Body image includes both the perception of and attitude toward one’s body. Negative body image can lead to emotional issues such as reduced self-esteem. It can also cause mental health issues such as body dysmorphia.
It is possible to get a healthier body image, even if one’s physical form doesn’t change. On an individual level, therapy and social support often lead to greater well-being. On a societal level, promoting body acceptance can help counteract cultural messages about appearance.
If you are struggling with body image issues, there are many ways to get the love and support you deserve. You do not have to face these problems alone.
ADDRESSING BODY IMAGE IN THERAPY
Therapy is often an effective way to address body image concerns. In therapy, a person may explore all the factors that contributed to their current attitudes. An individual may not realize how much of their self-perception comes from negative comments by others. They may have experienced bullying from peers or family and blamed themselves for it. Therapy can help a person rebuild a self-image that isn’t tainted by mistreatment.
An important part of improving body image is practicing self-compassion. People often blame themselves for not matching cultural ideals. They believe if they spent more effort working out, applying lotions, buying better clothes, etc., that they would look how they “should.” But most people don’t have the money or time to perfect their looks in the same way that professional actors or models do. People do not have a moral or social obligation to look “perfect.” One’s appearance is not a measurement of work-ethic, creativity, or overall worth as a human being.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common form of treatment for body image issues. In CBT, a person can learn to recognize in the moment when they are being unfair to themselves. They can spot situations that prompt their self-criticism and learn to avoid or mitigate these triggers. A therapist can also teach them how to “fight back” against the negativity with mindfulness and positive self-talk.
How to Help Someone Who Doesn’t Like Their Body
It can be hard to watch a loved one insult or criticize themselves. You may want to comfort them but not know how. Here are some tips on how to talk to a friend with body image issues:
- Do acknowledge their feelings. It can be tempting to flatly dismiss their self-criticism, but shutting down the conversation is unlikely to make their insecurity go away. Instead, it can help to dig deeper by asking the person if any event prompted these feelings or who they are comparing themselves to.
- Don’t put yourself down to build others up. Some people insult their own bodies to make their loved ones feel better by comparison. But this tactic is more likely to hurt you than help the other person. Insulting yourself simply normalizes the act of hating one’s body. Instead, it can help to talk about how you cope with your own insecurities.
- Do put things into perspective. Remind your loved one that beauty is subjective. A body that was considered ideal a century ago would likely be criticized as short or chubby now. Furthermore, most of the images we see as “perfect” have been manipulated through lighting, photoshop, and more.
- Don’t flood them with compliments about their looks. One or two compliments can help, but a dozen compliments will likely come off as insincere. Constant praise can reinforce the importance of appearance in their mind. Instead, you may want to remind your loved one of their non-physical gifts, such as their creativity or sense of humor.
- Do know when to get help. If your loved one has altered their eating patterns, compulsively checks their appearance, or just feels a lot of stress about their looks, therapy may be appropriate. If the individual is your child or spouse, you may be invited to participate in the therapy sessions.
BODY POSITIVITY MOVEMENT
The body positivity movement has become widespread in recent years. “Body positivity” means different things among different people, but ultimately the term means everyone has a right to love themselves and their bodies, no matter what they look like. The phrase is often used to address weight stigma, but it can also be used when combatting ageism, ableism, racism, transphobia, and more.
Body positivity also means that people deserve respect from others, even if they are not actively working to improve their appearance. People should not have to wait until their acne disappears or they reach a certain weight before they are “good enough” to enjoy life. People should be able to go to the beach, seek out romance, or use public transportation without being harassed for their looks.
The body positivity movement does not discourage people from pursuing healthy habits such as eating nutritious food. Rather, it prioritizes nurturing one's body over achieving a certain look. Likewise, people who are disabled or chronically ill are encouraged to focus on enjoying what their bodies can do (singing in the shower, holding hands with a lover) rather than feeling shame about the things they can’t.
Some people have criticized the body positivity movement, claiming it has been co-opted by advertisers to sell beauty or fitness products. This has allegedly led to continued objectification of people’s bodies in the name of profit. Critics also say the term’s meaning has been watered down, and now only people who already fit a certain mold (young, white, able-bodied) are encouraged to accept themselves. Others see the term’s mainstream usage as a step in the right direction, while admitting that society has much to improve on.
CASE EXAMPLE OF THERAPY FOR BODY IMAGE ISSUES
- Addressing body dysmorphia in therapy: Isaiah, 26, enters therapy, reporting anxiety and distress as a result of his "flawed" face. He believes his nose to be off-center, his ears crooked, and his eyes uneven. Everyone he asks assures him his features are even, which, he tells the therapist, makes him angry. When he looks in the mirror, he feels disgusted and "cannot bear" to look at himself. Because of his distress, he has lately found it difficult to go out, see people, or engage in daily activities. He has been able to work, since he has a job where he is by himself for much of the day, but he admits to the therapist that he often feels as if people are whispering about his looks behind his back. He feels certain that everyone believes him to be hideous and thus does not attempt to date. Isaiah tells the therapist he has been saving money in order to get plastic surgery, as he believes this is the only way he will be able to relieve his distress. However, the thought of the amount of time it will take him to save the necessary amount further contributes to his low mood. The therapist helps Isaiah explore the onset of his distress in order to better understand it and works with him to relieve some of the anxiety he is experiencing. She encourages him to keep a journal of his feelings and note any times when he experiences distress. Talking through his feelings in therapy with a supportive therapist who does not dismiss his distress helps Isaiah to be able to achieve some level of relief. It takes several sessions, but eventually he is able to look in a mirror without experiencing extreme disgust. Isaiah achieves some measure of acceptance of his features, though he does still experience periods of lowness related to his distorted perception. After several weeks of CBT, Isaiah reports to the therapist he is able to look up at people when he goes out in public. His desire for plastic surgery still exists, but the compulsion to obtain it at any cost has lessened.
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