As I write this, many of us are making our summer plans. Family discussions revolve around vacation planning, camps, and beach days. Warmer temps signal fewer clothes and contemplation of our “beach bodies.” How ready are we to shed our cover-ups or t-shirts and strut our stuff on the beach? How many of us don’t join in the fun because of how we think we look in our bathing suits? Know you are not alone. At some point in our lives, we all have to deal with our body image.
In this blog we will explore various aspects of body images, the negative, the positive, and, the neutral. We discuss some of the “schools of thought” regarding body image. We conclude with pointers on how to navigate a negative body image. It should be noted at the outset of this essay, body image is not a “women-only” issue. Boys and men experience as often as women, but are often wary of speaking about these issues. This dialogue needs to become a shared space for all.
I have always admired those people who are comfortable in their bodies. I’ve envied their self-confidence and their “swagger”. Most importantly, however, I coveted their positive body image. I wanted to look at my body with such confidence.
Body image is defined by the National Eating Disorders Collaboration as “the perception that a person has of their physical self, but more importantly the thoughts and feelings the person experiences as a result of that perception.” It is greater than having an opinion of one’s appearance. Rather, it is how that opinion influences thoughts, behaviors, and decisions. According to the NEDC, body image consists of four aspects: perceptual (the way you see yourself), the way you feel about how you look (affective), the way you think about your body (cognitive), and the behavior you engage in based on your body (behavioral). As such, it is an all-encompassing concept that trickles into all facets of our being and interactions.
it is my contention that body image is a continuum with a positive and negative poles. Throughout our lives we move along this continuum based on where are are physically, mentally, and emotionally. In our younger years, we may have very positive about our bodies, wearing clothes that emphasized certain features. In our later years after we have had some kiddos, that may no longer be the case for both mothers and fathers.
How do we know when body image is problematic? When our body image starts to hold us back from engaging in activities, we are starting down a slippery slope. When this becomes a pattern of avoidance, we are in free fall. This downward spiral can manifest in anxiety, depression, and isolationist tendencies. If left unchecked, it may lead to more destructive behaviors such as anorexia, bulimia, self-harm, and even suicide.
Body positivity is the movement that advocates that all people-no matter their shape, size, or appearance-deserve to be accepted and have a positive view of their own bodies. The message ‘all bodies are beautiful’ encourages all humans to appreciate their body in spite of flaws, accepts its uniqueness, love them self [selves], and reject unrealistic beauty standards. (https://lancastergeneralhealth.org/health-hub-home/2021/september/mind-over-matter-defining-body-positivity
The Body Positivity Movement had its roots in the Fat Acceptance Movement of the 1960s. It was founded with the intention of combatting negative body images. For some this movement was instrumental in their acceptance of themselves. For others, however, body positivity began to segue into toxicity. How? Because body positivity focuses on external bodies and appearance. Some movement members began to shame thinner people and some started to throw shade at those who chose to lose weight.
As “body positivity” began to fall out of favor due to its heavy reliance on external appearance, the Body Neutrality Movement started to rise in popularity.
Body neutrality means taking a neutral perspective towards your body, meaning that you do not have to cultivate a love for your body or feel that you have to love your body every day. You may not always love you body, but you may still live happily and appreciate everything your body can do.” (https://www.verywellmind.com/body-positivity-vs-body-neutrality-5184565)
Body neutrality is a shift from outward appearance towards physical capability. What is it that my body is able to do? Intrinsic to body neutrality are the notions of gratitude and appreciation for what our bodies can accomplish. Due to its introspective component, body neutrality includes a mindful approach toward our bodily achievements. Additionally, this includes self-care for our bodies, and ensuring proper nutrition, exercise, hydration, and rest.
Thus far we have reviewed various stances with respect to body image. I don’t believe it is necessary for us to embrace only one, as I believe each to have their own merits. It is my contention that they can complement each other. As long as we are respectful of each other’s body image perspectives, we are in good company.
For those who are combating the negativity, how can we start to cultivate a better image of our bodies?
- Watch your internal chatter. Negative self-talk is one of the most defeating ways we remain in the cycle of shame. Be aware of your internal dialogue. When you sense yourself trending toward the negative, find something positive on which to focus your attention.
- Take care of yourself. Remember that your body, like your mind, needs to be nourished and appreciated. Make bodily self-care a priority with proper rest, hydration, and exercise. What are you doing to nourish and cherish yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally? Make sure you can answer this question every single day – even if it is something you do for 5 minutes.
- Surround yourself with people who do not overly value appearance. This includes friends and family. Have open discussions about your body with your children. Ensure they know their worth is not measured by a scale or a dress size. Allow them to see you struggle. Your vulnerability will make them more likely to come to you when they need support. This may be even more true for young men, some of whom have been raised to believe “body issues” are “female issues.” Siblings can be harsh and tease each other mercilessly. Let them know there are certain things that are “off limits” for teasing.
- Stop comparing your body to others. “Comparison is the thief of joy.” If looking at others motivates you to be your best self, then go for it! However, when comparing yourself to others ends in shame, it is not fruitful. We change best by feeling good and not by feeling bad.
BODY IMAGE & APPRECIATION:
Bodies tell stories. From the scar on your forehead from your bike run-in with a recycling bin, to the ripples around your middle, bodies are narratives. Whatever school of thought you ascribe to, be it body positive, body neutral or a mixture of both, be “body healthy.” This means eating the right food, doing the right exercises, keeping up with your doctors. Do whatever gets you to a point of appreciation for the body you inhabit. You may not be ready to love it, but, at the very least, learn to befriend it.