In a perfect world, poor body image would not exist. An article about subtle signs you have poor body image would be silly. Or at least of little interest.
The world we live in is not perfect. (Newsflash, right?)
Historically, there have always been people (mostly women) dissatisfied with their body. And, cultural definitions of the ‘perfect’ body change every decade or so, keeping us on alert for the next body ideal du jour. The value of beauty ideals depends in part on the high costs of achieving them.
For the last 30 or so years, poor body image has become so common that it has been dubbed normative discontent.
And by the way, there is waaaaaaay more to poor body image than “I hate my body”.
Subtle signs you have poor body image involve more nuance than the outright declaration of body hatred.
There are sociological, racial, historical , cultural, ethnic, and political factors that contribute to body image. The origin of poor body image is complex.
What is body image?
Body image refers to the relationship you have with your body.
If you have a body, you have a body image.
Body image has more to do with cultural, political, racial, peer, social, and family values than it does about your actual size, weight, or shape.
Messages from family, friends, social media, advertisements, coaches, and lots of other sources contribute to the relationship you have with your body.
It doesn’t take long to internalize a negative image of your body. Especially if you are a frequent social media user.
As is true of relationships of any kind, body image can be complicated.
Your relationship with your body includes thoughts, feelings, sensations, perception of size and shape, and behaviors.
Dissatisfaction with your body can range from mild to severe.
Some signs of poor body image are obvious, such as avoiding the beach due to shame of body size.
Other behavior due to poor body image can be more subtle, such as frequent, casual glances at yourself in the mirror for reassurance that your body is ‘ok’.
Subtle signs of poor body image can be hard to identify, maybe even for you with your own body.
One of the reasons subtle signs can be hard to recognize is because poor body image IS considered ‘normal’, as if it is just how it is, of no concern. (The ‘normative discontent’ we talked about in the beginning of the article.)
Actually, subtle signs of poor body image are important to identify so that you can work on improving your relationship with your body.
After all, just because something is common does not mean it is ok. Nor does it mean that you have to comply with the normative discontent.
Body image and self esteem go hand in hand, so having subpar body image automatically means low self esteem.
(Children as young as three have poor body image. Scary.)
Here are five of the most common subtle signs you have poor body image.
- Self-critical thoughts about your body, even if you keep them to yourself. Just because you don’t say them aloud does not mean they are benign. The self criticism interferes with your ability to feel confident and worthy. Or to have any genuine fun.
For example, imagine you’re at the beach with friends or family. You are wearing a new bathing suit, and the sun is shining. All you can think of is the disgust you feel toward your body.
You continue to think about your body negatively and say mean and hurtful things to yourself that you would probably never say to a friend or loved one. (Or maybe not even to a stranger or to someone you dislike!)
When it is time for lunch, you say you are not hungry. (But you are.) When everyone else gets ice cream, you again decline. Or maybe you get a low calorie alternative. All because you think you are ‘too fat’ and deep down feel unworthy of partaking in the fun.
If your children are with you at the beach, they are likely aware of your stated or unstated body image related self criticism. Children pick up on messages and internalize negative body image for themselves.
Even looking at yourself in the mirror and frowning is a subtle sign of poor body image and something children pick up on.
- Ongoing comparison of your weight and shape to other people’s. This may be something you do in your head, or that you say out loud.
Let’s continue with the beach example. You are wearing that new bathing suit, and the sun is shining. Your main focus, though, is everyone else’s body, and comparing theirs to yours. You miss out on the fun your kids are having building sandcastles.
Or how about another example.
You walk into a room (at work, at your kids’ school, at the bank – anywhere really). You immediately scan the room to see if anyone’s body is bigger than yours. Or where you fit on the body size continuum among people in the room. The comparison is so automatic that you may not even realize you are doing it.
More often than not, social comparison worsens, rather than improves, body image.
- Jealousy due to the lower weight or ‘more attractive’ shape of a family member, friend, celebrity or even a stranger. Maybe you automatically dislike someone, even if you do not know anything about her, because her body more closely meets the cultural ideal. The resulting envy/jealousy of her body size may be a subtle sign of your poor body image.
If you notice wishing you could look like that person, be curious about why your body is automatically deemed inferior.
- Cancellation of social plans is another subtle sign of poor body image. A common example begins with getting ready to go out with college friends. Someone at the last minute decides not to go because ‘nothing looks good’ on her.
Because she can’t find something she feels comfortable wearing, she would rather stay home. She becomes self-critical, caught in a thought loop of how ugly she is. Then feels irritable, jealous, and definitely not in the mood to go out. So she misses out on fun with friends because she is dissatisfied with her body. Those feelings spill over into other areas of her life.
- Perpetuating body shame, racism, sizism, and weight discrimination are often indicators of poor body image. None of the “isms” is benign. Participating in these behaviors affect us all, regardless of our weight or size.
Fat stigma has been referred to as the last acceptable form of prejudice.
When you laugh at jokes about weight or you snicker at people in larger bodies, you are perpetuating weight stigma.
And, doing so may indicate you have poor body image yourself.
I offer this explanation with compassion. After all, we live in Diet Culture, where normative discontent is…..the norm.
Let’s say you feel judgey about the character of larger bodied people. (Despite the fact that not all people in a particular body size are the same. Just as people of a certain descent or height are not the same.)
You create an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dynamic.
Maybe the belief is something like you will never “let yourself go” like ‘those people’. As if body weight is under complete voluntary control. (It isn’t). Or that we are all obligated to be in a certain weight range. (We aren’t) Or that health and size are causally linked (nope).
But what may perpetuate the stigma and discrimination is fear of your own body becoming ‘fat’.
And living in fear of becoming ‘fat’ suggests a conditional relationship with your own body.
That just one wrong move and bang! You will ‘get fat’ and then really be dissatisfied with your body.
One of the many reasons recognizing even subtle signs of a poor body image is important is that body dissatisfaction can lead to restrictive eating, over-exercising, purging, and other eating disorder behaviors.
Plus, feeling bad about the one and only body you will ever have detracts from quality of life.
So what to do?
Moving somewhere off the grid isn’t realistic for most of us. Nor is permanently unplugging our electronic devices or eliminating all social contact.
1. First, recognize that body ideals are always changing. Standards changing as often as they do suggests that the standards are really just temporary.
Someone will always be more beautiful, regardless of the amount of dieting, self starvation, exercising, applying makeup, or expensive plastic surgery
2. Remain empowered. YOU have control over the social media you consume. Curate carefully. Appearance oriented social media platforms such as Instagram cause more body dissatisfaction than social media that contains more informational content. Limit your consumption of social media that makes you feel bad about your body.
3. Beware of spending time scrolling on accounts of people who may trigger your body dissatisfaction thoughts or behaviors. Instead, check out other types of accounts. Or, even better, take a break from Instagram and/or other social media platforms.
Your body is not a billboard. It does not represent success/failure, goodness/badness, morality/immorality.
Your body IS where you live, and at its foundation are roots from your family tree and the accumulation of lived experiences. Everyone has a different combination of a family tree and lived experiences. So of course there will be body diversity! And thank goodness for that.
If you notice subtle signs of poor body image, please have self compassion.
You are not alone. There are definite ways to improve body image. For many, feeling neutral about their body is ultimately the goal. And that is a wonderful place to start.
I am a clinical psychologist specializing in body image, eating disorders, and Highly Sensitive People. I am dedicated to helping people live comfortably and happily in the body they have. Click here to contact me.