What is ‘body image’?
Our internalized perception of our bodies is what psychologists refer to as our ‘body image’. It can be positive and negative and changes over time. From around the age of two we become aware of our appearance in the mirror and research has found that girls as young as five are self-critical about their appearance. Puberty is when dissatisfaction becomes more pronounced as weight distribution changes – girls typically zone in on a specific area they don’t like – for example, tummy, hips or thighs.
Men have their own body image concerns but research from the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) has found that women are more self-critical with 8/10 expressing dissatisfaction with their shape and size, believing themselves to be larger and fatter than they really are. It’s not just younger women either, says Linda Papadopoulos, a psychologist who has done research for the government on body image and confidence. “In my clinical psychology work I’m seeing more and more 40-year-olds with anorexia or body image disturbances. They feel they don’t have the right to age and have wrinkles. There’s a phobia of our bodies going over the age of 18 or looking anything other than young, slim and supple. Advertisers are selling people insecurity.”
The issue is more pronounced for women because they are judged on their appearance more and have a higher standard or ideal to meet – in Western culture at least. There is an ‘ideal body’ shape pedalled through all forms of media – film, TV, women’s magazines and much of it is subliminal so it’s hard not to be influenced by cultural norms around what is physically ‘desirable’.
What influences ‘body image?’
Certain factors influence our self-esteem and body confidence and this can change over time:
- Childhood – studies show that people with poor body image may have experienced touch deprivation as a child and/or been teased by peers or family about their shape and size or a particular aspect of their appearance. Writer Anna Maxted says a thoughtless remark can brand itself to a young soul: “At 12, I was podgy, and an aunt loudly remarked on it. My father replied: “It’s just puppy fat.” He was dismissing her, but I felt such scorching shame – not just my body, but my entire self felt disgusting. A decade of anorexia ensued.”
- Mood – feeling low or depressed. In women, this has been tied to the menstrual cycle – women who are pre-menstrual are more likely to have a more negative self-image and low mood due to changing progesterone levels.
- Relationship status – single people tend to be more dissatisfied with their body image than those in a partnership.
- Ageing and health – a period of ill health can give you a new appreciation for your body. Conversely, the pressure of ageing gracefully and wanting to stay youthful and slim can affect women’s self esteem. Research shows women over 40 have high levels of unhappiness with their weight and body image.
Pregnancy or the desire to have a child can be a big motivator for anorexic women wanting to get well. Pregnancy gives you a new appreciation for the power of your body and during the second trimester you start to bloom. Your skin glows, you feel radiant and new life is growing inside you; it can be an empowering time for a woman. Post-pregnancy, many women find some of their body concerns have shifted and are less significant.
Body image issues
Most of us have concerns about our weight – wanting to lose a few pounds or disliking aspects of our appearance. Generally this doesn’t mean that we have a ‘body image issue’. However, in some cases (Body Dysmorphic Disorder), a distorted view of how we look can affect our confidence and impact on quality of life. It can lead to excess dieting, over-exercising, avoiding certain situations (eating out, relationships, sex) and a negative mindset that means we hold ourselves back from going for things – work promotions, developing personal relationships etc. Other signs include thinking that your life will be better when you are a size 10, excessively checking your appearance in the mirror and refusing to leave the house without make-up on.
How to have a better relationship with your body
- Read up on the topic – Naomi Wolf’s classic book The Beauty Myth explores beauty ideals and the effects on women. Hadley Freeman’s new book: How to Be Awesome is humorous and tackles body image, dating, sex and feminism based on her personal experiences of anorexia at 13.
- It’s helpful to have a historical context of how body shapes have changed over the decades to see how the goalposts are constantly shifting. In the 19th Century wearing a corset was fashionable and created an hourglass figure despite almost killing women in the process! By 1917 the ideal body shape was 5 ft 4” and 10 stone. During the 1920s the flapper look was de rigueur: a boyish body shape with women strapping down their chests to appear flat chested. In the 1950s we had Marilyn and her size 16 curves followed by Twiggy’s boyish frame in the 60s. In the past decade there’s been a backlash against the use of excessively skinny models and more positive role models: Christina Hendricks in Mad Men and performers like Beyonce, Adele and Beth Ditto.
- Stop buying women’s magazines that promote unhealthy ideals. Vogue and Elle are banned in some clinics that deal with eating disorders.
- Exercise therapy – research shows people who engage in team sports like netball, Roller Derby and rowing have a better body image. Exercise can be as effective as counselling and it gives you a different way of relating to your body. Do something you enjoy rather than as a focus for losing weight and you’re more likely to stick to it. Exercise – including masturbation and sex – promotes positive feelings, raises endorphins and lifts your mood.
- Get into the habit of looking at and appreciating yourself in the mirror. Notice which bits you zone in on as ‘flaws’ and which bits you like. Holding your gaze for 5-10 minutes is a powerful exercise and will bring up different emotions, which you can work through by using a positive mantra or affirmation.
- Write down your ‘body story’ to help you track things from childhood that may have contributed to how you feel about yourself. Body Gossip is one of the UK’s most powerful body image campaigns and is looking for story submissions.
- Treat your body with respect – give it quality food, exercise, rest, and meditate and nourish yourself with massage and treatments. Wear clothes that make you feel good.
- Set yourself small challenges – writer Robyn Hussa Farrell realised she was addicted to wearing toenail polish so set herself a challenge of teaching a yoga class wearing none. She journalled her experience and realised the paint was a metaphor for covering up her imperfections, rather than embracing them. She built on this by going to meetings with friends and colleagues without any make-up on. “My little private journey led me to a new kind of freedom. Internal freedom that had nothing to do with what the world outside thought.”