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.