Battling Our Bodies: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Body Images

Author:  Nicole Hawkins, PhD

How often do you look in the mirror and say “If I could just lose ten pounds, then I would be happy”? Unfortunately, the majority of American women and girls are dissatisfied with their bodies, and many take extreme measures in an attempt to change their bodies. For example, one study found that 63% of female participants identified weight as the key factor in determining how they felt about themselves – more important than family, school, or career. Other research suggests that 86% of all women are dissatisfied with their bodies and want to lose weight. Women and adolescent girls regard size, much like weight, as a definitive element of their identity. Some girls assume there is something wrong with their bodies when they cannot fit consistently into some “standard” size; others will reject a pair of jeans simply because they won’t wear a particular size. The majority of girls step on the scale to determine their self-worth; if they have lost weight, then it is a good day and they can briefly feel “okay” about themselves. If the number on the scale has increased ever so slightly, then the day is ruined and they feel worthless. Body image has now become intertwined with one’s weight, and therefore, if women are not happy with their weight, they can not possibly be satisfied with their bodies. Unfortunately, girls and women take this a step farther and rationalize that negative body image is directly equated to self-image. We are now living in a society where young girls believe the one way to definitely improve their self-image and to feel more confident is to lose weight and become thinner.

Women and young girls are now living in a society where their bodies define who they are. Girls are terrified to gain weight and are continually reminded by the media about various new diet products on the market, and the value in weight loss. They are also bombarded by countless television shows on plastic surgery and the number of cosmetic surgeries in this country are increasing every year. Women today face impossible images of beauty on a daily basis when they watch television, see a movie, or view a magazine. It is estimated that young girls are exposed to 400 to 600 media images per day. Young girls and women inescapably feel insecure about their bodies and physical appearance and often believe they must change their bodies to gain self-esteem. A recent survey found that only 2% of women in the world would describe themselves as “beautiful.” The vast majority of girls want to change various aspects of their appearance. In today’s society, self-esteem and body-esteem have become one and the same. Unfortunately this is having an emotional toll on young girls, and they are feeling inadequate and often turn to severe behaviors in an attempt to manipulate their bodies to “fit into” an unrealistic standard of beauty. Eating disorders have flourished in this beauty-driven society. Young girls and women are trapped in a negative cycle of body hatred. Women with eating disorders are particularly vulnerable to this negative body image cycle.

Although a large majority of women are displeased with their bodies, many women and girls experience extreme body image difficulties that can be part of more complicated problems. These extreme body image disturbances include body dysmorphic disorder, eating disorders and severe depression.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder: This is a disorder of “imagined ugliness.” What individuals with this disorder see in the mirror is a grossly distorted view of what they actually look like. Often, these individuals will spend hours examining, attempting to conceal, or obsessing over their perceived flaws. Some people actually spend thousands of dollars on plastic surgery in an attempt to improve their bodies.

Anorexia Nervosa: This disorder is characterized by an extreme fear of gaining weight and these individuals actually perceive their bodies as larger or “fat” even though they are grossly underweight.

Bulimia Nervosa: Individuals with this disorder are also very dissatisfied with their bodies and have extreme concern with body weight and shape.

Depression: In many instances, individuals with depression often have a distorted view of themselves and believe they are less attractive than they really are.

Since negative body image is a prevalent problem for many women and girls and can also be a component of many serious disorders, it is critical that women learn to change their body image towards a healthy and positive view of self.

SEVEN WAYS TO OVERCOME NEGATIVE BODY IMAGE

1. Fight “Fatism”

Work on accepting people of all sizes and shapes. This will help you appreciate your own body. It may be useful to create a list of people you admire that do not have “perfect” bodies. Does their appearance affect how you feel about them? It is also important to remember that society’s standards have changed significantly over the last 50 years. The women that were considered the “ideal beauties” in the 1940’s and 1950’s, like Marilyn Monroe (size 14) and Mae West, were full-bodied and truly beautiful women, but they would be considered “overweight” by today’s standards.

