Body image issues is something we often associate with eating disorders and disordered eating. Although, many folks with ED have some kind of body image challenges (not all folks with ED have body image challenges),body image issues is something that we see across the board no matter if someone has a good or poor relationship with food.
In this blog post, we wanted to review 1- what is body image 2- what impacts it and 3- how can we improve our body image
REMINDER → This post is NOT meant to replace any work that needs to be addressed with a licensed therapist. Working with a therapist and dietitian to support your relationship with food and your body, especially during these difficult times is so important. Send us an email if you would like to work with us!
Did you know?
“40-60% of girls between the ages 6-12 are concerned about their weight, shape and size, and have already adopted a fear about ‘becoming fat’? (Smolak, 2011). “
Body image is defined as “ a combination of thoughts and feelings that you have about your body” NEDC (2022). This means that we ALL are impacted by body image messages because we all have thoughts about our own body and how we perceive it.
However, we tend to think of body image as a binary, such as having either ‘good/positive’ or ‘bad/negative’ body image. But the truth is that body image is fluid and experienced on a spectrum. You can’t expect your body image to stay the same every single day. That’s okay and normal because we are HUMAN! I like to see body image as something that is experienced because everyone has their own, unique experience living in their body.
Body image is more complex than most may think. In fact, there are actually 4 components to body image, which explain why it is a spectrum as opposed to a binary (Body image book).
So when we talk about body image, it encompasses ALL of these 4 parts. It’s about how we SEE, THINK, FEEL and ACT towards our bodies.
There is a high rank of body dissatisfaction amongst all genders and when you experience a great deal of body dissatisfaction (i.e. when you have persistent negative thoughts and feelings about your body), it can often lead to changes in the way you perceive yourself and changes in the way you behave towards your body. For example, if you are experiencing a high level of body dissatisfaction (such as being unsatisfied with your body’s ‘fitness’ level), you may then start to engage in certain behaviours such as running, going to the gym, or even dieting. These behaviours all started with how you saw, thought and felt about yourself, which led you to behave in a certain way towards your body.
Let’s take an important note: When your body image impacts your quality of life (i.e. create ++ negative thoughts, increases isolation or leads to disordered eating behaviours), you want to be sure we address it. This can be addressed with the support of a dietitian and/or therapist.
This is a BIG question! Truthfully, there are SO MANY factors that contribute to someone’s body image and each of them could have its own book dedicated to it. To summarize them, the Oxford Handbook on the Psychology of Appearance (2012), states that the way you connect and perceive your body can be influenced by the following main categories:
First – The role of the family
Second – Influence of peers
Third – Gender and Sexuality
Fourth – Culture and Ethnicity
Fifth – Media Influence
Sixth – Trauma
These contributing factors are not listed in any particular order and there are many more to cover, but, this is a pretty solid overview of how your body image (aka. The way you see, think, feel and act towards your body) is shaped, and how it may be affecting the way your view your body and other people’s bodies today.
While negative body image has been shown to be one of the factors leading to the development of an eating disorder (Agras, 2010), it is not the only reason why someone would develop one.
That being said, we can’t ignore the fact that beauty standards, media representation, weight stigma and weight-based discrimination all contribute to how someone:
Body image can be heightened for many different reasons during recovery, and so for folks undergoing recovery, body image work and healing are super important during the recovery journey.
When it comes to the topic of body image, I often hear folks use these terms interchangeably, yet they are 3 very different things. While they are all related to body image, I wanted to unpack what these words mean and why some folks may experience only 1 or all 3.
> Negative body image involves harmful beliefs and perceptions about one’s body.
> Eating Disorder is characterized by disturbances in the way one eats, which results in changes in how one consumes and absorbs food, which can cause a significant impact on one’s physical and psychological functioning (DSM V).
> Body Dysmorphia is an extreme form of body dissatisfaction. It includes obsessions and/or compulsions and body image concerns that are not congruent with how others perceive them (APA, 2013).
The reason I am unpacking this because these are three very different terms, but share similar experiences, so it’s not uncommon for someone to have negative body image, an eating disorder and body dysmorphia. The important thing to be mindful of is that these terms are not synonymous, but rather complementary to explain someone’s experience with their body image.
They can all coexist together at the same time, or they can all appear at different stages of someone’s experience with their body.
Recovering from an eating disorder is not easy, however it IS possible. We have developed a virtual, outpatient eating disorder program to increase accessibility to recovery from the comfort of your own home.
This program includes:
Want to learn more about? Find more information on our website: http://www.thebalancedpractice.com/edprogram
All bodies are different → And that’s how it should be! We are meant to be different and unique, we all have different genetics and access to different experiences and lifestyles. If we were all the same – life would be boring!
The definition of body image and eating disorders can vary amongst different cultures and geographical locations around the world (Agras, 2010). In western culture, diet culture correlates thinness and value/worth together which makes us believe that the thinner we are the more valuable we become.
