Creating Healthy Body Image

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David Fawcett PhD, LCSW

Body image concerns, those distortions in how we see our own bodies, are widespread in modern society. For many years, women experienced the bulk of what some have called “body tyranny,” but increasingly more men are falling under the influence of masculine ideals portrayed in the media. These body image issues are subjective opinions that have no bearing on the reality of how other people actually see us. They take many forms: individuals may be discontent with the overall shape of their body, or see themselves as too heavy or too thin, or even focus their dissatisfaction on a specific body part.

Body image distortions are often rooted in early childhood experiences in which the child’s appearance was shamed. Such criticism may have been directly experienced, such as being teased, or indirectly conveyed, such as a parent telling a young girl that she has “such a pretty face,” implying that the rest of her body is unappealing. Children do not question these statements and accept them as the truth, after which they become easily internalized. The ensuing shame is then bolstered by thoughts, beliefs, and feelings of being “not good enough” or “less than.” Once in place, the urge to distract from or numb these uncomfortable feelings increases the risk for addictive behaviors.

Body image trends shift over time. For the last few decades in the gay community, for example, there has been a focus on the “value” of hypermasculine features and heavy musculature. This wasn’t always the case. In the 1970s and early 1980s, gay men tended to be slimmer. That continued until the AIDS epidemic emerged, with the disease creating devastating physical wasting. This, in turn, created a reactive movement in which the use of metabolic steroids became increasingly common and building muscle was idealized. As HIV has become more manageable, the current generation of young gay, bisexual, and transgender men seems to be growing less focused on physical size (but they are not necessarily free of other body issue concerns).

Pornography has had a direct bearing on body image. The Internet and mobile phone apps have made access to pornography inexpensive, nearly universal, and very private, resulting in a virtual explosion of porn use.  For millions of people, pornography has created an unrealistic ideal of how men and women should look and, through multiple takes and edits in the creation of these videos, have distorted how sex between two people actually looks and feels. The result is millions of men and women comparing their reality to an unrealistic ideal, with harmful results.

Here are some strategies for dealing with body image issues:

  • Reduce exposure to media imagery that idealizes body image by portraying unrealistic physical standards and, instead of comparing yourself to such unattainable ideals, notice more than just the most beautiful bodies around you. Make a point of being mindful of the wide variety of shapes and sizes of actual people around you.
  • Identify and challenge any irrational thoughts that fuel dissatisfaction with your body. These may take the form of critical self-talk or may just be the experience of shame or other negative feelings triggered by thoughts about your own body.
  • Practice self-compassion by working on acceptance of yourself and creating a plan to move toward a healthier body. Try writing a letter to your younger self that experienced shaming from others, telling your younger self that it is loved and valued just as it is.
  • Challenge yourself to stand nude in front of a full-length mirror and really look at your body. You may notice aspects that you like and others with which you find dissatisfaction. Dialogue with all these parts, working to embrace them and to think of yourself as a whole being rather than separate body parts that you may like or dislike.
  • Reframe how you think about diet and exercise, moving away from how they impact your physical appearance and toward how they benefit your overall health.

Body image concerns are increasingly common in our society. It is up to us as individuals to decide to reject unrealistic body portrayals and embrace all of who we are, including body, mind, and spirit.