Body image issues are common and not just “a female thing”. Boys and men have body image problems too. Male body image issues can be harder to identify than females’. So how can you tell if your son is struggling with male body image issues? And what do you do?
Let’s back up and talk about body image more generally.
Perception of how attractive, acceptable, and healthy your body is begins early in childhood.
And, body image continues to develop as you age, and as you’re given feedback on your body.
Feedback can be direct (e.g. from parents, pediatricians) or indirect (social media, cultural messages). Wanted or unwanted.
Internalizing an image of your body is automatic and not necessarily accurate. Rather, it is subjective – a kaleidoscope created by lots of different images, feelings, thoughts, and experiences.
So, at its most basic level, body image is the relationship you have with your body.
In other words, if you have a body, you have a body image. And relationships, of any sort, can at times be rocky. Body image is no exception.
Why’s body image important?
Having a decent relationship with your body means you:
- feel OK about how you look
- accept your body
- feel proud about what your body can do
- take care of your body
A poor relationship with your body means you’re more likely to have:
- low self esteem
- unhealthy weight/eating behaviors
Identifying if your son is having body image problems can be difficult for many reasons, including:
1. Body image problems are historically thought just to affect girls or gay men. (Hear this: The gender gap is closing. And body image issues among boys/men are catching up.)
2. Boys are less forthcoming about negative body image because of societal beliefs that body image is just a girl thing. (See #1 above!)
3. Negative body image for boys tends to be different from the type girls report. Boys’ body image issues are more often something like not having a 6 pack (ab muscles) or not being ripped (muscularly defined) enough. Rarely is their negative body image due to a drive for thinness. Rather, it is more often a drive for muscularity. (There are of course exceptions.)
What are some signs your son might be struggling with body image issues?
- Preoccupation with his appearance
- Restrictive eating
- Use of supplements
- Spending lots of time at the gym
- When participating in a sport (wrestling, skating, gymnastics) where weight and/or appearance are central, body image issues intensify
- Increased emphasis on weight, appearance, food
- Denial that there is a body image problem
- Compulsive body checking
- Intense interest in workouts, steroids, protein shakes, ‘clean eating’
- Referring to himself or his body pejoratively.
Most often, male body image issues arise in puberty. No surprise!
Puberty is typically a time of massive change, internally and externally, for everyone – regardless of gender. The same is true for boys.
Determining if your son is struggling with body image issues is challenging. You wonder if it is ‘just the age’ or something more concerning.
Generally, experts suggest you step back and determine the extent to which his behaviors are interfering with relationships and causing problems at school or in other settings.
And talk with your son. Parents often say that conversations occur more naturally during a car ride with just the two of you, or while doing an activity together (e.g. doing yardwork, washing the car).
So as a parent, what can you do?
Notice any changes in behavior. Be aware of patterns. (See the list of 10 signs above.)
There are things NOT to do, too. Which of course may same obvious but can be anything but obvious if you are doing any of them without realizing it. Here are some examples:
- Putting pressure on him to conform to ideals
- Reinforcing media messages about the importance of appearance
- Saying offhanded comments about somebody’s appearance
- Modelling dislike of your body
Boys have bodies too! Your son’s feelings about his body are important. Helping him improve his body image includes respecting all body types – regardless of body shape, weight, physical ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity or gender.
I am a clinical psychologist specializing in body image. For the last 20 years I have remained committed to helping all people with a body reclaim their birthright.
You deserve to feel comfortable in the body you have. Not the body you wish you had or the one you have spent years chasing.
Be here, right now, in YOUR body, the one you have. Find body neutrality. Or, dare we imagine, something even greater.
“Oppression spares no body. Injustices are both systemic and intimate, taking root in the flesh.”–Mary Watkins
You’re thinking it’s time to begin overcoming negative body image and eating disorders. But you aren’t 100 percent certain. And you’re not even sure it is possible. That’s ok. You can still move forward to improve your relationship with your body.
It is normal to want to change, but not want to change, at the same time.
Here is what you’d probably like to change:
- Preoccupation with food, weight, and your body
- Constant comparisons, especially on Instagram and other platforms
- The Groundhog Day way of living your life
First, that’s awesome! Being open to change is not easy.
