By Alexandra Reveles
Doctoral Clinical Assistant
What is body image? Are you happy with your body image? What influenced the development of your body image?
These are an example of some of the questions posed to patients in the body image process groups that are held weekly at Avalon Hills. As you might guess, when patients first arrive at Avalon the answers to these questions contain a host of negative words. Patients often say they hate their bodies, but are not always sure why they feel that way. Some can pinpoint messages they heard growing up that began the questioning of their bodies and others have no idea what influenced their body image ideal.
In a recent body image process group at the adolescent house we discussed these very questions centering on messages we have received from family and friends, strangers, social media, pop culture, and ourselves. Here is the list of messages that two or more of the group has heard through our lives:
- You really let yourself go.
- “10 Foods You Should Never Eat Again!”
- You should have smooth skin, no cellulite or stretch marks.
- You should shave your legs otherwise men won’t want you.
- Your short hair makes you look like a (lesbian, boy).
- Don’t wear horizontal stripes.
- Be grateful for your (insert physical attribute here).
- You need to go on a diet!
- Get your bikini body ready!
- You shouldn’t have a muffin top.
- Be thin/skinny.
- Have a big butt and boobs.
- Don’t be tall; don’t date someone shorter than you.
- Be more tan.
- You should have a flat stomach, no spare tires!
- Be more modest in your clothing choices.
- Stop dressing like a slut.
- Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.
Did any of those messages sound familiar? I bet they were and that you even have your own examples that could be added to the list. We are bombarded by these kinds of messages daily whether from well meaning people giving “suggestions” to strangers commenting on the way you look on your way to work or school to magazines we see as we’re waiting in the checkout line at the store. They’re everywhere! A study looking at the link between the media and body image concerns in women found that women who were exposed to media images depicting the thin ideal had decreased levels of body satisfaction (Grabe, Ward, & Hyde, 2008). This is alarming because of the commonness of thin ideal representation within the media. Another study published this year found that the more time college aged women spent on Facebook, the worse their body image became (Eckler, Kalyango, & Paasch, 2017). So how do we turn negative body image into positive body image?
First, we talk about it. Many of the messages we receive over our lives, including those listed above, we only ever hear once but are powerful enough that we carry them with us for years. Sharing the messages and their impact on our lives is one way to begin confronting and challenging them. There is something so encouraging about seeing the relieved faces during group once people realize the messages they’ve been carrying around are not specific to them; that they are not alone in their struggle for positive body image. Another thing we often do is engage in experiential activities that challenge patients to be present with themselves despite the negative body image thoughts that may floating around in their minds. Those activities act as exposures so patients can learn how to handle body image distress, for example from seeing themselves in a mirror, without engaging in eating disorder behaviors and learn that the distress will lessen over time.
One of my favorite types of experientials is relaxation, such as the one linked here, that is specific to body image. After engaging in a body scan for the first time, many patients revel in their newfound somatic attunement. As Jill Jensen wrote about in her recent blog post, these experientials can also be shopping challenges that patients go on with their case managers. Having these types of experiences allows patients to confront their fears and distress in a safe, supportive, and nurturing environment rather than an environment where their fears may be reinforced (e.g., on social media, at school). Whether we are talking or doing, one crucial point for us to focus on is what our bodies can do for us rather than how they look. Having the perfect tan will not help you to take an hour-long trail ride on a horse, but your leg and arm strength will! The body is an amazing interconnected organism, we often forget that.
It is exhausting to battle the negative messages we receive daily, and remember it’s okay to have bad body image days! We all do. The trick is not getting caught up in your negative thoughts so you can go about your day and life as usual. Here is a kinder list and my advice to you:
- You only get the one body you came in so be thankful for what your body does for you.
- Be patient with yourself on those bad body image days because it’s far too easy to get pulled into that negative space.
- Accept all of yourself, especially the parts of you that others, or yourself, have said are unworthy, but be patient as self-love and compassion can take time.
Eckler, P., Kalyango, Y., & Paasch, E. (2017). Facebook use and negative body image among U.S. college women. Women and Health, 57(2), pp. 249-267.
Fardouly, J., Pinkus, R. T., Vartanian, L. R. (2016). The impact of appearance comparisons made through social media, traditional media, and in person in women’s everyday lives. Body Image, 20, pp. 31-39.