Countering negative Body Image: How to be positive

Can you name your emotions when looking in the mirror? Is it a pleasant or unpleasant experience? Does the size or shape of your body affect how valuable you are as a person?

In his monograph "The Image and Appearance of the Human Body," written in 1935, German author Paul Schilder defined body image as "the picture of our own body that we form in our minds."

Schilder regarded body image as a psychological phenomenon before it was reexamined in 1988 as a perceptual and attitudinal phenomenon by Peter David Slade, who defined it as:
"The picture we have in our minds of the size, shape, and form of our bodies; and to our feelings concerning these characteristics, our constituent body parts".

Body Image – Feelings and thoughts
According to the former and the latter descriptions, we can define body image as:
"How we see, feel, and think about our bodies and how we behave according to these views, feelings, and thoughts."

As Mental Health Foundation - UK suggests, Body Image is linked to a number of factors, including:
1- Self-Perception: How we view our bodies and how accurate this view is.
2- Satisfaction: how satisfied we are with both our bodies and our appearance.
3- The environment: How we see our bodies in relation to our surroundings.
4- Others' views: To what extent do others' opinions impact how we feel about our bodies and ourselves?

A Healthy Body Image: What is it?
Being satisfied with our bodies is key to having a healthy body image. It is the capacity to respect our bodies, accept their abilities, and value them as much as we value our characters.

What is a Negative Body Image?
A negative body image usually means body dissatisfaction. It can also mean having concerns about our bodies that manifest as concerns about our weight, shape, or size of certain body parts.

When Body Image Concerns Become a Problem
Having concerns about our bodies is not a mental health problem in itself. However, if we experience persistent negative thoughts about our bodies that affect our day-to-day lives, and prompt us to choose maladaptive mechanisms, it can indicate a mental health problem.
 We might go through:
1- Psychological distress.
2- Poor quality of life.
3- Symptoms of depression and isolation.
4- Unhealthy eating behaviours.

Where Do the Issues with Body Image Originate?
We are unique, and how we process and cope with our difficulties has a big impact on how we perceive our bodies.
There are many factors that can affect how we see our bodies, including:
1- Our relationship with our bodies. How we talk to and feel about our bodies.
2- Our relationship with our families and friends.
3- How our families and friends talk about bodies and appearance.
4- Exposure to the so-called idealized bodies through media and social media.
5- The social pressure to look a certain way in order to fit the group.

Is there a Relationship between our Value and our Body Image?

Our thoughts and behaviors about our bodies can easily affect our well-being and quality of life, and vice versa.
Some people believe that their values depend on how they look. We can observe it when people adopt unhealthy eating behaviours, engage in excessive exercise, skip meals, take steroids, and avoid social gatherings because they don’t look a certain way.  

How Can Body Image Dissatisfaction Lead to Shame?
Body shame is a feeling related to what is called "internalization of the ideal", which means valuing, praising, glorifying an "ideal" body and considering it as an undisputed fact.
Body shame occurs when we think that we can't reach the ideal body, or that we don't fit in or that we don't belong.

What are the ramifications of experiencing body image concerns?
Persistently experiencing body image concerns can put the individual at higher risk of developing Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Eating Disorders. Examples of eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder.

To what extent does body image affect children young people?
According to several studies, body image is ranked as the third- biggest challenge for young people after unemployment and academic failure.
Additionally, it has been claimed that kids under the age of six struggle with body image issues.

How do peers and families influence one's body image?
Our relationships with our peers and families have a huge effect on how we see and think about our bodies.
Feeling of pessimism, shame, and loneliness can be cultivated by exposure to the so-called idealized bodies and critical comments.

According to Mind over Mirror – Parent Guide, talking negatively or critically about bodies (from parents) is more detrimental than displaying extreme weight-loss behaviors.

What are the elements that influence children and young people's perceptions of their bodies?

1-Puberty Phase:
A critical phase for both boys and girls who mature later or earlier than their peers.
This phase includes body changes in height, weight, and shape.
It is also the phase when young people go through comparisons and/or bullying.

2- Culture:
Moving to new places and dealing with new cultures and values affect how young people view their bodies.

3- Physical health conditions and disabilities:
Chronic illness or life-long injury can change the way young people think about their bodies.

4- Neurodiversity and learning disabilities:
Learning disabilities impact a person's capacity to:
understand or use spoken language, calculate, move with coordination, and pay attention.
These disabilities are life-long condition and need special schooling.
When it comes to difficulties with motor skills, people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASDs) find it challenging to be completely aware, in control, and connected to their bodies.

5- Life changes and transition periods:
This can include age-related ceremonies, birthdays, school graduation, changing schools, divorce, or experiencing trauma.

6- Technology:
In addition to built-in features like camera filters on TikTok and Instagram, Mental Health Foundation- UK claims that using image-editing technology apps that are free and not age-restricted (color filters, teeth whitening, body shape, skin tone, height, and muscularity) can have a negative impact on body image and self-esteem.