Especially in our image oriented, Instagram -ridden culture.
Recommendations for overcoming negative body image and eating disorders are nuanced.
“Do this” and “don’t do that” recommendations are oversimplified and generic. And, they tend to focus on personal responsibility and ignore context.
Body image issues and eating disorders are not ‘just a phase’, your way of getting attention, or due to vanity.
So what is the “more to it?” I am talking about the bigger picture. More specifically, the sociology and anthropology of negative body image and eating disorders, which affect us all.
We know now that strong economic, political, environmental, and social forces are at the center of developing and overcoming negative body image and eating disorders.
Racism, sexism, patriarchy weight bias, and other ism’s are key to understanding how/why you developed body image and eating disorder issues. The “isms” need to be recognized in your own healing journey. And not “just” if you identify as a feminist, social justice proponent or political activist.
We can’t heal our relationship with our body with a plan (i.e. diet) to make our body into what dominant culture says it should be.
Healing negative body image and eating disorders is challenging for a lot of reasons. (Remember nuance?). The biggest challenge of all is the backdrop.
An underappreciated force is Diet Culture. Actually, it is more than a force or backdrop. It is the air we breathe.
Diet Culture is everywhere. Because we live in it, we often don’t even know of or recognize its existence. Kind of like fish not knowing they are wet.
What is Diet Culture anyway? Christy Harrison, RD, MPH, is an expert on this topic. (Check out her weekly podcast.)
Her definition of Diet Culture is that it is a system of beliefs that:
- Worships thinness
- Equates weight and morality
- Promises weight loss will lead to higher status
- Demonizes some foods and elevates others
- Oppresses people who don’t match up
Diet culture is the single biggest reason for negative body image and eating disorders.
Remember, Diet Culture refers to an entire system of beliefs. (See above). The beliefs equate body size with worthiness, morality, and health.
The origins of fixation on weight go back to colonialism, racism, and sexism. The purpose of the beliefs has always been – and still is – to establish social hierarchies. And to control people.
Oppression derails the ability to be ok with differences and damages the relationship we have with our own bodies.
Certain groups of people (e.g. women, fat people, people of color) are most vulnerable to internalizing cultural messages. Doing so causes damage. Preoccupation with weight and appearance is a way to keep the focus on meeting “ideals” rather than on more meaningful ambitions, be it political, social, or economic.
How can you eradiate Diet Culture? Or at least diminish its impact? What an excellent question. We have to start somewhere, right? Now is a good time.
Here are some of the things you can do to whittle away at the backdrop known as Diet Culture. To chip away at it, bit by bit, and empowering each of us along the way.
You and everyone else, regardless of size, shape, color, history, background, or anything else, deserves to feel at least neutral about your body. And good enough about yourself not to be detrimentally influenced by Diet Culture.
- Change the way you talk about food, bodies, and weight. Especially the way you speak of these topics to yourself.
- Call out companies who promote diet culture practices. Join influencers who are doing just that, such as Jameela Jamil.
- Join like minded communities to help you unlearn diet culture and relearn body respect. Examples could include Facebook groups, Instagram accounts, podcast communities, or other such groups.
I enjoy working with people of all backgrounds to take down Diet Culture. Join me!
Most of us judge people by their appearance. And more specifically, by their weight. Weight stigma, weight bias, and weight discrimination are real. Even though we know we shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover”, we often do. Judgments can be so automatic that breaking free from idolizing body image ideals is challenging. Or maybe not even on our radar as something worth doing.
But, breaking free from idolizing an ideal body image is totally worth doing. That is, if you want to have a better relationship with your own body, improved self esteem, and a sense of worth based more on who you are than on your weight.
So where do you start? Let’s start with the concept of judgment.
Judgments are based on a reference point.
Most of us automatically judge attractiveness and worth using the culturally defined reference point of the” ideal body”. Culture values thinness at all costs and automatically equates it with beauty and worth. We tend to accept and even idolize the cultural definition of the ideal body image. No questions asked.
But questioning the cultural ideal body image is exactly what we must do in order to break free from it.