2. Fight the Diet Downfall

Ninety percent of all women have dieted at some point in their life, and at any one point in time, 50% of women are dieting. A recent survey found that 14% of five-yearold girls report that they “go on diets” in an attempt to lose weight. By the time girls are ten years old, 80% report going on a diet. Women are two times more likely to diet than men. To dieters’ dismay, 98% of all dieters gain the weight back in five years. Studies also show that 20-25% of dieters progress to a partial or full-blown eating disorder. Research has found that when restrained eaters are exposed to commercials related to diet, weight loss, or fitness, they experience negative emotions and are more likely to then overeat. Women are foolish if they believe that dieting will make them feel better about themselves. Dieting only helps you lose your self-esteem and energy. Dieting also creates mood swings and feelings of hopelessness. To fight the diet downfall, an intuitive eating approach can be extremely helpful. This approach focuses on moderation of all types of foods and not counting calories or label reading. Food is “just food” and not labeled as “good” or “bad.” Clients learn to monitor their hunger/fullness and enjoy a healthy relationship with food. If you feel pressure to lose weight, talk to a friend or loved one, or seek professional help. There are many helpful books that focus on intuitive eating that may be a good resource.

3. Accept Genetics

It is critical to remember that many aspects of your body cannot be changed. Genetics play a role in your body and at least 25% to 70% of your body is determined by your genes. While there are many aspects of your body we cannot change, you can change or modify your beliefs and attitudes which influence the way you feel about yourself. Change starts with you – it is internal, and it starts with self-respect and a positive attitude. It is important to focus on health and not size. It is important to not compare your body with your friends, family members, or media images. We are all unique, and no two bodies are the same. We can’t be truly happy or healthy if we “diet into” a new body.

4. Understand that Emotions are Skin Deep

It is important to discover the emotions and feelings that underlie your negative body image. The statement “I feel fat” is never really about fat, even if you are overweight. Each time a women looks at herself in the mirror and says “Gross, I’m fat and disgusting,” she is really saying “There is something wrong with me or with what I’m feeling.” When we do not know how to deal with our feelings we turn to our bodies and blame our bodies for our feelings. Every time you say “I’m fat” you are betraying your body, and you are betraying and ignoring your underlying feelings. Remember that “fat” is never a feeling; it’s avoidance of feelings. Learn to discover your emotions and feelings, and realize that focusing on your body is only distracting you from what is “really” bothering you.

5. Question Messages Portrayed in the Media

The media sends powerful messages to girls and women about the acceptability (or unacceptability) of their bodies. Young girls are taught to compare themselves to women portrayed as successful in the media, assessing how closely they match up to the “ideal” body form. Unfortunately, the majority of girls and women (96%) do not match up to the models and actresses presented in the media. The average model is 5’11” and weighs 117 pounds, whereas the average women is 5’3/8” and weighs 166.2 pounds. This is the largest discrepancy that has ever existed between women and the cultural ideal. This discrepancy leads many women and girls to feel inadequate and negative about their bodies. It is important to realize that only 1.8% of women genetically have the “ideal” body currently presented in the media. The other 98.2% of women feel they must go to extreme measures to attempt to reach this unobtainable image. Many of the images presented in the media have been computer enhanced and airbrushed. The models’ hips and waists have often been slimmed and their breasts enlarged through computer photo manipulation. Many of the women presented in the media suffer from an eating disorder or have adopted disordered eating behaviors to maintain such low body weights. It is important to start to question images in the media and question why women should feel compelled to “live up” to these unrealistic standards of beauty and thinness. One interesting side note: Glamour magazine tried to use more “average size” models in their magazine and found that sales went down. It is interesting that research demonstrates that women report feeling positive about their bodies after seeing normal images of women in the media, but this did not improve readership for Glamour magazine.

6. Recognize the Influence of Body Misperception

Women are prone to more negative feelings about their bodies than men. In general, women are more psychologically invested in their physical appearance. Your body image is central to how you feel about yourself. Research reveals that as much as 1/4 of your self-esteem is the result of how positive or negative your body image is. Unfortunately, many women with eating disorders have a larger percentage of their esteem invested in their bodies. Women with eating disorders often exhibit unequivocal body image misperception, in which they misperceive the size of part, or the entire body. Hence they are “blind” to their own figures. This distortion is real and it is not due to “fat,” but to the eating disorder illness. It is important to recognize this misperception and attribute it to the eating disorder. When you feel fat, remind yourself that you misperceive your shape. Judge your size according to the opinions of trusted others until you can trust your new and more accurate self-perceptions.