Our society reinforces the need to be similar and fit into specific boxes, when we need to focus more on celebrating diversity. The body that you occupy is not harming anyone and you do not need to apologize or ‘fix’ yourself. Yes, our society still has a long way to go, but deviating from the norms and reinforcing that all bodies are valuable and worthy, creates room for social change!
This is not to oversimplify anyone’s experience. We need to acknowledge that it can be extremely difficult for a lot of people, especially folks in marginalized bodies to hear that “it’s ok to be different” when society has made them feel otherwise.
Body functionality means focusing on everything that your body is capable of doing. It encompasses not only the body’s physical functionalities and internal processes but also its communication, creativity, and psyche (Alleva, 2021). It is not an able-bodied construct as it does not mean that an individual without certain body functions (for example, physical ability to walk) does not have a functioning body.
> Take a moment and write down all of the things your body CAN do. By doing this, you are merging body functionality and body image together to bring forward your appreciation for what YOUR body (yes, we are just focusing on yours and not someone else’s), has the ability to do from all facets.
> Write down at least 3 for each category and keep it somewhere accessible to you (post it on your mirror, journal by your bedside, notes on your phone):
Body kindness falls under a similar umbrella as body functionality, except after you have focused on what your body is able to do, you want to make sure you treat your body kindly and respectfully. This can look like:
> I highly recommend Rebecca Schritchfield’s book “Body Kindness”. It’s an awesome colourful and interactive book with great reflective questions and activities to guide you through your journey to body kindness.
In last month’s blog post, I talked about the role of parents in teaching their children how to critically assess the information they are taking in from the media. Research has shown that media literacy can make you more resilient to harmful messages and prevent them from being internalized.
When you are scrolling on social media, start practicing this skill by asking yourself the following questions:
Instead of holding on to the “what if”/”one day” clothes, focus on owning clothes that actually fit your body. By doing this, you are showing your body some love, care and respect by acknowledging what it actually needs, and what actually feels good. You are practicing body acceptance.
Just like riding a wave, you can ride out your thoughts. Picture your negative thoughts just like a wave. It can be big or small and sometimes the wave is more intimidating than others. For a moment, there will be a big surge of anxiety, but the wave always comes crashing down. Remember that these thoughts are only temporary and envision the wave coming down and reaching shore.
As a parent, caregiver, friend, family, colleague etc. – you can adjust your language and your views on bodies to make others feel welcomed and safe within their own skin. This may also mean that you, as the parent, caregiver, friend etc., need to address your own issues with body image so that you can act as a role model for body acceptance and fostering a positive body image. In turn, you can create an environment around you that supports body acceptance and turn this practice into a habit for other folks too. Naturally, there are many layers to this, but it’s a start!
Alright, the moral of the story is that body image is about how we SEE, THINK, FEEL and ACT towards our body. It’s also about how our own body image can impact other people’s body image. The people you surround yourself with, the information you consume, the experiences you’ve had with your body are all valid factors that affect the way YOU and someone else experiences their body, on a day-to-day basis.
Remember that YOUR body and other people’s bodies are NOT the problem. Body image work takes PRACTICE and PATIENCE – and that’s totally okay. Go at your own pace and everyone’s journey is different.
The Balanced Practice is a team of health care providers specialized in eating disorder outpatient treatment, disordered eating and intuitive eating. Our mission is to help folks heal their relationship with food and their bodies so they can live happily outside of diet culture!
We strive to provide evidence-based counselling to support you, or your loved one, in achieving full recovery. Schedule a connection call now.
Written By Joelle Ciccarelli, RD
Revised by Marie-Pier Pitre-D’Iorio, RD, B.Sc.Psychology
Founder of The Balanced Practice
Alleva, J. & Tylka, T. (2021). Body Functionality, a review of the literature. Body image, 36, p. 149-171. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2020.11.006
Agras, W. (2010). The Oxford Handbook of Eating Disorders. Oxford University Pres.
American Psychological Association. (2022). https://dictionary.apa.org/body-dysmorphic-disorder
Cash, T. F., & Smolak, L. (2011). Future challenges for body image science, practice, and prevention. In T. F. Cash & L. Smolak (Eds.), Body image: A handbook of science, practice, and prevention (2nd ed., pp. 471–478). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Guarda, A. (2021). What are Eating Disorders?. American Psychiatric Association. https://psychiatry.org/patients-families/eating-disorders/what-are-eating-disorders
National Eating Disorder collaboration. (2022). https://nedc.com.au/eating-disorders/eating-disorders-explained/body-image/#:~:text=Body%20image%20is%20a%20combination,or%20a%20combination%20of%20both.
Rumsey, N. & Harcourt, D. (2012). The Oxford Handbook of the Psychology of Appearance. Oxford University Pres.