Not everyone with an eating disorder has poor body image, and not everyone with poor body image has an eating disorder. However, poor body image and eating disorders often do go hand in hand.
Let’s start by defining body image.
Body image is the relationship you have with your own body. As with most relationships, body image is complex.
Body image is important because of how it impacts your physical and mental health, relationships, and self-esteem.
It includes how you see/perceive your body, what you think about your body, and how you feel about it. Body image also includes beliefs and behaviors, and is strongly influenced by Diet Culture.
Diet Culture influences everyone’s relationship with their body, even if they aren’t dieting. Sometimes it’s disguised as ‘healthy lifestyle’, ‘clean eating’, or other such euphemisms. It glorifies thinness and intertwines weight with worth.
In addition to making you feel bad about your body and self, Diet Culture demands you be vigilant about eating and weight.
It says that to be worthy, you must be thin. And if you’re not in a thin body, you are to blame.
Diet Culture shows up as all-or-nothing, perfectionistic thinking regarding food, body and health. Rules to eat “x” but not “y”. To “start Monday” if you ‘blew it”. If not thin, then you’re fat.
It promises that if you follow external rules, rather than trust your body’s wisdom, you will succeed.
This kind of messaging makes having a good relationship with your body almost impossible.
Poor body image often begins in childhood. Thanks to Diet Culture, growing up with a neutral or even positive body image is more the exception than the rule.
Parents are not immune either. They don’t live in a vacuum. Diet Culture is so insidious that even recognizing it is a challenge. Sort of like fish not knowing they are wet. They often unknowingly perpetuate Diet Culture messages, for they have also internalized them.
There’s no shame here- Diet Culture impacts US ALL.
The main points include:
1.Poor body image is due to the internalization of Diet Culture.
2.If there were no poor body image, there would be no dieting.
3.If there were no dieting, there would be no eating disorders.
(Except Anorexia nervosa, which recent research suggests has a prominent genetic component irrespective of cultural ideals.)
How does negative body image present in eating disorders? There are many forms: body dissatisfaction, overconcern with weight and shape, body-related checking, avoidance behavior, misperception of size, and body-related cognitive bias.
There are three basic ways body image and eating disorders go hand in hand.
First, research finds time and time again that poor body image is one of the most common precursors to eating disorders. Second, it is the main symptom of many eating disorders, including Anorexia nervosa and Bulimia nervosa. Lastly, recovery requires improved body image. Without it, recovery is incomplete and/or short-lived.
Let’s look at each of the three ways poor body image and eating disorders go hand in hand.
1. As mentioned, poor body image is a risk factor for eating disorders.
Eating disorder prevention programs often target body image for this very reason. Poor body image is a risk factor for other problems, too, including depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
Why is poor body image so strong a precursor to eating disorders?
One reason is poor body image can and does easily lead to dieting, disordered eating, and then to an eating disorder.
Negative body image is a logical risk factor in eating disorders because people who develop eating disorders tend to highly value body shape and weight. Especially to define their self-worth.
2. Poor body image is a criteria in the diagnoses of two well known eating disorders, Anorexia nervosa and Bulimia nervosa.
In the case of either disorder, poor body image presents as body shape and weight hugely influencing self-worth. People with Anorexia nervosa also have a disturbance in how they experience their weight or shape. Sometimes they’re unable to recognize the seriousness of their current (often low) body weight.
The most common eating disorder is Binge Eating Disorder. Body image related concerns are not part of the diagnosis. However, about 60 percent of BED patients endorse overconcern with weight and shape. And avoidance behaviors and body checking too.
3. Why does recovery from an eating disorder require improved body image?
People with an eating disorder sometimes fear they’ll never feel at peace in their body. Especially if they give up their eating disorder behaviors. They inaccurately believe that their only hope to eradicate negative body image is to lose weight and maintain a body size closer to Diet Culture’s ideal.
Surrendering eating disorder behaviors, including dieting/restriction, is especially difficult in the Diet Culture World we live in. An important facet of treatment is to help people learn self advocacy, social action, and how to be the change they want to see in the world.
The good news is that full recovery from eating disorders is possible. Which means that improving body image is also possible.
There’s no shame here- diet culture impacts US ALL.
To move toward healing and freedom from food and body concerns, we have to dismantle and question the ‘truths’ that Diet Culture has enforced from Day 1. And, to consider how buying into these beliefs and messages (most often over and over again) has been destructive to attuning to your body, your needs, your hungers and your trust in yourself.
As you begin to do this important self-inquiry, externalize some blame you’ve put on yourself.
Join me as we take down Diet Culture, together. Only then will body image collectively improve and eating disorder rates plummet.
I am a non-diet, Certified Intuitive Eating specialist and clinical psychologist in MA. If you’re struggling with your body image and/or eating disorder, please contact me here.