The way that we feel about our bodies can have a significant effect on how we feel about ourselves as individuals. If we like and respect our bodies, we tend to feel good. A person’s perception of their body is referred to as their body image. Body image encapsulates more than just how a person looks. For instance an individual that may be considered pretty or handsome by many may hold negative perceptions about their body and therefore have an overall negative body image. Similarly someone who might not be considered typically beautiful by societal standards may hold a positive body image. Perceptions of body image are entirely subjective and can be distorted. A person’s body image largely develops as a result of their environment. This is particularly pertinent today when you consider the vast influence of the media and the unrealistic images that they advocate.
In today’s western society we are constantly bombarded with images and messages that suggest that we should look a certain way. This pressure causes unrealistic expectations which lead people to strive for unattainable goals that focus on their appearance and which ignore other important aspects of the body including its functionality and purpose. If a person fails to respect their body for what it can do and instead becomes overconsumed by how others view it, they may develop a negative or unhealthy body image.
A negative body-image is characterised by the presence of distorted thoughts that include misperceptions about how your body actually looks and how people think it looks, as well feelings of guilt and self-consciousness that your body does not measure up a certain standard. As expected holding a negative body image can impact negatively on several aspects of functioning and behaviour including overall self-esteem and sense of self, healthy eating habits, social (individuals with a negative body image may become withdrawn or avoid certain social situations), and sexual functioning. A recent psychological research study even demonstrated that overall negative focus on one’s body can affect how you perform cognitively. A negative body image has also been associated with an increase in the likelihood of developing a number of psychological disorders including those of disordered eating, body dysmorphic disorder, depression, and anxiety.
In contrast, holding a positive body image has been associated with both mental and physical health benefits. One recent psychological study carried out by psychologist, Meghan Gillen found that holding a positive body image can have several positive implications for males and females including, a reduced likelihood for developing depression, greater levels of self-esteem, less extreme and overall better eating and fitness habits as well as greater attitudes towards healthy behaviours. Having a healthy or positive body image means that you accept the way that you look and feel good in your body most of the time. It also means that you respect your body for what it can do and hold pride in this and view yourself as more than just what you look like.
So if holding positive perceptions about one’s body is the key to accessing multiple health benefits, both mental and physical, then how is a positive body image obtained?
The following is a list of 6 simple ways that can help you to foster a healthier a body image:
- Be compassionate towards yourself. A recent study carried out by Miriam Liss and Mindy Erchull in the United States found that people who act compassionately towards themselves have lower levels of body shame and depression and exhibit more positive body images than those who do not act compassionate. Self-compassion involves showing kindness and love to oneself in an unconditional way and requires a non-judgemental attitude. A person who has an attitude of self-compassion might notice how they look but will not assess and judge themselves negatively. Instead they will admire and respect what is good about them as a whole person. The practice of mindfulness can be helpful for encouraging a compassionate self.
- Appreciate your body. Body appreciation refers to the respect that one has regarding what their body can do. As already highlighted, respecting the body for more than just what it looks like has been shown to lead to more positive self-image evaluations. Try to remember that your body is about so much more – it allows you participate in life every day. It helps to get you where you need to be, it allows you to think and communicate your thoughts and develop relationships. It might even allow you to give birth! If you feel yourself honing in small image concerns, try to consider the bigger picture.
- Have realistic expectations. As outlined above, the media and the wider society have the power to generate idealistic expectations that are simply unrealistic for rest of us to meet. Research has shown that a wide proportion of us, both male and female are influenced negatively by this. An increased level of awareness and critical thinking are necessary in order to protect our body image. Try to remain conscious that we don’t all look or need to look like supermodels (and they’re probably photoshopped anyway!).
- Try not to compare. Numerous studies have found that social comparison or comparing yourself to others can have a negative effect your overall body image and sense of self. One study by Jasmine Fardouly found that social media outlets such as Facebook and Instagram facilitate social comparison. Fardouly found that people who spent more time on Facebook had more body concerns than those who spent less time socially comparing online. Bare this in mind the next time that you log in online. And to reflect back on point 3, remember that what you see online might not reflect what is really going on.
- Surround yourself with Positive People. If you surround yourself with people who are fascinated by appearance, you are likely to be subjected to criticism, either by those people or yourself. In order to remove the focus away from the body, try to surround yourself with people who admire you for what you are entirely and not just what you look like.
- Look after your body. The links between mental health and eating well and exercising regularly are well-established. If you take care of your body, you feel better on the inside and the outside. A balanced diet provides you with the fuel to get things done and exercise acts as a natural stress reliever. Listen to your body and respond to its needs instead of what you think it needs. By doing this you will more likely see improvements in your body image and how you look on the outside. Remember, everything in moderation (including moderation).
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.