will no longer restrict certain foods or allow it to go hungry, it will tell you exactly what nutrients and type of food it needs.
Embrace yourself as you are today.
So many people put off adventures, shopping, and life events because they are waiting until they reach a certain weight or body shape. Let’s instead learn to love ourselves just as we are today. This may seem like a radical idea, but you are perfect just the way you are, regardless of your size. Your worth is not determined by a number on the scale or a size of clothing. Focus on the beauty and strength you find in yourself and build on those aspects.
Know your triggers.
Just like any other form of anxiety, body anxiety can be triggered by certain words, people, or actions. Become familiar with who or what sends your anxiety about your body skyrocketing, and then develop a plan. Avoid unnecessary triggers and be prepared for those that are unavoidable.
For instance, if you avoid going to the doctor because you become anxious when you are weighed, let the staff know ahead of time that you do not plan on stepping on the scale. If you have family members who make it their business to comment on what you eat or how you look, prepare a response for them and have it ready so you are not flustered or too embarrassed to address their remarks. By taking these actions you can be more proactive in reducing your anxiety.
Change your feed, not your food.
It can feel overwhelming when you are constantly confronted with images of the “ideal” body type or when all you seem to see in your social media feeds are posts about diets and weight loss. But remember, you have the right to remove anything that feels shaming (this includes people who make you feel ashamed!) from your social media feed and replace them with people and messages that inspire you to love yourself just as you are. Consider following body acceptance advocates and people who demonstrate that fitness and self-love do not come in the form of one body shape, size, color, or age. Doing this can help you feel more positive and inspired when you look at Instagram and other social media apps.
Find the right therapist.
If you are seeking help to change the way you perceive your body and reduce body anxiety, the right therapist is essential. It is important to find a therapist who is educated about Health At Every Size (HAES), a movement that encourages people to work on their physical and mental health without focusing on body size. Therapists are people, after all, and they are not immune to the outside messages about what “health” looks like. Mental health professionals may come into sessions with their own implicit biases about weight and food, so finding a therapist who supports your journey to self-love and acceptance without making it about weight loss is instrumental as you work toward these goals.
- Bates, L. (2014, October 14). Why is women’s body image anxiety at such devastating levels? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/oct/14/women-body-image-anxiety-improve-body-confidence
- Bell, L. (2015, July 1). Body image and social anxiety. Eating Disorder Hope. Retrieved from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/co-occurring-dual-diagnosis/anxiety/body-image-and-social-anxiety
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- Kratina, K. (n.d.). Orthorexia nervosa. NEDA. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa
- Multiple anxiety disorders share an elevated concern over physical appearance. (2015, November 4). Anxiety.org. Retrieved from https://www.anxiety.org/body-image-a-common-source-of-anxiety
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- Puhl, R. (2015, December 11). Stigma and ‘fat shaming’ can fuel depression and increase obesity. WBUR. Retrieved from http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2015/12/11/obesity-stigma-fat-shaming
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