by Mary Dressing, LPC-MH, RD LN, Sanford Clinic Women’s Health Internal Medicine
Body image is a complex concept. Our image of self begins to be formulated early on with studies indicate a person’s basic body image is determined by age six. Our image is influenced by our contemporary American society through magazines, television, movies, advertisements, teachers, childcare providers, our peers, our parents, life experiences and messages we hear along the way. Body image does not refer to what you actually look like. Your body image is the individual relationship you have with your body. It includes your thoughts, feelings and actions as well as your beliefs and perceptions of yourself. It is so much more than your physical appearance. Your looks are only one aspect of yourself. Unfortunately, many adolescent girls and adult women seem to have a picture of themselves or expectation of what they believe they should look like in order to be acceptable. This preoccupation of physical appearance in our society is revealing some alarming statistics:
- 53% of American 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies
- 78% of 17-year-old girls are dissatisfied with their appearance
- 85% of adult women wake up each day ready to do battle with their weight and size
- More than $40 million is spent on dieting and diet products each year
The current cultural standard of beauty is connected with thinness. If a person does not fit this criterion, the mission to achieve thinness can become an ongoing challenge even to the point of obsession. As a result this pursuit can result in body-shame, body-loathing, or a distorted body image. People with negative body image are at greater risk of developing an eating disorder and more likely to experience feelings of depression, isolation, low self-esteem, as well as obsess about losing weight.
How one feels living in their body also has an impact on their body image. Some people perceive themselves distortedly from childhood messages while others might obsess about their bodies to the point of cutting themselves off of their feelings and bodily sensations. Many people overestimate their shape and size which can lead to engaging in destructive negative self talk that impinges on the image of self.
Another familiar trapping is perfectionism. This characteristic leads one down the path of never being good enough. No matter what a person achieves, it is never enough. Perfectionism drives a person to live in the future rather than in the moment by always anticipating what’s coming next instead of appreciating where and who they are in the present.
Some warning signs of body-image disturbance might include:
- Unable to accept a compliment
- Mood is affected by how a person thinks they look
- Constantly compares self to others
- Negative name calling to ones self – “fat”, “gross”
- Attempts to create a “perfect” image
- Seeks constant reassurance from others
- Consistently overestimates the size of ones body or body parts
- Linking weight goals to self acceptance
In order to improve one’s body image, it is important to recognize our own uniqueness. Every body is different. Recognizing and respecting our natural shape can free us from negative thoughts and feelings and closer to acceptance of self.
Focusing on one’s attributes and the person as a whole can help us move away from the destruction of our self image. A few ideas to help with acceptance include appreciating all your body can do, list the top 10 things you like about yourself and read the list often, surround yourself with positive people and do something nice for you!
Professional resources are available in our community. Sanford Women’s Health can assist you in finding a therapist, dietitian, psychologist or physician to help with treatment of body image issues.
(Resources: Renfrew Center, National Eating Disorders Association)