Otherwise, we buy into idolizing unrealistic cultural standards of body image ideals. Colluding with culturally defined standards contributes to chronic dieting, negative body image, eating disorders, and overall disempowerment. Hence, buying into this system is known as colluding with “the Life Thief.“
The cultural definition of the ideal body image changes over time. The idolization of it, however, does not. Beauty standards are typically based on whatever is most difficult to achieve in that time in history.
There are lots of reasons breaking free from idolizing the body image ideal is hard to do. For one, it means you must distance yourself from the culturally defined reference point. And rejecting Diet Culture makes you a rebel who risks being viewed in a negative light. Another reason breaking free from idolizing the body image ideal is challenging is because you then have to find other ways to feel worthy.
We live in a society where looks and first impressions matter. And define worth.
So do the number of Facebook/Instagram ‘likes’ we receive. The ‘likes’ are considered evidence that we’re attractive, liked, and worthy. Even though the images are altered. And the likes are not based on much substance beyond what meets the eye.
To get more social media likes, we use filters to make us look more “attractive”. Usually more “attractive” means editing selfies so we look thinner or more toned. More attractive. Sexier.
All of this sheds light on why resilience in the world of the powerful beauty/body image ideal is such a big ask.
So much of an ask that you may wonder if it’s really possible to break free from idolizing an ideal body image.
In our visual and virtual culture, our bodies are ourselves.
We define ourselves in a culturally prescribed way. The cultural prescription says “thin is good. Fat is bad”. If you’re not thin, then you’re fat. If you’re fat, you’re ugly, bad, and destined for misery. Or so says Diet Culture and its idealized body image.
Feeling ashamed of our bodies translates to being ashamed of our selves.
If you’re feeling shame about your body, telling yourself you shouldn’t feel shame makes it worse. Or at least does not help.
So how do you reject, rather than idolize, a prescribed ideal body image?
Consider these three suggestions for how to break free from idolizing an idealized body image:
1. Remind yourself of the historical, socio-cultural, and environmental roots of the idealized body image. Recognize that you have a choice in the degree to which you drink that Kool-aid.
2. Remember the quote attributed to Ghandi’? “Be the change you want to see in the world”. Why not? If not you, then whom? If not now, then when?
3. Another person in history to keep in mind is the anthropologist Margaret Mead. She is quoted as saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.” YOU can be part of such a group.
You are free to choose to idolize culturally defined body image ideals as the way to define your worth.
You have other options, though. Including the option to find your own unique values to define your worth. Especially values that come from the inside. As opposed to values based on appearance, weight, and the number of likes on your Instagram posts.
Explore, discover, and be curious about your Authentic Self.
Living authentically is more rewarding than living your life based on cultural values about ideal body image will ever be. At least give it a try!
I love working with people as they discover the choices available to them, especially when their relationship with their body and self is involved. Begin within! Please contact me to learn more.
Negative body image has some surprising effects. My definition of “body image” is the relationship you have with your body.
The relationship I’m talking about includes your thoughts and feelings about your body, your perception of its size and shape, and behaviors you engage in or avoid as a result of this relationship.
So, if you have a body, you have a body image.
Body image also includes your own history with your body, and even your family tree. By that I mean your genetics, which are passed on from generation to generation.
Much of body size and shape is determined by genes. That is another reason the family tree concept is relevant.
Maybe, for example, you have a similar body shape as your maternal grandmother when she was your age? Or muscular legs like your paternal aunt’s? Or your great grandfather’s height? Your body represents your family’s lineage, weaving the past into the present. Thinking of your body that way is kind of cool.
A conversation about negative body image would be incomplete if we did not talk about diet culture.
What is diet culture? It is the lens through which we evaluate our worth, based on weight. Diet culture is the air we breathe, the world we inhabit. Often disguised as ‘healthy lifestyle’, ‘clean living’, or ‘being good’, diet culture is a system of beliefs that worships thinness, demonizes certain foods, and equates food and weight with personal worth.
If you’re like the majority of American girls and women, you chronically diet in order to feel more comfortable/attractive in your body. Or you’re planning to diet – on Monday. Or you have just come off a diet, temporarily, because it is the weekend.
Diet culture promises that if you just try hard enough, you will lose weight and be happier.