7. Befriend Your Body

It is important to combat negative body image because it can lead to depression, shyness, social anxiety and selfconsciousness in intimate relationships. Negative body image may also lead to an eating disorder. It is time that women stop judging their bodies harshly and learn to appreciate their inner being, soul, and spirit. A women’s body is a biological masterpiece; women can menstruate, ovulate and create life. Start to recognize you do not have to compare yourself to other women or women in the media. Begin to challenge images presented in the media, and realize that your worth does not depend on how closely you fit these unrealistic images.

In Margo Maine’s book “Body Wars,” she teaches women to reclaim their bodies and offers ways to help women love their bodies. Here are examples of 10 ways you can love your body:

  1. Affirm that your body is perfect just the way it is.
  2. Think of your body as a tool. Create an inventory of all the things you can do with it.
  3. Walk with your head high with pride and confidence in yourself as a person, not a size.
  4. Create a list of people you admire who have contributed to your life, your community, or the world. Was their appearance important to their success and accomplishments?
  5. Don’t let your size keep you from doing things you enjoy.
  6. Replace the time you spend criticizing your appearance with more positive, satisfying pursuits.
  7. Let your inner beauty and individuality shine.
  8. Think back to a time in your life when you liked and enjoyed your body. Get in touch with those feelings now.
  9. Be your body’s ally and advocate, not its enemy.
  10. Beauty is not just skin-deep. It is a reflection of your whole self. Love and enjoy the person inside.

In conclusion, negative body image is a serious problem and has damaging affects on women’s self-esteem. It can lead to depression, as well as an eating disorder. Changing our world starts with you. Self-love and respect, and the end of prejudice start with one person at a time. The external pursuit of changing your body can often damage spirituality by taking you away from the internal-self – the spirit, the soul, and the whole genuine self. If you or someone you care about suffers with negative body image, please seek professional help and stop the cycle of body hatred.

TIPS FOR PROFESSIONALS

Body image is particularly difficult to treat in women with eating disorders. There are several concepts that can assist professionals in their treatment of women with body image issues. It is helpful to first assess the degree of negative body image present. One example of how this can be done is by having women draw a front and side profile of their body and then identify the areas of love, like, dislike, and hate with different colors. Process each area with the client and have her describe why she feels that way about each particular area. Often negative body image issues have stemmed from past teasing experiences, and young girls and women focus on negative comments family and peers have said to them. For example, I had a 17 year-old client that was repeatedly teased from having “chubby cheeks.” When she was anorexic her cheeks were sunken in, and she believed her family would finally accept her and stop teasing her. Therapy had to focus on her childhood teasing before she could accept having her cheeks.

Another helpful step is to determine how much negative body image impacts their everyday lives. Many women avoid wearing a variety of clothing and also use clothing to conceal their bodies. For example, many clients will wear big baggy sweatshirts all year long to avoid showing their stomach. Women also avoid activities to protect themselves from negative body image. Many clients have not gone to a swimming pool for over a decade. Having clients begin to face their fears and “avoid avoiding” will slowly help them embrace their body. Encourage clients to try new things and find and express their real self.

It is also helpful to have women practice appropriate self care. This means that they need to get adequate sleep, food, and exercise. Often women with eating disorders feel so negative about their bodies they avoid caring for themselves, and this self neglect continues to create a negative downward spiral. Encourage clients to re-engage in activities that they have been neglecting due to their bodies.

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?, Thomas F. Cash, Ph.D., Bantam Books, New York, 1995.

When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies, Jane R. Hirschmann & Carol H. Munter, Fawcett Columbine, New York, 1995.

Body Wars: Making Peace with Women’s Bodies, Margo Maine, Ph.D., Gurze Books, Calsbad, 2000

Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, Mary Pipher Ph.D., Random House, Ballantine Books, New York, 1994.

Intuitive Eating: A Recovery Book for the Chronic Dieter, Evelyn Tribole M.S., R.D. & Elyse Resch M.S., R.D., New York 1995

© Copyright Center for Change, Incorporated
November 2009, Revised August 2014