Research shows that many of us are dissatisfied with our bodies—over 80% of adult women and an increasing number of men are unhappy with what they see in the mirror. From childhood onward, we are continually exposed to images of bodies that look thinner and fitter than that of the average person. The highly visual nature of social media, and the prevalence of editing and filtering, has for many people amplified this exposure in recent years. We know that even very young children are internalizing harmful messages about their bodies: one study showed that six to eight-year-old girls rated their desired body type as significantly thinner than their actual bodies. From a clinical standpoint, negative body image and preoccupation with weight-loss behaviours is predictive of both physical and mental health issues, including the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, body dysmorphic disorder, depression and anxiety.
The constant societal reinforcement of thinness as an ideal, combined with maladaptive cognitive patterns, can make countering negative body image a difficult task that for some people may require the support of a qualified clinician. Working to develop the following habits can help to improve body image and protect against associated health risks:
Pay attention to the interior monologue you have about your body, and become aware of recurring themes and thoughts. Sometimes highly critical or punishing language like “I hate my thighs” or “My stomach is disgusting” can become nearly unconscious refrains, and they can have a significant impact on your mood, self-esteem and overall body image—as well as that of the little people in your life who may be listening to what gets vocalized out loud.
Emphasize function over form
Our social and media landscape so often emphasizes the importance of appearance. One strategy to counter negative self-talk about your body is to instead think about what that part of your body allows you to do. Your perception may shift over time if you acknowledge that your thighs enabled an invigorating run, your belly supported a pregnancy, or your arms permitted a comforting hug.
When it comes to how we look, most of us are more critical of ourselves than others. Actively make an effort to treat yourself with the same kindness, supportiveness, and compassion you reserve for those you love most. Ask yourself how you would respond to a beloved child, family member or friend who expressed a similar thought about his/her body or appearance, and offer the same response to yourself.
Strive for acceptance
We know that healthy bodies come in different shapes and sizes, and with varying distributions of fat and muscle. Certainly consult with your physician to determine realistic health goals, but also try to practice acceptance of what you can’t change (or can’t change without harming yourself). Try to appreciate—and even love—your body for what it is today, rather than withholding that validation for some hypothetical future body.
Focus on process over product
Studies repeatedly show that small, sustainable changes lead to better health outcomes. This is equally true for eating and exercise as it is for implementing the strategies above. It takes time and effort to reroute our established ways of thinking about our bodies. It’s okay if it feels contrived or clumsy, or if old thoughts continue to surface. Persevere with making small changes over time, try not to get discouraged when you don’t see immediate results, and of course seek support if you need it.
Zoë Laksman has practiced as a Registered Clinical Psychologist at The Clinic on Dupont since 2007. Laura Clarridge is a certified executive coach who helps her clients find fulfilling educational and career pathways. Their backgrounds and training have shaped their interest in promoting improved psychological health, interpersonal functioning and wellness. They work together as a clinical team and as the developers of The Clinic on Dupont’s online presence.