Negative body image has some surprising effects. For the sake of this discussion, “body image” refers to 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.
How, you ask, is your family tree part of the mix? Well, genetics are passed on from generation to generation and represent your family tree.
Much of body size and shape is determined by genes.
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. 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 are 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 more of a struggle.
Hence, negative body image is hardly benign, even if it’s 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.