We all have our own perception of our body, and how we think others see it - and sadly, that’s not always positive. According to online surveys conducted by the Mental Health Foundation with YouGov in 2019, over a third of adults have felt anxious or depressed because of their body image. Unsurprisingly, that number is even higher for teenagers.
However, while the internet can be destructive for some, social media has also brought us a greater understanding of our own, and others’ body image. And for some, that means acceptance. Body positivity and neutrality movements are encouraging people to welcome - if not love - the body they have, while brands are slowly beginning to represent a wider range of body types in their advertising.
But on an individual level, we can all have down days because of the way we look. Here's how to know if you have negative body image, and what to do about it...
What is body image?
Famous psychiatrist Schilder said in 1935 that body image is: ‘The picture of your body which we form in our mind, that is to say the way in which the body appears to ourselves’. Essentially, it’s about how we see ourselves - not others.
Janice Smith, body image therapist at Priory Hospital Woodbourne tells Cosmopolitan: “The feelings a person has about their body image can be positive or negative. There are many reasons for a negative body image, including being bullied, sexual abuse, abuse through social media, trauma and not fulfilling the expectations of success, leaving feelings of disappointment and failure.
“Body image dissatisfaction is present in males and females, and across racial and ethnic divisions. It can destroy self-confidence and self-esteem, and leave us with little self-worth. In its strongest form it can lead to eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
“Sufferers believe that they have a body that to them is ugly and unsightly. There can be different forms of body image dissatisfaction, spanning from mild unhappiness with how they look to total hatred of the shape, size and appearance of their body.”
How to tell if you have a negative body image
Life is full of up and downs, and these events can occasionally have an effect on how we see ourselves. Emily was diagnosed with breast cancer last year at the age of 29, and told us that it changed the way she viewed herself. “Through losing every single hair on my body to chemotherapy, and the steroid weight gain, I wasn’t exactly looking how I did just a few months before. I then had to mentally adjust to the fact I was going to lose my breast, have this reconstructed with the tissue from my thighs and have new scars all over my body. After surgery I couldn’t even look in the mirror as I didn’t see me. Who was this person?”
It doesn’t always take trauma to affect our body image. “Distortion of body size, shape and how a person perceives themselves are big factors,” says Janice. “Feeling inadequate and comparing yourself negatively to others are common in those with negative body image, and can be difficult to challenge.
She explains that social occasions can be a difficult time for those who have negative body image, “especially family get-togethers as you fear difficult comments from family you haven’t seen for some time.
“You may have the belief that you can alter your body by over exercising and therefore, may berisking your health and injury. You may also dress to your hide body shape by wearing baggy clothes,refusing to wear swimwear on the beach or any clothes that reveal parts of your body. This would be separate to covering for religious and cultural beliefs."
Constant negative thoughts, questioning compliments and difficulty looking at yourself in the mirror or in photographs could also be signs you have negative body image.
And no person is immune to those thoughts. Sarah, a PhD researcher at London South Bank University who is currently conducting a study into the body positive movement on Instagram, told Cosmopolitan: “I actually discovered the movement after suffering with an eating disorder myself. It was very much a case of without my body battle, I would not have found body positivity and started to investigate it on an academic level.”
For Sarah, working on the study has helped her become more accepting. "Over the years, I have gained much more confidence by being surrounded by a diverse range of body types and outlooks on weight and female embodiment generally," she says.
How to have a more positive body image
Understanding where your negative body image has come from may help you to gradually change it. Reflect on a time in your life when you were happy with your body and how good it felt. When did it start to change and what was happening at the time?
Emily is now working through her confidence dip following cancer by revisiting her teenage love of dance. “I had not been to classes in nearly 10 years but I realised life was just too short to not be doing what I love to do. Being able to look in a mirror and move my body just releases the best endorphins and it is a feeling like no other. I finally found a place where I don’t feel like a cancer patient and just free. I can look in the mirror and be proud.
“I am also finding a new found gratitude in my body from appreciating what it has been through, how it is healing and that my scars will tell my story and remind me everyday of how strong I can be.”
Plus size model Kitty battled with her own body image for years growing up. “I’ve been body conscious since I was a pre-teen," she told us. "I went through puberty early and I remember comparing myself to friends who had protruding hip bones and hoping I could achieve that too.
"I've come so far since then - I'm now a plus size model, body acceptance and self love advocate, and use my platform online to teach people how they can unlearn the nastiness they've learnt from society, peers and family about their bodies and what a 'good', 'worthy' body is.
"To me, a positive body image is about acceptance. Acceptance of your body, how it can change, and how it gets you by during the day. I think it's important to bare in mind that it's ok to not 'love' your body either - it's a difficult benchmark to set yourself. Being confident and loving your body is awesome! But ultimately that won’t be an achievable goal for everyone, especially if a person experiences oppression."
If building confidence is a goal, Janice has put together some simple tips to help your self-esteem. They include:
- At the end of the day, write down something you feel proud of from that day.
- Take pride in your appearance, dress smart for occasions even if it just meeting a friend for a coffee.
- Feel the fear and do it anyway - you will feel proud of yourself and this will improve your self-esteem.
- Change your thinking to be more optimistic. Don’t say “I can’t”, say “I’ll try”.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for and accept help.
And, in times of low points? "Remember we are our harshest critics," she says. Ain't that the truth.
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