The truth? Research shows over and over again (and has since 1959) that long term weight loss is possible for a mere 2-5% of people.
So, because of diet culture, negative body image is more common than not.
In fact, it is considered normative. Especially among girls and women.
You are led to believe that thinness is worthiness, and that thinness is attainable if only you try hard enough. This is not true.
Clearly, negative body image is not just something among people with an eating disorder. Diet culture’s dirty secret is that it profits off your vulnerability, your desire to be slimmer. The result is diet culture’s $72 BILLION/year in sales. And for you, negative body image.
If your body, the very place you live, is a source of dislike, distress, disgust, or hatred, then all areas of your life are affected.
And in a way that makes happiness elusive and life one struggle after the next.
That is why negative body image is hardly benign, even if considered normative.
Here is a list of 10 most surprising effects of negative body image:
Increased risk of health problems:
Examples of health problems more likely to occur among people with negative body image include eating disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, and nutritional deficiencies. There is also an increased risk of medical problems due to avoiding health behaviors that expose your body, such as going to the doctor. Another increased health risk is drug abuse, such as steroids or diet pills.
Decreased self esteem/confidence:
Body image and self-esteem go hand in hand. You’re unlikely to have high self esteem if you have negative body image. Similarly, you aren’t going to have solid confidence if your body image is poor.
Difficulty appreciating yourself:
If you have negative body image, you likely dwell on feeling dissatisfied with your body. Then there is no room to recognize and honor how awesome you are. Having trouble appreciating who you are affects your relationships, academics, hobbies/interests, and career.
Jealousy toward other women and constant comparisons:
Negative body image creates a dynamic of competition and comparison among women. As if there is a contest of who is the thinnest, prettiest, hottest, or whatever-ist.
Jealousy of others you deem thinner, prettier, hotter or whatever-er is a natural consequence of comparing and competing. As women, we need to be on each other’s side. Negative body image divides women and prevents camaraderie. This dilutes “Girl Power”!
Social withdrawal; avoiding activities, events, certain places:
One of the inevitable effects of negative body image is self-consciousness and despair. Especially when you are getting ready for a party, going to the beach or on a date, or deciding on other social plans. Not knowing what to wear, ‘feeling fat’ or as if ‘nothing looks good’ may lead to a decision to withdraw from certain friends or family.
Engaging in activities that are not good for you:
A negative body image means you are more likely to pursue diets, buy weight loss products, and engage in unhealthy behaviors like smoking cigarettes (to promote weight loss). This links back to the first risk pertaining to health problems.
Increased mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety:
Especially among teens, negative body image is associated with worse mental health. (Even when compared to people with other mental health problems.) More specifically, increased depression, anxiety, and suicidality occur alongside negative body image.
Furthermore, if you are critical of your body, you are more likely to have cognitive distortions that worsen your relationship with your body. The same distortions (e.g. dichotomous thinking) that contribute to negative body image are also associated with depression and anxiety.
Diminished sexual satisfaction:
How you think of, feel about, and perceive your body affects sexual desire and arousal. The more critical you are of your body, the more anxiety you feel in bed with your partner, and the less easily aroused you will be.
Self-criticism and anxiety make it impossible to ‘let go’ and delight in the moment!
In fact, negative body image is the second most common obstacle to sexual enjoyment, desire, and responsiveness. (Relationship distress is first.) Critical, mean self talk about your body, such as the size of your stomach or overall body, can even prevent orgasms. The worse you feel about your body, the less likely you will be in the moment enough to have the big O. (Or big O’s!)
Another way sex is impacted adversely is if you assume your partner sees your body in a similar negative way as you do.
Creating/continuing a legacy of body shame to future generations:
We inherit beliefs from family. Children learn how to be in their body, and in the world, from their parents.
Parents struggle with their own body image. And many have for a long time, even since childhood. Their struggle may have to do with events that have happened to them, or not. They too live in diet culture, after all. Regardless, parents who emphasize their own weight concerns often pass that on to their children, with no harm intended. But harm occurs.
Comments about weight gain and compliments for weight loss communicate that weight is under scrutiny and something to ‘keep an eye on.” And that worth as a human being is tied into weight.
