Do you consider yourself to have “poor body image”? For many, this means feeling dissatisfied with how your body looks and feels. You may obsessively compare your body to others, and/or hyperfocus on all of the flaws you see in your own body. Poor body image can be a very distressing and all-consuming experience.
For many of my clients, improving their body image is a common treatment goal. They want to feel better in their bodies, regardless of how they look. They’ve tried looking in the mirror and convincing themselves that they look “good”; they’ve tried not looking at others’ bodies; they’ve tried focusing on things they do like about their bodies. But in spite of these efforts, they still feel dissatisfied and distressed about how their body looks.
So what actually works to improve body image?
Well, body image is a curious thing. It seems as though it’s all about how your body looks on the outside. However, body image is actually all about how you feel about your self on the inside. Thus, improving your body image requires work from the inside out. When you feel great about who you are, you tend to feel great about how you look (or, at minimum, you’re willing to tolerate your body’s natural flaws). When you feel lousy about who you are, your body becomes the perfect punching bag for all of that frustration and distress. And because our bodies are perfectly imperfect, we will always have something (or many things) for which we can pick on our bodies. In sum, your body image is your self image.
Here’s a brief exercise to help you explore how your body image and self image are related…
1) When you are experiencing negative body image, what thought(s) do you have? (e.g., I’m not good enough, I’m a failure, I don’t have it together).
2) Where else in your life does this thought persist? (e.g., at work, as a parent, as a partner, as a friend)
3) Begin exploring this area(s) where your negative view of self persists. Why do you believe this? What has happened in the past to lead you to this conclusion? How does this negative view of self affect your quality of life and overall mood?
To improve your body image, it is important to begin exploring your answers to #2 and #3. Some of the following techniques may help you explore these issues on your own:
1) Use writing and journaling to better understand these feelings within you without judgment. Honor whatever you’re thinking and feeling, and be curious rather than judgmental.
2) If you don’t have the words to describe how you’re feeling, use art to express your emotions in a more abstract, less cognitive way. What color, shape, size, and texture would you give this negative image of self? Draw an outline of your body and write the feelings and negative thoughts associated with various parts of your body.
3) Talk to emotionally safe people you trust about these feelings. Sometimes just hearing yourself talk out loud can be helpful in decreasing the intensity of distressing thoughts.
4) Keep a list of “counterevidence” to disprove these negative beliefs about your self. When you are enough at work, write that down. When you feel competent as a parent or partner, jot it down. Review this ongoing list whenever the negative self image gets activated.
If you find it difficult to begin this healing process on your own (which is very, very normal), seek help from a skilled mental health professional who specializes in the treatment of body image. Make sure you find someone who isn’t going to just try to convince you that you “look great” and that you “shouldn’t worry” about what others think, but will help you navigate the healing process from within your emotional self.
As you begin to explore – and heal – this negative self image, you will find that your body image follows suit. This doesn’t mean that you will necessarily love everything about your body, but you will appreciate your body for what it does offer you, and you will be more willing and able to tolerate the things you don’t love about your body. You will also be more willing to treat your body with the respect, kindness, and compassion it deserves!