What is ‘Body Image’?
The term ‘body image’ refers to how we think and feel about our bodies. Our attitudes towards our bodies change throughout our lives based on experiences with people around us. These experiences can influence the importance we place on our appearance. Unrealistic images we see frequently in the media (on T.V., across the internet and in magazines) that are presented as “desirable” can also threaten shape body image perceptions and have an effect on our overall mental health.
Having a positive body image involves having overall love, respect and appreciation for your body regardless of any threats to it. Having a negative body image can affect your mental health, causing you to magnify any imperfections you see on yourself and relate any negative events that happen in your life to your physical appearance. People who have a negative view of their body are biased when they make comparisons with others. They don’t see or appreciate good assets that set them apart, only things they lack.
Surveys on body image conducted by the Mental Health Foundation in March (2019) on 4505 UK adults and 1118 teenagers (13-19yrs old) showed that 19% felt disgusted by their body image and 34% felt down or low because of it. 1 in every 8 adults surveyed experienced suicidal thoughts due to their body image.
When you see or experience something that threatens the way you feel about and view your body (e.g. someone says something insensitive or you see an advertisement that makes you insecure about the way you look), you use coping methods to shield you from negative feelings. Avoidance, Appearance Fixing and Positive Rational Acceptance are 3 common coping strategies used to deal with threats to our body image. Avoidance is when you escape or avoid situations where there may be threats to your body image such as going to the beach. Appearance fixing is when you alter your appearance by covering, blending or correcting something you feel insecure about. Wearing clothes that hide parts of your body and covering spots with makeup are examples of this. Positive Rational Acceptance is when you accept your body for what it is, as well as the fact that there are situations and events that may make you insecure about your body image. Positive rational Acceptance involves using positive self care such as exercising as well as rational self-talk and self-motivationto allow yourself to feel more secure in challenging situations.
Three Ways to Cope…
Avoidance has been found by research to be the worst method of coping with body image issues. Men and women who use avoidance as their main coping method are more likely to feel like their appearance has an effect on their personal worth. Women who use avoidance were found to be more likely than men to place greater importance on being attractive to others and managing their looks (e.g. spending more on their hair, tanning and clothes). This is likely due to the unrealistic expectations placed on women by society. Both men and women who use avoidance have lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of depression. They are also more likely to feel less connected to and supported by family and friends. People who use avoidance are likely to have inconsistent eating patterns and reduce their food intake as a way to feel more control over their body image and get temporary relief from negative feelings. This is damaging to health long term. Using avoidance is a negative coping strategy as it increases overall body image dissatisfaction.
Appearance fixing has also been found to be a less positive coping method. It is similar to Avoidance but people who use appearance fixing are less likely to withdraw or escape from social situations due to their body image than those who mainly use the avoidance method. They also feel like they have better social connections and support from family and friends than those whose main coping strategy is avoidance. Consciously reducing the amount of time you give to appearance fixing and encouraging yourself to be more natural leads to more appreciation and acceptance of your body image and imperfections.
Positive Rational Acceptance
Positive Rational Acceptance is the best and most positive method of dealing with body image threats. People who use this method are less likely to define themselves by their appearance and are happier overall, living the best quality of life. You can protect yourself from threats to your body image by using self-talk and self-motivation to remind yourself of the uniqueness of your body and stop yourself to making comparisons with others. It is important to remind yourself that the idealised images of celebrities you see online, on T.V. or in magazines are unrealistic and edited to give an impression of perfection. Why try to look like a celebrity if even they don’t look like them?! When you feel insecure focus on your assets and defining features instead of what you feel you don’t have.