Interoception is a sense that helps you to know and feel what is going on inside your body. Because of interoception, you can identify hunger, fullness, pain, tiredness, thirst, digestion, bathroom needs, the urge to itch, and other internal sensations.
The way this works is interoceptive receptors send information about what is going on inside of your body to your brain. As a result, you can identify if your heart is beating fast or slowly. Or if you need to use the bathroom. Or how hungry or full you are.
Interoceptive awareness also allows you to know what emotions you are feeling. Every emotion has a corresponding sensation in your body.
Dieting messes with interoceptive awareness. Being on a diet means following external rules rather than natural, intuitive, internal cues for when, what, and how much to eat.
Negative body image is associated with disconnecting from your body, worsening interoception.
Negative body image is widespread and has serious repercussions, even beyond the ten listed.
Soooo much energy is wrapped up in negative body image. Consider all the other ways your energy could be channeled. A much better quality of life is practically guaranteed when you improve body image.
Even neutral body image is better than a negative one.
Your worth is not your weight. Resist diet culture’s messages. End the family legacy of negative body image.
Your birthright is to feel at home in your own body.
When you improve your relationship with your body, the world becomes so much more pleasure filled! Please contact me if you would like to learn more information about treating negative body image.
If you have a problem with your shoulder, heart, or other body part, you probably seek medical care. Or at least know you could or should. But what if the problem is your body image, i.e. your relationship with your body? How do you know if body image therapy is right for you?
Body Image concerns of varying degrees are more often the norm than not, thanks to diet culture and unattainable beauty standards, both historically and cross culturally. Pressure to have a perfect body, as defined by societal standards, has no expiration date. The current equation is something like thinnish and tone body = attractive = worthy.
Especially for girls and women.
Because body image concerns are so common, how to know if body image therapy is right for you can be tricky.
How common are body image problems? By age 6, girls in particular begin to show concerns about their own weight, and 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat.
Think about that. Girls worrying about their weight at age 6.
And it only gets more intense from there. So much for playing hopscotch without a care in the world.
As girls age, the statistics do not become more encouraging. Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
Even for women in their 60s through 90s, body image is often the number one body concern. Women in their mid life and senior years feeling unhappy in their body is a callosal shame.
Body image concerns affect us all.
While all ages, genders, and cultures are equally at risk for body image issues, the triggers and pressures vary.
In Western culture, girls feel pressure from the societal appearance-ideal. (Remember, slim and tone = attractive = worthy.) Boys are more often faced with social pressures to be lean and muscular.
So body image issues are common. But still, how do you know if body image therapy is right for you? Even if asking for a friend? 🙂
See if you can related to any of these concrete examples of body image problems.
You look in a full length mirror, and your good mood disappears. Maybe you are naked after just having had a relaxing shower. Or fully clothed and doing a final check before heading out the door.
You automatically start attacking yourself in harsher terms than a bully ever would.
The harsh self talk may be so automatic that you don’t even recognize you are doing it.
Real life examples of critical thinking when looking at your own reflection in the mirror include: “My stomach is gross.” “If only I could lose ”x” number of pounds, I would be happy.” or even “I wish I could cut off these disgusting mounds of fat.”
Unfortunately, most women and girls can completely relate to negative body image thoughts.
Maybe you can relate too. Or perhaps you can relate so personally that poor body image seems like no big deal because of how normal it seems to think this way.
Negative body image is a big deal.
One way it is a big deal is the dislike of your body and/or features causes you to resort to extreme and/or chronic measures to ‘fix’ the problem. And you might not even know or care that the ‘fix- it’ attempts are risky. And often futile.
Intentional weight loss efforts are not effective in the medium or long term. Plastic surgery is not a magic bullet and carries many risks.
Both perpetuate ongoing patterns of futility for a lifetime. More often than not, they are ineffective. Especially in the medium to long term.
If you invest time, money, and who knows what else in an attempt to be comfortable in your body, you expect the method to work.
When the method does not work, you blame yourself and commit to trying again or stepping it up a notch. Wash, rinse, repeat. Days, weeks, years pass you by.
Another reason a terrible relationship with your body is a big deal is because it keeps your focus on trying day after day after day to improve on something (your body) that does not need improvement.
