What is body image?
Your body image is how you perceive, think, and feel about your body. This can include your body size, weight, shape, or your appearance more generally. A positive body image can improve self-esteem, self-acceptance, and a healthy relationship with food and physical activity.
What is poor body image?
On the flip-side, a poor body image can result in low self-esteem, feeling insecure, poor self-worth (usually rating ones worth primarily on weight, shape and appearances), a very loud ‘inner-critic’ (i.e., the negative ‘self-talk’ that you may be ever so familiar with!) and not finding much self-acceptance at all really…and we must not forget, the unhealthy relationship with food and often with exercise. You may just benefit from reading on if you find yourself identify with any of the above.
Is there a link with poor body image and unhelpful dieting behaviours?
Based on years, in fact decades of research, we have so far established that individuals with poor body image have a greater likelihood of developing an eating disorder, and are more likely to suffer from feelings of depression, isolation, low self-esteem, and obsessions with weight loss. A poor body image more often than not results in dieting behaviour, which is a strong risk factor for developing an eating disorder. Research shows that even ‘moderate’ dieting increases the risk of developing an eating disorder especially in teenage girls. The more recent research suggests that 80% of Australian women are dissatisfied with their bodies to some degree. A negative body image can lead to dieting and disordered eating behaviours (Better Health Handout Here).
Do I have a body image problem?
> Do you spend a great deal of time focussed on a particular aspect of your appearance?
> Do you view a particular part of your body as being flawed or defective in some way?
> Do you go to great lengths to improve or conceal the area of concern on your body?
> Have you noticed that your efforts to improve or conceal your perceived flaw are impacting on your life in a negative way?
> Do you often find yourself checking in the mirror or reflective surface, only to find it triggers that inner critic who starts to case negative judgements such as “that is disgusting” “you’re so fat” or “you really did not need that [referring to food]”?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you may be experiencing a body image problem or perhaps disordered eating patterns. If your bodily concerns are primarily weight/shape related and you have changed your eating patterns because of this, you should speak with your doctor about the possibility of having an eating disorder as you may be eligible for a referral to a psychologist who specialises in evidence-based treatments for an eating disorder.
Some common signs symptoms of poor body image may include:
> Checking behaviours: obsessive self-scrutiny in mirrors and other ‘checking behaviours’ such as touching collar bone, stomach or thighs, perhaps looking at yourself whilst walking past a reflective surface, weighing self on the bathroom scales quiet excessively, or looking at old photographs and comparing yourself, among a few other checking behaviours our Psychologist will go through with you in session.
> Comparisons, comparison, and more comparison (only in the negative way of course!): thinking disparaging comments about your body and frequent comparison of your own shape and size to other people.
> Perceiving an ideal body image: Ideal envy of a friend’s body, or just as commonly the body of a celebrity or someone else in the media.
> Avoidance due to shame: Feeling self-conscious or uncomfortable with appearance or body size or shape therefore leading to avoiding physical activity.
> Excessive exercise as method to control weight: In contrast to the above, over exercising or engaging in an excessive amount of physical activity with an objective to lose weight or change your body shape. This means you are focusing on physical activity as a means of weight control and to change your body size or shape.
> Long history of dieting: Trying to lose weight through dieting, however finding the weight that was lost is gained back over time.
Is there a relationship between an eating disorder and poor body image?
That is generally the case. We find body image concerns and eating disorders go hand in hand. Often, it is the early dissatisfaction with a young person’s appearance that leads them to conclude that losing weight would enhance their appearance and make them feel better about themselves and their bodies. As a method to control weight, shape, and appearance we often find restrictive eating and over exercising come next in line. This frequently leads to patterns of disordered eating and weight obsession that can develop into anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, compulsive overeating, or binge eating disorder.
What does support with a focus on poor body image target?
> Self-esteem – we find that our self-esteem improves with a more positive body image, which dictates how a person feels about him/herself and can infiltrate every aspect of life and contribute to happiness and wellbeing.
> Self-acceptance – our self-acceptance is found to improve with a more positive body image, making an individual more likely to feel comfortable and happy with the way they look. The individual is less likely to feel impacted by unrealistic images via social media (e.g., Facebook, Instagram and Twitter), magazines, TV, and societal pressures to look a certain way.
> Healthy outlook and behaviours – also improves with a more positive body image as it is easier to lead a balanced lifestyle with healthier attitudes and practices relating to food and exercise when you are in tune with, and respond to the needs of your body.
