The way we see ourselves can colour every area of our lives, from our relationships to how we relate to our friends. Although it might feel impossible to feel good about yourself some days, you can start to improve your body image with a few simple tools.
- It’s common to worry about some aspects of your body, but if worries become excessive/overwhelming, it may be due to a mental health condition called Body Dysmorphic Disorder
- One in five adults said images they saw on social media caused them to worry about their body, according to a one report
- How you view your body has a direct impact on your self-esteem. The higher your self-esteem, the more resilient you’ll be to life’s challenges.
What do we mean by ‘body image’?
You look in the mirror but can’t see past your crooked teeth. Perhaps you dread the onset of summer because you’re paranoid about your skinny arms and bony chest. Maybe you worry endlessly about the size or shape of your nose, taking selfies from all angles to prove to yourself that your worries are justified.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s experienced distress about how they look that body dissatisfaction is associated with a poorer quality of life, psychological discomfort and an increased risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders.
And what’s really concerning is that the results of the Mental Health Foundation’s online survey with YouGov in March 2021 found 13% of adults experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of concerns around their body image.
Do these thoughts sound familiar to you?
As a mental health professional, I hear the many ways in which we’re dissatisfied with the way we look, especially when we start to compare ourselves with others. What I know from these conversations is that the way you view your body is not always – rarely, in fact – an accurate representation of what you actually look like.
But how you see yourself, and the thoughts and feelings you have about this mental image, can have a huge impact on your mental health.
When dissatisfaction turns into something bigger
Many of us have at least one body part we don’t like. This isn’t uncommon, and most of the time it doesn’t get in the way of our day-to-day life. We’re able to work and take part in family life or see our friends. We may feel a low-level dissatisfaction nibbling away at us in the background but not liking how our chin looks in profile doesn’t stop us being able to function.
It becomes a bigger cause for concern when we start to over-focus on this particular ‘flaw’ to the point where it starts to impact our lives. Being vaguely conscious about the shape of your nose is one thing; refusing to leave the house without make up on to contour, shade and counterbalance your perceived imperfections is another.
This is a sign you may be suffering from the mental health condition Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). Any age group can experience BDD, but it’s most common in teenagers and young people.
Critical thoughts about your appearance, weight, shape and / or body parts may lead you to engage in behaviours to change the things you don’t like. Examples of this include extreme dieting, cosmetic surgery or changing what you wear to hide the parts you don’t like.
In some cases, how you feel about how you look can lead to you isolating yourself because you fear what other people may think. Struggles with body image can affect all your relationships, including your friendships and sexual relationships.
Maybe you’d like to play sport but don’t want to get changed in front of other people, or perhaps a fear of getting undressed in front of a new romantic partner stops a promising relationship from going any further.
The ‘It will be OK when I…’ trap
A common thought people have when they struggle to accept how they look, is ‘It will be ok when I…’ The end of that sentence can be, ‘… lose weight, get lip filler, or save up for a nose job.’
In fact, none of those things are the answer. The answer is to work on self-acceptance, because after the lip filler there will be something else to fix. We lose weight but then worry about baggy skin. And so it goes on.
What has an impact on how we feel about ourselves?
The explosion of social media and the concept of the ‘global village’ means we have a much larger pool of people with whom to compare ourselves. It used to be colleagues, family, friends – a relatively small group who we also got to know personally, and in real life (so no filters). In time, this meant their physical appearance became less important because we got to know them as actual people.
With the advent of social media, we have the whole world to look at, and count the ways in which we don’t measure up. It’s impossible to know the lengths many of the people whose body image we idolise go to, in order to maintain their look.
Instagram was introduced to us in 2010 and since then I have worked with many clients who have struggled with low self-esteem. Young men and women in their 30s, who have never known a world without ‘Insta’, experience symptoms ranging from not wanting to leave the house without make-up to obsessively checking other people’s accounts and feeling low and inadequate when comparing themselves with others’ ‘more glamorous’ lives.
In the MHF study, they found one in five adults and 40% of teenagers said images on social media caused them to worry about their body image. Steps to address this are being taken through the publication of an Online Harms White Paper.
This aims to enforce social media platforms to take action around unhealthy body images. Recently Instagram has made eating disorder-specific keywords or hashtags unsearchable and has started to ban photo filters that enhance cosmetic features.
How do you feel about ageing?
Estimates from the British Social Attitudes Survey show that one in 20 men and one in 10 women reported being dissatisfied with their appearance. Although social media does have an impact on an adult’s body image satisfaction, life changes such as pregnancy and the ageing process also play a part.
Older adults appear to place a greater importance on how their bodies function than how they look, although unsurprisingly, women often find the ageing process harder than men, due to the idealisation of youth.
For women, the menopause can also bring significant changes to the female body, which can be difficult to accept and have a negative effect on confidence in many areas of life.
Why is positive body image important?
How you view yourself has an effect on your self-esteem. The higher your self-esteem the better your capacity to be resilient and cope with the highs and lows of life. Accepting yourself for who you are can also help you to feel less impacted by images on social media or other pressures from society to look a certain way. When you’re content with your self-image, you’re much less likely to engage in unhealthy coping strategies, such as over or undereating, or over-using substances such as alcohol to mask how you feel.
But this is easier said than done, right?
What can you do?
We often speak about our bodies, or other peoples’ bodies, in ways that suggest weight and age are important (or the only) markers of our self-worth. How many times have you looked in the mirror and thought (or said, to your partner, or kids): ‘I feel so fat today.’ How often do we see friends and say, ‘You look great, have you lost weight?’ Or, seeing friends of a similar age to ourselves, say, ‘You look amazing. Can you believe my wrinkles?’
These may all feel like throwaway comments, but they can add to us feeling bad about our bodies in the longer term.
Try the following for just a week. When you compliment someone, make it about something other than how they look. Tell them they’re a good friend, or that you’re so proud of the work project they just completed. Tell them they’re a great parent, or that you’re going to try cooking a particular meal just the way they did it.
Our self-worth needs to be about more than just how we look.
Here are a few more suggestions:
- Unfollow or unfriend social media accounts that try to promote body image products.
- Instead follow accounts that promote healthy living, backed up with facts.
- Disconnect from social media altogether if it’s becoming a problem.
- Try not to speak negatively about your body to those around you.
- Say positive things to yourself every day – when you say something often enough you start to believe it.
- Be more mindful of the ways you speak about other people’s bodies – or better still, don’t speak about other people’s bodies at all.
- Get outside and exercise to give yourself a mood boost.
- Set positive, health-related goals, rather than weight-loss related ones. Accept that we’re all different shapes and sizes, and that’s OK.
- Avoid comparing yourself to others – it’s the quickest way to feel bad about yourself. Instead, turn your focus inwards and think about three things you’ve done so far this week you’re proud of.
- Focus on what your body CAN do rather than what it can’t. Your body is amazing. If you feel grateful for all the things we take for granted, you may begin to feel more positively about it.