That energy of yours could be channeled toward soooooo many other pursuits. Or even in just being, self-compassionately, in the here and now, with what is.
Your body is not the problem.
What is the problem, if it is not your body? The actual problem is diet culture, healthism, weight stigma, and cultural standards of beauty.
We can’t change Diet Culture or societal standards overnight.
Instead, we can improve our relationship with our body, teach body respect to children, and over time cultural standards will change.
Body image therapy is part of the solution.
Back to the question of how to know if body image therapy is right for you?
Most people know what it is like to want to change something about their body. Maybe for example hair color (changeable). Or height (not changeable). The dislike does not cause significant anxiety and has little impact on your sense of who you are.
If you accept your body without dwelling on perceived flaws you generally have a positive body image. Body image therapy could be helpful for you to fine tune your body satisfaction. Or even to help spread the word through your own actions of the benefits of feeling neutral or positive in your own body. (Remember the diner scene in When Harry Met Sally? You could be the Meg Ryan character demonstrating the magic of positive body image. Onlookers will gasp, “I will have what she is having!” )
Because negative body image is more common than not, therapy for body image is even that much more impactful.
So, can you turn negative body image into positive body image?
The short answer: Yes!
The long answer: “Yes, and”. The ‘and’ refers to the simultaneous effort at eliminating weight stigma, diversifying standards of beauty, standing up to Diet Culture, and striving toward your own body neutrality. And eventually glorious embodiment. That is, actually feeling peaceful, at home, and dare I say even ecstatic in the body you have.
After all, it is where you will live your entire life.
And your body is THE instrument for sensory experiences.
The sight of a vast ocean or mountain range, the smell of cinnamon, the sound of a beautiful melody, or the taste of your favorite scrumptious food, can only be accessed through your body. Thinking of and treating your body as an instrument for pleasure rather than as an object to criticize is an example of what happens in body image therapy.
Feeling neutral and even satisfied in your body is your birthright.
If not now, when?
One of my missions in life is to encourage people to improve their relationship with their body, whatever the size or shape. I know it is possible. The amount of energy and creativity that body image therapy frees up is astonishing.
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.
Experts suggest you “embrace your Inner Sex Goddess” as if it were an easy thing to do. Even if you are well aware your negative body image is hurting your sex life, there is no on or off switch to change how you feel.
Especially if all you can think about is how “disgusting” your stomach looks and how “fat” your thighs are. And even more so if you are focusing on how to camouflage your body so your partner doesn’t see what you see.
For sure, negative thoughts running through your head provide a lousy set- up for foreplay or any kind of sexually satisfying experience – for you both.
Here are the ways your negative body image woes is hurting your sex life.
How you perceive and see your body affects desire and arousal.
The more negatively you think about your body, the more sexually inhibited you will be. All phases of the sexual response cycle are affected by disliking your body. That includes desire/interest, arousal, and orgasm.
Remember, the mind and body are connected, so thinking negatively about your body inevitably hurts your sex life.
Being critical toward your own body means you are less in tune with pleasurable sexual sensations.
You are less likely to want to have sex, to feel sexy, or to be present enough in the moment to experience the oohs and aaahs.
Feeling bad about your body limits your sexual expression.
Worrying about how you look means you are less likely to get naked with your partner. If you are disgusted by cellulite on your thighs, for example, you are unlikely to be comfortable with your partner looking at or touching your thighs. (Cellulite is normal, folks! It occurs in 80-90% of women.)
If you feel badly about your body, you may not be okay with your partner freely touching or exploring your body. Also, you may be so caught up in your own negative body image thoughts that you are not present to touch or explore his body.
Shame is associated with negative body image and with less satisfying sex.
Sooo many factors contribute to poor body image. A common one is a history of being teased. Let’s say you remember other kids in sixth grade calling you “Thunder Thighs”. Forget the fact it was fifteen plus years ago, and your body looks completely different now that you are beyond puberty.
Another common cause of negative body image and shame is the memory of how your mom talked about her own body and maybe yours too. Nonetheless, you still carry the beliefs, memories, and associated shame with you from that time. Shame and enjoyment cannot mutually coexist.
Due to boy dislike, the repertoire of sex positions is limited.
