- Discuss variations and modifications to female body types
- Explore how the “ideal body” changes based on societal factors
- Discuss internal and external factors that may shape body image
- Explore unhealthy mean used to achieve the “ideal” body
- Discuss ways an individual can foster the growth of health body image
Body Image and Self Care
“Hating our bodies is something we learn, and it sure as hell is something we can unlearn.” ~Megan Jayne Crabbe
Have you ever listened to a little kid talk about their body? They are amazed by everything it does and would never think about listing all the things that are “wrong” with it or hate it. The human body is an wondrous machine that can do amazing things. It houses the brain, allows us to run, jump, climb, compete, explore, build or play. In addition, the female body has the unique ability to grow and nourish new life.
Yet, eighty-five percent of college females report that they believe they are either slightly or seriously overweight (when the actual number of those with higher than healthy body composition is somewhere around twenty percent . Body dissatisfaction is associated with excessive dieting, disordered eating, increased depression, and low self-esteem.
One of the greatest difficulties we have as a society is achieving and maintaining a healthy body image. Body image is how you see yourself when you look in the mirror or when you picture yourself in your mind. It encompasses:
- What you believe about your own appearance (including your memories, assumptions, and generalizations).
- How you feel about your body, including your height, shape, and weight.
- How you sense and control your body as you move. How you feel in your body, not just about your body.
Below are examples of negative and positive body image:
Negative Body Image
- A distorted perception of your shape–you perceive parts of your body unlike they really are.
- You are convinced that only other people are attractive and that your body size or shape is a sign of personal failure.
- You feel ashamed, self-conscious, and anxious about your body.
- You feel uncomfortable and awkward in your body.
Positive Body Image
- A clear, true perception of your shape–you see the various parts of your body as they really are.
- You celebrate and appreciate your natural body shape and you understand that a person’s physical appearance says very little about their character and value as a person.
- You feel proud and accepting of your unique body and refuse to spend an unreasonable amount of time worrying about food, weight, and calories.
- You feel comfortable and confident in your body.
The “Ideal” Body
What sets the criteria for the ideal body? Femininity or masculinity? Ability to perform manual labor or likelihood of easily birthing babies? We will explore the chemistry of sexual attraction in later chapters but it is interesting to note that body ideals vary significantly depending on gender, area of the world and time in history.
Body Types and Variations
High body image satisfaction is strongly influenced by anthropometric measurements (1). However, not all bodies have to potential to meet measurements that society deems “ideal. Human bodies can be classified into three different body types. Endomorph, Ectomorph and Mesomorph. These three types are genetically predetermined and provide a framework for overall body size, ease of body fat storage and muscle build.
Aspects of Body Image and Factors Influencing Body Image
So, if we understand that children usually have a positive body image, we need to look at what causes or influences might be at work to affect this initial positive state. Think back to your own childhood. Do you remember your parents talking about the strength and health of their own bodies, or rather the need to lose some weight and the attributes they disliked? Did you receive pressure from family members to cut your hair a certain way, dress in certain clothes, or lose a few pounds, maybe even under the guise of concern for your health/well being? Peers, parents, family and media certainly influence our view of ourselves and what we should be as well.
Body Image and Gender Dysphoria
We have examined body size, shape, body fat percentage and other physical characteristics but body image can also be heavily impacted by societal gender influences or categorization.
People with negative body image have a greater likelihood of developing an eating disorder and are more likely to suffer from feelings of depression, isolation, low self-esteem, and obsessions with weight loss.
Anorexia nervosa, or anorexia, is a type of eating disorder that mainly affects adolescent girls and young women, but can also affect men. A person with this disease has an intense fear of gaining weight and severely limits food intake. Individual may:
- Have a low body weight
- Refuse to keep a normal body weight
- Be extremely afraid of becoming fat
- Believe they are fat even if they are very thin
- Women may miss three (menstrual) periods in a row
Anorexia affects your health because it can damage many parts of your body. A person with anorexia will have many of these signs:
- Loses a lot of weight
- Talks about weight and food all the time
- Moves food around the plate; doesn’t eat it
- Weighs food and counts calories
- Follows a strict diet
- Won’t eat in front of others
- Ignores/denies hunger
- Uses extreme measures to lose weight (self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, diuretic abuse, diet pills, fasting, excessive exercise)
- Thinks they are fat when they are too thin
- Gets sick a lot
- Weighs self several times a day
- Feels depressed or irritable
- Doesn’t socialize
- Wears baggy clothes to hide appearance
A health care team of doctors, nutritionists, and therapists will help the patient get better. They will:
- Help bring the person back to a normal weight
- Treat any psychological issues related to anorexia
- Help the person get rid of any actions or thoughts that cause the eating disorder
Bulimia nervosa, or bulimia, is a type of eating disorder. Someone with bulimia eats a lot of food in a short amount of time (bingeing) and then tries to get rid of the calories by purging. Purging might be done in these ways:
- Making oneself throw up
- Taking laxatives (pills or liquids that increase how fast food moves through your body and leads to a bowel movement)
A person with bulimia may also use these ways to prevent weight gain:
- Exercising a lot (more than normal)
- Restricting her eating or not eating at all (like going without food for a day)
- Taking diuretics (pills that make you urinate)
Bulimia is more than just a problem with food. It’s a way of using food to feel in control of other feelings that may seem overwhelming. Purging and other behaviors to prevent weight gain are ways for people with bulimia to feel more in control of their lives and to ease stress and anxiety.
Unlike anorexia, when people are severely underweight, people with bulimia may be underweight, overweight, or have a normal weight. This makes it harder to know if someone has this disease. However, someone with bulimia may have these signs:
- Thinks about food a lot
- Binges (normally in secret)
- Throws up after bingeing
- Uses laxatives, diet pills, or diuretics to control weight
- Is depressed
- Is unhappy and/or thinks a lot about her body shape and weight
- Eats large amounts of food quickly
- Goes to the bathroom all the time after she eats (to throw up)
- Exercises a lot, even during bad weather, fatigue, illness, or injury
- Unusual swelling of the cheeks or jaw area
- Cuts and calluses on the back of the hands and knuckles from making herself throw up
- White enamel of teeth wears away making teeth look clear
- Doesn’t see friends or participate in activities as much. Has rules about food — has “good” foods and “bad” foods
Some research suggests that the use of medicines — such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers — may work for those living with anorexia or bulimia. It is thought that these medicines help the mood and anxiety symptoms that often co-exist with disordered eating. Psychotherapy, sometimes known as “talk therapy”, can also help in the treatment of eating disorders. It uses different ways of communicating to change a patient’s thoughts or behavior.
Fostering Healthy Body Image
When pressure to look, act and be a certain way is all around us, and in us as well, the ability to maintain emotional and physical wellness and balance is tough. The key: Remembering that you and your body are on the same team.
We all may have our days when we feel awkward or uncomfortable in our bodies, but the key to developing positive body image is to recognize and respect our natural shape and learn to overpower negative thoughts and feelings with positive, affirming, and accepting ones. In addition, seek guidance in living with disordered eating dysphoria or dysmorphia. For more information you can visit the website for the National Eating Disorder Association. Their message is simple: Accept yourself. Accept your body.
Check for Understanding
- What factors may impact body image as we grow?
- What does the difference between body dysmorphia and dysphoria mean to the LGBTQ+ community?
- What are the impacts of disordered eating and how can a person seek help for living with an eating disorder?
- What behaviors foster healthy body image?