Improving Our Body Image, Improving Our Selves
Jessica Shimberg, Ph.D.
The image of our own body that we store in our mind seldom mirrors what is reflected by a physical mirror. For most of us, our body image is subject to some degree of distortion. Our perception of how we appear is influenced by an array of factors. It is now widely accepted that portrayals of bodies in the media have a large effect on how we judge our own bodies. It is not uncommon to uphold fashion models and celebrities as an “ideal” image of beauty that we wish to attain, even when the more logical side of ourselves knows that this image is at times unattainable (unless you are still holding out for that six inch growth spurt and a team of around-the-clock beauticians and stylists).
Interactions with peers, including conversations about physical appearance as well as making silent comparisons of your own looks to that of friends, co-workers, or even total strangers can have a large influence on how you see yourself. On a more intimate level, early messages we receive from our parents and family about our own bodies, their bodies, as well as bodies in general can also contribute to how we see our physical selves. These messages can range from explicit suggestions to lose weight to less direct communications that imply preference for looking a certain way (“oh your cousin so-and-so lost 15 pounds….she looked great!”).
Body image is also influenced by internal factors. Our emotional state frequently influences what we see. When we are feeling particularly low, we may look in the mirror and feel dissatisfied with our own reflection. We feel uncomfortable in our skin. We become more critical of how we appear and hypervigilant for perceived physical flaws. We “pick away” at ourselves, and focus in on parts of our bodies that we are unhappy with. This self criticism of course only contributes to negative mood states and reduced self-esteem. Thus, there is a cyclical relationship between how we see our bodies and how we experience ourselves. Yet another example: poor body image can lead us to avoid looking at ourselves, avoid mirrors, and feel detached from our bodies. This leads to feelings of disconnection and alienation from the body.
Frequently, body dissatisfaction is erroneously viewed as an issue that mainly affects women, particularly adolescent and young adult women. Although it is true that many individuals who suffer from eating disorders are young women, it is also true that a large number of men and women of all ages struggle with how they view their bodies to some degree. In fact, people in their 30s and 40s are particularly susceptible to concerns about their physical appearance and make more efforts to conceal their bodies than other adult age groups (Davison & McCabe, 2005). Body image is certainly not just a women’s issue. Many men struggle to accept their bodies and place pressure upon themselves to be leaner, more muscular, to have “good hair,” and the list goes on and on. Research has shown poor body image to be associated with poor self-esteem in both women and men, which can contribute to depression (Davison & McCabe, 2005). In some more extreme cases, poor body image can develop into a serious issue such as Body Dysmorphic Disorder or an Eating Disorder such as Anorexia or Bulimia. For many of us impairments in body image are much more manageable, but can still have a profound impact on our lives.
How we see and experience our bodies affects our experiences with the world around us, including our relationships, eating habits, how we choose to dress and our body language. Poor body image is associated with increased worries about social evaluation in both men and women, and with anxiety about romantic intimacy in women (Cash, Thériault & Annis, 2004). These fears can lead to reduced connection with others. It can cause a false belief that you are not attractive, are not lovable, and lead you to push people away. Body dissatisfaction can also lead us to compare our own bodies to that of others, including our friends and loved ones, leading to feelings of inferiority and competition. We constantly gauge how other people appear, how much other people weigh, what other people are eating, and make decisions about how we “should” look and what we “should” eat. This pattern leads to a sense of disconnectedness from our own internal cues. We lose sight of important signals that we can receive from our bodies if we make efforts to be more present within ourselves, such as when we are hungry and how we are feeling physically and emotionally. When we grow to accept how our bodies appear, no matter what size or shape we are, we can begin to feel more comfortable in our own skin and more connected to our bodies. Moreover, when we feel more connected to ourselves we can improve our connections to others.
A great way to start down the path toward improving your body image is through self-reflection and self-understanding. Psychotherapy can help facilitate connection between mind and body as you work through various internal conflicts that are negatively impacting your self-esteem and experiences within relationships. Massage and bodywork can also help to increase awareness of your own body and encourage a greater sense of connection and attunement to what you are feeling in your body. By making efforts to connect more fully to yourself in these ways you will likely notice significant improvements in how you “see” yourself. As you feel more comfortable and self accepting you will also feel increased confidence and improvements in your relationships with others.
Cash, T.F., Thériault, J., Annis, N.M. (2004). Body image in an interpersonal context: Adult attachment, fear of intimacy and social anxiety. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 89-103.
Davison, T.E. & McCabe, M.P. (2005). Relationships between men’s and women’s body image and their psychological, social, and sexual functioning. Sex Roles, 52, 463-475.