Self critical thoughts and feelings of disgust toward your body mean you are less likely to be playful and curious about different sex positions. Missionary style, perhaps under the covers and in the dark, may be the extent of what feels tolerable.
You may be unwilling to try a certain sex position because you think it makes your stomach look fat. At least give innovative sex positions a chance!
Dissociation from the moment is more likely with body dissatisfaction.
Critiquing your body size or shape takes up space in your mind and takes away from the present moment.
Being distracted with negative body thoughts means you are less able to access and experience the pleasure and intimacy of the moment with your partner.
Another reason for dissociation is a history of a sexual assault or other boundary violation. A negative sexual experience from the past can be triggered, causing a sense of being somewhere else other than in the here and now.
The most powerful ‘sex organ’ is your brain.
Your own thoughts and feelings about your body and your relationship with your body are what determine sexual satisfaction.
The key is not what you look or weigh. More moans of pleasure are available by addressing negative beliefs and thoughts your own brain generates. The only person who can do that for yourself is YOU.
Is Wabi-sabi the same as Wasabi, the horseradishy condiment?
Wabi-sabi is an ancient Asian philosophy centered on simplicity. It focuses on acceptance of life as is. It celebrates the beauty of things that are imperfect, temporary, and incomplete. It finds beauty in things that are modest and humble and unconventional. It is present-oriented. It is the embrace and reverence for imperfection. It is the joy of flaws. It is nature and humanity, connected and real.
Its principles are:
- Nothing lasts.
- Nothing is finished.
- Nothing is perfect.
These ideas are contrary to the ones that govern life in the 21st century. We tend to focus on the end goal. We fear, and we resist. We build defenses. We are drawn toward the shiny, the glitter, and the gold. McBigger = McBetter is the motto.
Of course, McBigger = McBetter does not apply to girls’/women’s bodies. (Yes, this is sarcasm)
We tend to define beauty in narrow terms. Beauty is a commodity that is sold to us, products or services promising us a perfect this or perfect that. Air brushed and Instagram filtered images are the standard to which we compare ourselves. Any blemish or scar must be eradicated, pronto!
Goddess forbid a body has any cellulite on it. Photoshop that sh*t immediately!
Why is there such disdain for what is real? What shows age? What nonconforms?
Ragan Chastain, a Fat Activist, talks about recognizing worth in all body sizes as a skill. To see beauty and worth in what may not be culturally sanctioned as worthy. THAT is wabi-sabi! Advertisers and other industries would lose tons of money, though, so they prefer to sell us what they lead us to believe we need in order to be of worth.
Who decides the standards for whatever we are evaluating?
Imagine the ease with which water flows in a river. Imagine the freedom of birds in the sky. Imagine the warmth of the sun.
Imagine the exhale that accompanies body acceptance. FEEL it, even more importantly. LIVE it, most importantly.
THAT is freedom.
Chant to come?
Yoga is not just for the svelte, green tea-drinking, virtuous types. We can all benefit from down dogging it, even from the comfort of a chair. Chair yoga is a real thing. As a famous yoga master said, “If you can breathe, you can do yoga”.
The whole purpose of yoga is to unify. That is what the word ‘yoga’ means – to yoke, or bring together. Yoga brings together the mind, body, and the deeper aspects of Self called spirit.
There are at least a thousand benefits of doing yoga. One benefit of a regular yoga practice is better sex. The way yoga affects sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm has actually been scientifically studied. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it…
One such study was published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. Women who did 22 yoga asanas (poses) a few times a week for 12 weeks reported increased desire and arousal and better (ie more intense) orgasms. The authors speculate it may be because yoga practice strengthens pelvic (mula bandha) and abdominal muscules (uddihana bandha). The improvement in mood associated with yoga practice is likely another reason for better sex. Being happier or at least less depressed or anxious, makes ‘getting in the mood (for sex)’ more likely. A third reason, and one of my favorites, is the internal shift in experience within the body that an ongoing practice creates. Ask any regular yoga practitioner about how her relationship with her body has changed after practicing yoga for at least a few times, and she will more than likely tell you something about improved body image. Yoga teaches us to tune into ourselves, our feelings, and our internal physical sensations.
No judgment, simply noticing and enjoying.