How can you tell if your child/adolescent is having issues with their body image?
Although having thoughts about the body is not in and of itself a mental health issue, we should proceed with caution when our behavior changes significantly.
And here are other indicators that, if persistent, may point to a problem:

1- Notable changes in mood and interpersonal interactions.
2- Showing frequent worries about how we look.
3- A desire to conceal: feeling under pressure to hide certain body parts. (Beyond the usual behavior or cultural norms)
4- Withdrawal: the inability to participate in activities where the body would be on display, such as swimming or physical education classes (Beyond the usual behavior or cultural norms).
5- Body shaming/self-bashing: labeling or making fun of our bodies or expressing rigid thinking patterns about what is a "good" vs. "bad" body type. Or what is known as "Black and white thinking".
6- Self-Objectification: Treating our bodies as an object that needs to be fixed.
7- Social Comparison: Engaging in talks about how others' bodies are good and beautiful compared to our bodies and vice versa.
8- Body checking: Spending a lot of time in front of mirrors.
9- Negative self-talk and describing weight gain as a failure.
10- Rigid Mentality: Insisting on having to look a certain way.

Men and Body Image

Mental health issues are feminized; therefore men might find it hard to make their voices heard.
Men's perceptions of their bodies and how they relate to them are significantly influenced by low self-esteem, childhood trauma, sexual trauma, stereotypical beliefs, and unfounded notions about the mental health of men.

Excessive exposure to unrealistic standards leads men – especially young adults – to develop problems with eating and exercise.
According to a study by Anglia Ruskin University, masculinity emphasizes the value of toughness, self-reliance and pursuit of status which lead men to place greater value on the importance of being muscular.
In addition to that, the terms of "Muscle dysmorphia", "Reverse Anorexia" or "Bigorexia" are used to describe the obsession of having a bigger, more muscular body.
Men who focus on gaining muscles and using steroids to accomplish unrealistic goals may develop anxiety, isolation, depression, and suicidal thoughts. 

How to build a positive body image?

Body image dissatisfaction is a learned experience, so we can – by embracing cognitive reframing – unlearn this experience.
Here is what we can do:

1-Practice Self-compassion:
According to a study, treating our bodies with love and warmth enhances well-being.
Expressive, non-judgmental writing that uses self-compassion towards our bodies will help us feel less isolated which in turn lessens self-criticism, symptoms of anxiety, and improves body-esteem.

2-Challenge limiting beliefs:
Put an end to self-doubt and don't let your fears dictate what you want to do.

3- Practice positive self-talk:
Language is important; therefore, we need to learn how to speak to ourselves in a way that reflects love, care, and gratitude.

4- Understand the limits of weighing yourself:      
Stop seeing weight as a measure of your health. Instead, concentrate on enhancing your physical and mental wellness by engaging in self-care activities. 

5- Journaling:
Write a list of 5 to 10 things you love about yourself that say nothing about how you look.

6- Pay attention to advertisements:
Advertisements are made to sell us on the idea that we must change our appearance to be loved and appreciated. So, pay attention to these messages and keep in mind that they use filtered photographs that are not representative of reality.

7- Build your own values:
Write about your intrinsic values and incorporate them into your daily activities.

8- Consider those you love and admire:
Ask yourself: "Do I love them because of their appearance or because of their personalities?"

9- Observe your surrounding:
Surround yourself with people that share your values.

10- Organize your social media feed:
Unfollow any accounts that might make you feel ashamed of your body or your appearance.

11- Create a cozy wardrobe:
Wear clothes that are comfortable and that express your personality.

12- Set boundaries:
Learn to communicate assertively with others and let those around you know that you don't like/ appreciate comments on your physical appearance, whether they are positive or negative.

13- Avoid body bashing:
Listen mindfully to the language you use when talking about your body.

14- Don't feel ashamed of your eating habits:
Your body doesn't define you. Give yourself permission to eat whatever you want, exercise for pleasure rather than punishment, take time to rest, and remember that there is no shame in eating more than those around you.

15- Challenge your intrusive thoughts:
Observe your unhelpful thoughts. Do you believe in ideas like: "Losing weight will make me happy", "I am fat", "I have a big belly", "I should work out every day to fix my body flaws", or "I am ugly and I need cosmetic surgery"?

16-Regulate your emotions:
Body image concerns can be a result of childhood trauma or bullying or unspoken emotions. Learn to acknowledge and validate what you feel without judgment.

17- Perfectionism destroys happiness:
There is no such thing as called "perfect body". Our bodies are created to be fluid and changed. Accepting this truth will make you build a calm relationship with your body.
Your worth as a human being is much more important than how you look. Learn to respect and accept your body. Learn to accept and respect others' bodies. Ask for help. Beware of diet culture, social media posts, or comparisons that suggest you need to change your body to be accepted and loved. You are beautiful the way you are.