Clinical Editors: Megan Dodson, PA-C, Christine Celio, Ph.D., Andrew Bertagnolli, Ph.D., and Anna Askari, MD
You catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror or see yourself in a photo online. How do you feel? Do you like what you see or is there something you’d like to change? If it’s the latter, you’re not alone. Many of us have critiques when it comes to our bodies, whether it’s the shape of our nose or the size of our thighs. While it’s natural to have goals when it comes to your health and fitness, or have areas you want to improve upon, body dissatisfaction can take a significant toll on your physical and mental health. Here’s what you need to know about body image and the role it can play in your overall well-being.
What is body image?
The American Psychological Association defines body image as “the mental picture one forms of one’s body as a whole, including its physical characteristics and one’s attitudes toward these characteristics.” In other words, your body image is what you believe about your appearance, how you feel about your body, and how you sense and control your body or physically feel in your own skin. It’s the perception of how you see yourself, despite what the reality may be.
Those with a positive or healthy body image may have a sense of appreciation, respect, or acceptance for their body and what it can do. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) describes body positivity as “feeling comfortable and confident in your body, accepting your natural body shape and size, and recognizing that physical appearance says very little about one’s character and value as a person.”
Individuals with a negative or unhealthy body image, however, may feel unsatisfied or disappointed with their body or appearance. This might involve feelings of shame, embarrassment, anxiety, discomfort, or awkwardness in one’s body. People with body dissatisfaction might see their body in a distorted way or feel their bodies are flawed in comparison to others.
What influences body image?
A number of factors can play a role in the ways we view and feel about our bodies. “Our body image is influenced by our friends and families, the media that we consume, and the society and culture that we are raised in,” says One Medical provider Anna Askari, MD. “In order to maintain a healthier relationship with our own bodies, it is important to protect ourselves by setting boundaries with these external influences.” Society’s views on things like gender, race, sex, and physicality all contribute to our idea of the “ideal” body type. Likewise, peer pressure, familial environment, and our past experiences can influence what we think and feel about our bodies.
How can body image impact your health?
Body image isn’t simply a matter of aesthetics or appearances; it can play a significant role in your overall health. Negative body image, for instance, has been linked to unhealthy behaviors, such as dieting, restrictive eating, over-exercising, smoking, substance abuse, or other weight control behaviors — all of which can lead to physical and mental illness. According to NEDA, people with poor body image are more likely to develop eating disorders. In fact, body dissatisfaction is the best-known contributor to anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, potentially life-threatening conditions that can damage nearly every organ in the body.
Beyond physical health, body image can also impact your emotional well-being. People who experience high levels of body dissatisfaction are more likely to suffer from feelings of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and low-self-esteem. These mental health challenges can interfere with an individual’s general quality of life, and affect everything from their relationships to their work or school performance. Positive body image, however, is typically associated with better physical health, higher self-esteem, improved mood, and greater overall life satisfaction.
How can I start to improve my body image?
In a modern world where we’re constantly bombarded by social media, targeted advertisements, airbrushed photos, and more, maintaining a healthy body image can of course, be a challenge. “With all the images and ideas floating around, it is easy to get caught up in a cycle of criticism and worry that doesn't get you to the most mentally or physically healthy place,” says One Medical’s National Clinical Director of Mental Health Integration, Christine Celio, Ph.D. “Loving your healthy body is where we should aim, but it can be difficult to identify what exactly is healthy for your body." Taking small, actionable steps to improve your overall experience of your body, however, can go a long way in positively impacting your well-being. Here are a few steps you can take to start improving your relationship with your body.
1. Do a social media audit
If you’re struggling with your body image and not sure where to start, Askari recommends first taking control of the content you consume. “Social media in particular is a type of media that we have more control over than we acknowledge, but may not appreciate just how much of an impact it has on us,” she says. “I personally unfollow or do not engage in any content that does not make me feel good about my body.” Pay close attention to the content you’re consuming and note how you feel after viewing it. If you catch yourself comparing yourself to others too much, or just feeling sad or dissatisfied with your body, it may be time to hit the unfollow button or to decrease your screen time. It’s also important to remember that not everything on social media is an accurate representation of reality. Plenty of the photos we see on social media, in ads, or in magazines have been touched up with filters or editing software. Become a critical viewer of the content you’re consuming and question and challenge unrealistic portrayals or body standards.
2. Check your words
The way you talk to or about yourself can influence how you feel about your body. The next time you start to tear yourself down, check yourself and challenge your words and thoughts. “Become more aware of how you speak about your body or other's bodies,” says One Medical clinical psychologist, Andrew Bertagnolli, Ph.D. “Do you criticize yourself or speak in ways that imply that specific weights or shapes are more attractive or valuable than others?” Be kind and show yourself some compassion. “Ask yourself, would you ever talk to your friend the way you talk to yourself?” says Celio. “I tell my patients to talk to themselves like they would talk to a loved one and to remember that they are loved ones themselves.”
3. Surround yourself with positive people
It’s difficult to work on your own body image if you’re around people who don’t share the same goals and values. “Set boundaries with individuals who offer unsolicited feedback regarding your body or speak about their own bodies in a demeaning way,” says Askari. Take stock of your friendships and relationships. Do you feel the need to change who you are in order to be around these individuals? Do you leave these friends or family feeling better or worse about yourself? Try to surround yourself with individuals who have a positive outlook and appreciate you for who you are. Spend time with people who talk about their own bodies positively without being overly critical. “Or even better, spend time with friends who don’t talk about their bodies!” says Celio. “Bodies help us live our best lives because they are our only lives. These are our only bodies. They are not problems to be solved.”
4. Avoid comparison
“Make sure to remember that we are not in competition with one another and do not want to compare ourselves to each other,” says Askari. Rather than fixating on what others have that you do not, try to remember that everybody is unique. Appreciate your body for what it can do and know that everyone is beautiful in their own distinct way. “Our bodies are here to help us be active, moving, energetic humans in the world,” says Celio. “There is no prize for a thigh gap, but if your body can help you summit a mountain, or go on a walk with a friend, celebrate what you body can do, not what it looks like.”
Want to know more about improving your body image? Our providers are ready to partner with you to help you achieve your health goals. Learn more about One Medical and how we can support you in your long-term health.
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