Saying it louder for the people in the back that you do not need to be diagnosed with an eating disorder to live with poor body image. Body image is a universal aspect of being human. While body image is extremely subjective, it is important to talk about what body image really is and how it so significantly impacts our whole body health and nourishment.
To put it simply: body image is the mental representation an individual creates of themselves. This includes a person's perception of their physical self and feelings, positive, negative or both, which result from that perception. However, there are several complexities.
One's body image can bear no relation to the correct representation of how one actually looks or how others see them. Body image is extremely subjective because it is shaped (and often distorted) from all kinds of early experiences. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), it involves memories, assumptions, and generalizations. Why does this matter? Because body image so strongly influences one's behavior and how he or she takes care of him or herself.
Preoccupation with (and distortions of) body image are overwhelmingly present in today's society. The results of this have contributed to high rates of eating disorders among both men and women and other mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. It is important to start the discussion about what negative body image is so we can understand it and overcome it, especially because so many of its characteristics are normalized and even encouraged in our current culture. Below is by no means an exhaustive list, but signs of negative body image include:
- Frequent comparison of shape and size to others
- Feeling ashamed, self-conscious, uncomfortable, awkward and anxious about one's body
- Negative thinking or comments about one's body, often with feelings of envy or judgments about others’ bodies)
- Obsessive self-scrutiny in mirrors or avoidance of mirrors to prevent feeling disappointed
- Chronic and consistent feelings of dissatisfaction with one's body that interferes with daily living
- Frequently weighing one's self
- Avoiding certain articles of clothing due to own perception of body or due to fear of being scrutinized
- Preoccupation with body shape or size
- Disordered eating and exercise patterns (these patterns can include-binging, purging, restricting food, excessively counting calories, use of diet pills, diuretics, laxatives, use of steroids, exercising excessively to either bulk up or to compensate for caloric intake)
It is pretty safe to say that this list includes behaviors that the average person sees on a daily basis in one way or another. However, this does not mean they are okay, and does this by no means mean they are healthy. They are also behaviors I see so very often in my work. What society deems as normal are major concerns because of all the negative impacts they take on health and quality of life. Quite frankly, these "norms" are extremely dangerous and a major public health concern. Need more convincing? Below are some statistics captured in several areas around the world:
Male Body Image Statistics
Males: Children and Teenagers
Research conducted in the U.S showed that around 25% of male children/adolescents were concerned about their muscularity and leanness, by expressing a greater desire for toned and defined muscles. Research on Australian male children and adolescents reported that around 17% were dissatisfied with their body and that around 5% reported an overvaluation of weight/shape. Body dysmorphic disorder symptoms are becoming increasingly common in male teenagers, with nearly 3% of the Australian population reporting body dysmorphic symptoms.
Males: Adult Men
Nearly 15% of Australian men report an overvaluation of weight and shape. In U.S adult men, 9% reported frequent body checking and 5% reported body image avoidance. In a sample of French university students, more than 85% of the men samples were dissatisfied with their muscularity .Nearly 2% of German male population met diagnostic criteria for body dysmorphic disorder, and more than 2.5% are expected to exhibit clinically significant levels of muscle dysphoria.
Female Body Image Statistics
Females: Children and Teenagers
Research has shown that around 50% of young 13 year old American girls reported being unhappy with their body. This number grew to nearly 80% by the time girls reached 17 years of age. Nearly 80% of young teenage girls report fears of becoming fat.
Females: Adult Women
In one Switzerland study of 1000 adult women (aged 30-74 years), despite 73% of women falling within the normal weight range, more than 70% of these women expressed a desire to be thinner. This trend also held true for older women (> 65 years); 65% were of normal weight, yet 62% of these women wished to be thinner. Around 60% of elderly women (aged 60-70 years) in Austria are dissatisfied with their body and more than half reported restricting their eating as a means to prevent weight gain. In U.S adult women, 23% reported frequent body checking and 11% reported body image avoidance. One large cohort study reported no differences in rates of body dissatisfaction between Caucasian and African-American adult women, with around 50% of the women from each group reporting body dissatisfaction. Nearly 23% of Australian women report an overvaluation of weight and shape.
(Source: Break Binge Eating, 2020. https://breakbingeeating.com/body-image-statistics/)
After years of living in a world where physical appearance takes primacy, cultivating positive body image is not easy. But, change is possible and can also be incredibly freeing and fun. What happens when body image is positive? Acceptance, appreciation, and respect one's body is a daily practice. This doesn't mean insecurities 100% go away, but these insecurities become acknowledged for what they are in a nonjudgmental way, believing that your body is perfect for you and the life you want to live. Not only this, but working on positive body image can prevent so many illnesses or medical problems in the long run.
How can you get there? First of all, remember that creating positive body image does not happen overnight. Rewiring years and years of conditioning takes time and patience, one day at a time. Below are a few steps to get you started.
Step 1: Assess your own body image and its impact on your daily life.
Step 2: Begin to acknowledge and appreciate your body's abilities and capabilities.
Step 3: Start becoming a critic of social media and regular media messages. Become picky about who you follow, what you watch, and what kinds of messages you let into your world. This also includes assessing the people you surround yourself and the messages they bring into your world. Make is a conscious effort to surround yourself and follow those promoting healthy messages regarding food, exercise, mental health and so on.
Step 4: Pick your daily mantras. Examples include:
I have a right to occupy space in this world.
Today is a good day to be alive.
My body deserves to be nourished.
I am a good person.
I am loved.
Food is not the enemy.
Guilt and shame are a waste of time.
I love and accept myself.
Step 5: Find your support tribe. If you need additional help, contact a Registered Dietitian or mental health professional.
If you are struggling with your own body, do not hesitate to reach out to me at email@example.com.
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