> Healthy relationship with food – often the client’s therapy goals include “finding a healthy relationship with food” and of course, not to be thinking constantly about food. Being able to do everyday and day-to-day tasks without thinking about the next meal and how many calories may be in the meal.
A few factors have been found to influence the risk of developing a negative body image which includes the following:
> Age – body image is frequently shaped during late childhood and adolescence, but body dissatisfaction can affect people of all ages and is as prevalent in midlife as young adulthood in women
> Gender – adolescent girls are more prone to body dissatisfaction than adolescent boys; however, the rate of body dissatisfaction in males is rapidly approaching that of females
> Low self-esteem and/or depression – individuals with low self-esteem and/or depression often to perceive him/herself through a negative lens – reporting thoughts such as ‘not good enough’ or ‘fat’ or ‘disgusting’. Individuals with poor body image and eating disorder behaviours often report a extremely loud inner-critic that constantly judges their weight, shape, and appearances through a very negative and judgemental lens.
> Personality traits – individuals with perfectionist tendencies, high achievers, ‘black and white’ thinkers, those who internalise beauty ideals, and those who often compare themselves to others, are at higher risk of developing body dissatisfaction
> Teasing – those who are teased about appearance/weight, regardless of actual body type, have an increased risk of developing body dissatisfaction
> Friends and family who diet and express body image concerns – role models expressing body image concerns and modelling weight loss behaviours, can increase the likelihood of an individual developing body dissatisfaction regardless of actual body type
> Body size – in our weight conscious society, larger body size increases risk of body dissatisfaction
> Competitive sports in younger years – we have found a correlation with competitive type sports or dance in earlier years with poor body dissatisfaction, dieting behaviours, preoccupation with weight and shape. The patterns of disordered eating and weight obsession that can develop into eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, compulsive overeating, or binge eating disorder.
What do I do if I identify with poor body image and low self-esteem?
If you feel dissatisfied or unhappy with your body, feel like your body image gets in the way of being able to live your life or do the things you would like to, or you are engaging in restrictive eating or other unhealthy eating or exercise behaviours, then seeking professional help is important. Psychologists, dietitians, and other health professionals trained in body image and eating disorders can assist you to improve your body image and relationship with food and physical activity.
Is body image different to body dysmorphic disorder?
Many people can experience a poor body image, seeing their general physical appearance in a negative light (e.g., “I hate my body”). However, the term Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or BDD, is used to describe a more specific type of body image problem. BDD is marked by an intense preoccupation with a perceived flaw in one’s physical appearance. Individuals with BDD often spend significant periods of time worrying about and evaluating a particular aspect of their appearance. Large amounts of time may be spent ‘checking’ their appearance in the mirror, ‘comparing’ their appearance with others, and engaging in behaviours designed to try to hide or conceal the area of concern.
The individual usually experiences a significant disruption to his/her daily activities such as work, school, study, social activities, hobbies, everything! This is because they are facing excessive pre-occupation of this particular aspect of their appearance, thus resulting in frequent disproportionate emotional responses and withdrawal behaviours.
How about finding a psychologist who works with poor body image or eating disorders?
At Positive Wellbeing Psychology, we specialise in eating disorder treatment and poor body image. A psychologist will help by establishing a wraparound support with the treating individual, their GP, Psychiatrist and Dietician. We understand it can be a long journey and stressful for the individual and their family supports.
How Can Positive Wellbeing Psychology Help?
Our warm and caring Melbourne-based psychologists in clinical practice deliver online psychological support Australia wide. We specialise in evidence-based treatment of poor body image and eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, compulsive overeating, or binge eating disorder.
At Positive Wellbeing Psychology, we are here to support you in accessing the Eating Disorder Treatment and Management Plan under Medicare for up to 40 session per calendar year with a psychologist and 20 sessions with a dietician where required. The Butterfly Foundation provides more information and frequently asked questions about the Medicare Eating Disorder Plan – just click here.
Your body image develops over the course of your life, so changing a negative body image can take time and effort. Be kind to yourself and patient. If you are not satisfied with your body or are developing unhealthy eating or exercise habits, you can talk to a Psychologist at Positive Wellbeing Psychology.
We have a special interest in poor self-esteem and poor body image, which often comes hand in hand with disordered eating. We guide you and adopt a range of evidence-based techniques and strategies to help shift years of negative beliefs and unhelpful behaviours. Click here for eight tips on dealing with poor body image and an eating disorder delivered by the National Eating Disorder Association (Handout Available Here).