National Eating Disorders Awareness Week occurs this month, and it is a necessary reminder of the role body image plays in women’s self-esteem. While women with clinical eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia, typically have a distorted body image, even those without eating disorders often struggle with body image concerns ranging from mild dissatisfaction to outright self-hatred. Any woman can feel tormented, terrorized, and completely obsessed with the image reflected back in the mirror.
What perpetuates this assault on body-esteem? Well, one of the biggest offenders is the media. Airbrushed, Photoshopped images of models and celebrities create unattainable expectations of perfection. Ninety-eight percent of American women are heavier than most models, yet they frequently aspire to these impossible standards. Billions of dollars are spent each year on anti-aging skincare, plastic surgery, and diet products. According to the Social Issues Research Centre, eighty percent of adult women are unhappy with their appearance. Many women internalize the media’s standards of an ideal body, and this can be a risk factor for poor body esteem, dieting, negative mood, and binge eating. And this dissatisfaction starts early. Collins found that forty-two percent of girls in first, second, and third grade want to be thinner, and by age seventeen, approximately seven out of ten girls have been on a diet. Wardle and Marsland found that almost forty percent of eleven to twelve year-old girls viewed themselves as overweight. Family dynamics, peer pressure, and emotional problems, such as depression, low self-esteem, or even a history of trauma, can all contribute to a poor body image. However, societal expectations are the most insidious.
Body image distortion and dissatisfaction are characteristic of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Eating disorder symptoms usually consist of restrictive eating, binge eating, and/or attempts to eliminate what was consumed. A poor body image can also compel women to mistreat their bodies in other ways. Some women exercise to the point of injury, unable to accept a body that is not perfectly toned. Others compulsively tan, despite the risk of skin damage. Still others seek out plastic surgery to correct any perceived flaw or forestall the effects of aging. The most extreme form of body self-hatred is body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), defined as a preoccupation with an imagined defect in appearance, or an excessive concern over a slight physical irregularity. Women with BDD may become obsessed with a particular body part, such as a nose or stomach, and will go to extremes to hide or camouflage it. They might avoid social situations, become depressed, and may even seek plastic surgery in hopes of repairing the problem.
While women with eating disorders or BDD often benefit from psychotherapy, others with less severe body image concerns still need to challenge the negative effects of society’s message, that to be attractive you must be young, white, wealthy and impossibly thin. What are some basic things you can do?
1. Challenge unrealistic assumptions and expectations. Appreciate your body for its capabilities and power, for what it can do and how it moves, not just for how it looks. You are a whole person, not the sum of body parts that need to be perfected. Be realistic about your size, build, and genetics and learn to enjoy your own unique beauty.
2. Treat your body well. Feed it, exercise it, give it plenty of rest and pleasure. Learn to enjoy all of the good things it has to offer, and the things you take for granted, like walking down the street or drawing a breath. Remember, the body truly is the “temple of the soul.”
3. Refuse to accept the dictates of the media and fashion industry. Question the motives of ad campaigns that stress unattainable standards and vote with your wallet. Wear clothes that make you feel comfortable. Challenge attitudes that equate self-worth with physical attractiveness. Think of the values you would want your daughter, your niece, your friends to internalize. Then apply those values to yourself.
© Copyright 2010 by Gail Post, PhD, therapist in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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