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What is body image? (Part 1)

And, where are you at with it?

Body silhouette

Photo credit: Annie Spratt

 

You are your body. Without it, you have nothing.


When we are born and come into this world as babies, our bodies are praised as a miracle. And, it is quite miraculous - the development of fingers, toes, hands, feet, etc is amazing. When we’re kids we may be encouraged to show that body to the world, unabashedly. As we grow, things change. We start to receive messages and model others.


By 3 years old, we are aware of different body sizes and between 3-6 years old, we already have preferences for thin bodies and negative attitudes towards fat ones.


The experiences we go through as humans shape our relation to our bodies early. Generational trauma, weight stigma, diet culture, racism, loss of autonomy, ableism, gender norms, athletic endeavors, genetics, social media, what is modeled to us, etc, etc can get in the way of experiencing our bodies as they are and ultimately, erode our sense of self.

Likewise, we can be confirmed that our bodies are good, are ours, and that we can trust our bodies to tell us what we need. This can bolster our sense of self.


My goal today is to explain what body image is and help you understand where you may be with it. ‘Body image’ is a term we throw around quite a bit yet never really define, and it is important to do so. Next post, I’ll write about how to work on body image and move into embodiment.

What is body image?


What is the body image spectrum?


 

What is Body Image?


Body image is a multidimensional construct that informs how we view our external appearance.


Body image is a multidimensional construct that informs how we view our external appearance. It is informed by 4 inputs: perception, affect, cognition and behaviors.


These inputs interface with factors related to family, religion, gender, ethnic, health and sociocultural influences. Things like: appearance ideals, which vary between cultures; gender dysphoria; athletic pursuits; social media and religious expression. All affect how we experience our bodies and what body we feel is desirable.

  • Perception: One day, you wear baggy clothes and you feel ‘small’. The next, you wear tight clothes and you feel ‘big’.

  • Affect: How are you moving about the world? When you feel down, low, tired or sick how do you feel about your body? Our mood affects our body image and vice versa. Feelings are expressed physically and emotionally through our body.

  • Cognition: What is your narrative? If you tell yourself you are ugly and unworthy, then that probably won’t make you feel good about how you look. These are often internalized.

  • Behaviors: Are you weighing yourself multiple times a week? Eating nourishing meals? Comparing your body to others? Behaviors affect body image.

These inputs affect our body image on a daily basis, as they interface with the world around us and create a sense of self. We make sense of the world and express ourselves through our bodies - just think sport, dance, tattoos, sex and more.


Our body image is formed in relationship with ourselves, others and the norms around us.


What is the body image spectrum?


Body image falls on a spectrum between dissatisfied, neutral and accepting. We do not feel a certain way about our bodies all the time. It shifts and changes in our lives, as our bodies and circumstances shift and change.


Your body will change and how you feel about it will too.


Body Dissatisfaction


Many people are dissatisfied with their bodies. Body dissatisfaction is defined as negative thoughts and feelings of a person about their body. It generally implies a perceived difference between how they view their bodies and the ideal they hold.


According to the Health Behavior in School-aged Children 2013–2014 study of European and American adolescents, at the age of 15, 40% of girls and 22% of boys are dissatisfied with their body weight.

Body dissatisfaction wears on our relationships, both with ourselves and others, and on our quality of life and mental health. We do not view ourselves as we actually are and we de-value ourselves based on how we feel we look.


We end up thinking so much about our appearance but are never truly in our bodies or present with our lives.


Neutrality


When we’re in a neutral place with our body image, we can accurately sense our body’s appearance and may not love it. In this space, we’re able to practice behaviors that feel good to us despite not always loving how we look.


Body Acceptance


With body acceptance, there is a favorable opinion about your body despite how it looks. There is also a rejection of norms and an orientation towards practicing behaviors around the body that are supportive, despite whether or not they are socially acceptable. This could mean things like not wearing makeup each day, showing off a tattoo, engaging in a nourishing meal or getting off of certain social media sites.


In recent years body acceptance and body positivity has been marketed to us, and commodified. I want to emphasize that you choose if body image is a concern and if you want to work on it. It is also unsafe for some of us to move about the world in our bodies, which makes body acceptance a hard and radical act.


Where to go from here?

Think about where you are at with body image now on the spectrum described above. I find with many clients, our issues with body image go deep…deep into self-worth. As you consider your body image, you are considering worthiness. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • When did you learn you had a body?

  • What did you learn about bodies growing up? What didn’t you learn?

  • When was your body image more accepting? What was going on in your life then?

  • What challenges your body image?

  • What supports a more neutral or accepting body image?

  • What would accepting your body mean for your life?

Be on the lookout for my next post around how to work on body image and move beyond body image into embodiment.


If you, or someone you know, is struggling with body image, contact me!


With hope,

Kate


Works cited:

Grogan, S. Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children, 3rd ed; Routledge: New York, NY, USA, 2016; ISBN 9781317400431.

Cash, T.F. Cognitive-behavioral perspectives on body image. In Encyclopedia of Body Image and Human Appearance; Academic Press: London, UK, 2012; Volume 1, pp. 334–342. ISBN 9780123849250.

Tort-Nasarre G, Pollina Pocallet M, Artigues-Barberà E. The Meaning and Factors That Influence the Concept of Body Image: Systematic Review and Meta-Ethnography from the Perspectives of Adolescents. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021; 18(3):1140. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18031140

Tatangelo G, McCabe M, Mellor D, Mealey A. A systematic review of body dissatisfaction and sociocultural messages related to the body among preschool children. Body Image. 2016 Sep;18:86-95. doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.06.003. Epub 2016 Jun 25. PMID: 27352102.

Inchley, J.; Currie, D.; Young, T.; Samdal, O.; Torsheim, T.; Augustson, L.; Mathison, F.; Aleman-Diaz, A.; Molcho, M.; Weber, M.; et al. Growing up Unequal: Gender and Socioeconomic Differences in Young People’s Health and Well-Being: International Report from the 2013/14 Survey. 2016. Available online:

http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/303438/HSBC-No.7-Growing-up-unequal-Full-Report.pdf?ua=1 (accessed on 18 November 2020)



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