The idea for this blog came from listening to 2-part podcast on body image and depression on Ben Coomber radio - Check out the youtube videos here (part 1 and part 2). The podcast delved into a range of issues relating to mental health and the fitness industry with some nice take homes for both practitioners and sufferers alike. In my work with eating disorders and the general population of athletes I work with, body image concerns are commonplace. Considering the prevalence these issues, I thought it would be useful to drill down in a little more detail into the topic of body image. To explain how we might think about it, and offer some things we might be able to do to work to improve it. It’ll be by no means exhaustive, but hopefully helpful for some of you. If you are interested in learning more about it, Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children by Sarah Grogan is a pretty comprehensive and highly recommended read.
What is Body Image?
The first thing to understand is that body image it is a mutifactorial construct. That is to say, our body image is not just the picture we form in our minds of how we appear, but it relates to a collection of perceptions, thoughts and feelings about our bodies as well. While our body image can be considered to be somewhat ‘elastic’ in that it will vary over time depending on situational context, it is broadly a stable trait.
Because body image is multifaceted, it can therefore be influenced in many ways. Body image isn’t only about the way you look to yourself or others. Or should I say, how you think you look - People often assume that others see us exactly the way we see ourselves, which is not the case.
Our body image depends on the salience we place on a host of evaluative, cognitive and affective estimations. Therefore, changing just your appearance won’t necessarily improve it. If you’ve had a chance to listen to the above podcast, the listener who writes in during the 2nd part of the show finds himself in a similar position. He details his story and continual struggle with body image. Despite a remarkable personal transformation he bemoans the unhelpful and unrealistic promises of the fitness industry e.g. ’16-weeks to washboard abs’. He suggests that these types of plan spread false hope, and are in general unrealistic for most. That is of course unless you have certain substances, the correct starting point, time, genes and photoshop on your side. Now I don’t disagree with his sentiment, but I felt that he was somewhat missing the wider (flawed) assumption - that the achievement of ‘washboard’ abs or any given body image will result in personal satisfaction/happiness. Our body image is closely related to self-esteem and how we think about ourselves ‘on the inside’ too. Since almost all of us can relate to being 'embodied beings', its pretty unlikely to have a someone with a positive body image alongside low core self-worth/esteem.
Culture, male body image, female body image and sport
Generally westernised society now promotes the ideal that both men and women should be slender. Women are expected to be slim and shapely, men, slender and muscular. Women tend show significant dissatisfaction with their bodies, in particular hips their thighs and stomach. Until the 1980s, body image wasn’t so much an issue for men but is now becoming increasingly prevalent. A significant proportion of men show body image dissatisfaction with thoughts centred more around general muscle tone, biceps, shoulders, chest and the mid torso. While women mostly want to be slimmer, (despite systematically over-estimating body size, irrespective of their current size), men show an almost equal preference for being thinner or heavier. Strangely, men do not over-estimate their body size in the same way and are more likely to turn to exercise than dieting in order to try to alter the way they look.
Complex historical trends relating to portrayal of the male and female body contribute to just part of the current epidemic of body dissatisfaction however. As mentioned earlier, body image can also vary depending on situational context. In my experience, these can often be presented by the different sporting subcultures with which people engage. Each has different body ideals (triathlon subscribes to three - swimmers cyclists and runners) and different rates of social comparison (bodybuilding does this overtly, which is known to increase the influence it has on body satisfaction). The degree to which we internalise role model standards also plays a big part. If we do not have the appropriate protective influence of high self-confidence in place these feelings can quickly become toxic leading to a host of unusual behaviours.
So how can we improve body image?
Because body image can be influenced in many different ways, it can be difficult to work with, and just like boosting emotional resilience it can also often be a slow process. Several things have however been shown to be useful in promoting body image. A few of which I have listed below:
1) Boost Self-esteem. Self-esteem and body image are closely linked and improvements in self-esteem have been show to be effective in also improving body image. Approvals, assertiveness and gratitude work can all be effective in the right situation here. Again, this takes time, and much work might need to be done before this type of work can be truly effective.
2) Develop resistance to the internalisation of the thin/muscular ideal. To those that strongly internalise, just 5 minutes of exposure to images to propagate such ideals has been shown to negatively influence body satisfaction. Educate yourself to understand the processes in the development of media imagery.
Educate yourself around the motives of the diet industry and learn to continually challenge their unrealistic and polarising claims. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be very useful here. There is also good evidence to suggest that feminism can be protective against internalisation of such ideals.
3) Promote activities and thoughts around body mastery and control and promote positive body sensations vs those that value the aesthetic properties of your body. List all the functionally useful and valuable aspects of your body. Anecdotally I’ve seen positive changes from those moving from a bodybuilding (aesthetic-based) to a strongman/woman (strength/functionality) type of culture. Massage, yoga, tai-chi etc. are all examples of things that can help to create a positive body experience. Find something that works for you.
4) Stop checking behaviour such as pinching, squeezing, mirror-time or weighing. These only serve to reinforce the salience of body image. If your partner asks for reassurance ‘does my bum look big in this?’ be diffuse. If you feel fat, ask yourself, what else might I be feeling?
5) Mindfulness. There it is again. Is there anything mindfulness doesn’t do? Yep, but for managing and letting go of toxic thoughts about body image in a non-judgemental manner, it can be very useful
So there are just some things that might be helpful in terms of improving body image. I’ve barely scraped the surface on what is a huge topic. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me firstname.lastname@example.org. If you think it might be useful for anyone you know, please don’t hesitate to share.