Are you looking in the mirror and judging every lump, bump, and wrinkle? In this episode, the Savvy Psychologist looks at the 4 components of body image, and how we can change our minds about our bodies.
It's the start of a new year, and for many, that means standing in front of the mirror, cataloging everything that is "wrong" with your body that you plan to fix this year. Well, I'm here to help you fix your mind about your body!
We will start by giving a basic definition of body image. Your body image encompasses your perceptions, beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and actions that pertain to your physical appearance. In essence, it’s your personal relationship with your body. I like this definition because you have a lot of control over those things if you’re using the right coping strategies.
The goal in my mind is to spend most of our time in a body positive or body neutral state. There is enormous societal pressure to look a certain way, so even the best of us will have insecurities that crop up from time to time.
Examples of negative body image
When people have a negative body image, there are many ways that manifests. We can be avoidant; for example, performing behaviors like avoiding buying new clothes or looking into mirrors, or intentionally trying to hide parts of our bodies. How many of you hide your bellies or refuse to wear shorts because you have thicker thighs or cellulite? All this does is communicate the message that your body is bad. The first time I wore a two-piece swimsuit, I was close to 400 lbs. I was inspired by Gabifresh, who had dropped on the scene as a fashion blogger and eventually started her own swimsuit line. It was liberating to let it all hang out. We are four-dimensional beings and it’s okay if our curves reflect that. Everything from a Megan Thee Stallion to Alfred Hitchcock silhouette is welcome!
Another negative body image style is conflictual. Are you constantly battling with your body and telling it that it needs to be something that it’s not? Does "I Wish" by Skee-Lo constantly ring in your head? Do you think if you were a little taller, that woman you’re crushing on would notice you? Do you have curly hair and wish it was straight? Or straight hair and wish it was curly? Are you more on the slender slide and want to be bigger?
Embrace yourself instead of trying to replace everything that makes you a unique human being. Fun fact, I was born with 7 birthmarks, one of which covers almost a third of my torso. I remember being in junior high and wishing that I had unmarked skin like every other girl I saw. If you looked at my yearbooks from high school, I wore a jacket every day—and I grew up in South Carolina, y’all! Now, I make off-color jokes about how I could never join a secret society or that if I ended up the victim in a true crime story, my body would be super identifiable. What changed? Those birthmarks are still there, but my perception changed over time, which is a key aspect of body image. More on that in a minute.
Another type of negative body image is abusive. Do you have an abusive relationship with your body? Do you call yourself names? Starve yourself? Exercise to the point of exhaustion? Do you engage in self-harm? These are all examples of the ways we can be abusive to ourselves. I would never condone anyone being abusive, including self-abusive.
Now, let’s talk about the four aspects of body image.
Perceptual body image is how you see yourself. The way that you see your body is not always a correct representation of what you actually look like—it's a perception, not the objective truth. For example, a person may perceive themselves to be fat when in reality they are underweight. You could have a small mole on your nose and perceive yourself as an ugly witch while the rest of us barely notice it.
Perception is a tricky beast. I routinely tell my friends that I have what I’ve deemed to be “fat girl brain.” What does that mean? I perceive myself as though I’m still over 400 lbs—my reality until a few years ago. I will look at a chair and think, "I can’t fit in that space," or walk by a mirror and stop and legitimately have the thought “that’s what I look like?” In the same way that the hand is quicker than the eye, change is often quicker than perception.
That’s why with perception, you need to have an act first, feel later approach. If you want your perception to match reality, mindfulness is your friend. The judgmental statements that we make about ourselves keep our perceptual lens distorted. If I sit down and I have rolls in my belly and I appraise that as meaning “I’m fat,” then I will see myself as fat. If I acknowledge their presence and the fact that it’s totally normal, I can change my experience over time. I’m confident that Zendaya has thigh spread just like the rest of us, and she’s on magazine covers.
Your feelings about your body, especially the amount of satisfaction or dissatisfaction you experience in relation to your appearance (e.g. weight, body shape, height, skin tone, aging, etc.) is your affective body image. These are all the things that you like or dislike about yourself.
Obviously, these feelings are influenced by our societal consumptions: who we see on TV, in movies, in magazines, and, more recently, social media. Are you only following Instagram models who are Facetuned and Photoshopped into a digitally inaccurate representation of the person? Stop that! Introduce body image diversity into your life. It’s important to make a conscious decision about the media you consume and the effect it has on you, both positive and negative.
Sometimes, we come from cultures that influence these ideas. For instance, I’m Black, and the idealization of large backsides is a part of my culture. Guess who doesn’t have a large butt? Me. Does it make me less Black or my body image less positive overall? No. Do I welcome the Bulgarian Squats that my trainer has me do because I have a small hope of getting a slightly more rotund gluteus maximus? Yes! Will I be Megan Thee Stallion? No. Does it change my value as a person? Also, no!
Hating yourself is not a requirement for change. You can be dissatisfied by something AND accepting of it at the same time. So, for all my no-booty Black people out there—or really anyone of any race—unite! If you’re going to do comparisons, at least do ones that allow you to feel included and not ones that make you feel ostracized. This will help to improve your body image over time.
These are the thoughts and beliefs that you hold about your body.
You might be a guy who thinks, "if I become more muscular, I’ll feel better about myself." Or maybe you're a woman in her 30s who is afraid of aging and thinks, "if I can just maintain how I look now I’ll be happy!" If/then contingencies like this often add up to maybe/never in my experience. If you inherently dislike yourself, you’ll move the goal post. You’ll lose 20 lbs and then say, "I just need to lose another 10."
In my last episode, I spoke about the importance of your values and the why when you're goal setting. I’ve seen many people change their bodies and never be mentally satisfied with the progress. There is always a little more weight to lose, a little more muscle to gain, and a gray hair that shows up that wasn’t there before. Set positive, health-focused goals, rather than ones based on unrealistic standards.
If you’re born with a Chris Rock body type, it's unlikely you’ll end up being The Rock. If you set that up as the goal, you may be setting yourself up for failure. Does that mean you can’t put on mass and increase your musculature? Absolutely not! Just be realistic with yourself about what that looks like. And instead of trying to avoid aging altogether, perhaps you should define for yourself what aging gracefully looks like. We may need to embrace a few gray hairs and wrinkles in order to not end up on an episode of Botched someday.
The last aspect of body image is behavioral. This is what you do in relation to your body image. When a person doesn’t like how they look, they may employ destructive behaviors. This can be anything from excessive exercise habits to disordered eating as a means to change their appearance. Others might isolate themselves or not engage in pleasant events because of their body image.
One of my favorite tips is to focus on the function of your body. If you want to engage in more hikes but you’re out of shape right now, great! Choose easier hikes and work your way up to more difficult ones. That’s focusing on function.
Your body is amazing! Whether you’re an atheist or devout Catholic, our shared experience is that we have these bodies that allow us to be connected to this world. These bodies take damage from the elements, let us taste a juicy cheeseburger, run marathons, dance, and make love. Every single thing I just listed can be done by any body type at any age—with a few modifications, of course.
If you change your mind about your body, you remove the limits on what your current body and self can experience. In that way, you can craft an existence of self-acceptance and start living the way you desire.