Body Image: What’s it all about?
The word “body image” is such a common buzz word these days that we are immune to it. We see it all over blogs and news sources, but do we really know what it means? Do we really understand our own body image? It seems to be this vague, nebulous term that has lost its meaning.
But it is important to understand it. Everyone has a body image. No thanks to the media and blatant societal messages, many people have a pretty unhappy image of their body. Have you ever met anyone who is 100% happy with all aspects of their body? This unhappiness can lead to all sorts of problems. On the more severe spectrum, those problems can be eating disorders, anxiety, depression and medical issues that result from disordered eating and/or over-exercising. More mildly, one’s preoccupation with his body can lead to missing out on things he values in life.
Body image is not only defined by how we see our bodies with our eyes, but also how we see our body with our minds. It’s not just what we physically see in the mirror, but the thoughts, feelings and reactions we have to our bodies.
There are also different subcategories of body image disturbances. You can read more about this in Sandoz and Troy’s “Living with your Body and Other Things You Hate” (a book I would highly recommend if you find yourself struggling with body image). To break these categories down:
Body Image Distress: Feeling sad, nervous, disgusted or overwhelmed when you think about your body, or capture a glimpse of yourself in the mirror.
Body Image Distortion: Seeing your body inaccurately. In this case, you get the sense that you see your body in a very different light than others see it, i.e., your flaws, in your eyes, are exaggerated and blown out of proportion.
Body Image Dissatisfaction: Constantly comparing yourself with a perfect, impossible ideal. This, in turn, can lead to an exhausting preoccupation in attaining that perfect ideal. A woman may pour over images of Beyonce and wonder how much money she needs to save up to get calf implants. A man may be spending countless hours in the gym and spending more than he can afford on trainers and protein dietary supplements to look like his favorite running back or inside linebacker.
There’s also body image avoidance and body checking, which I think of being on opposite ends of the spectrum. Body checking is obsessively and compulsively checking your body to see if it measures up to what you want or imagine, rather than seeing/accepting it for what it is. Body image avoidance is different ways one may avoid looking at or thinking about his own body.
If you any or all of the above ring true to you, you may have a high body image investment. This essentially means that the thoughts about your body are tied directly in with your success, your relationships and your worth as a human being.
Many people think that they must always operate this way; they must always struggle with how their body image impacts their daily lives and their self-esteem. Please know, this isn’t true. Therapy can help unpack these issues and cope with body image in a different way. The goal, at least in my therapeutic approach, isn’t necessarily to magically cure all body image issues forever. Rather, it’s to shift the focus from the obsessive preoccupation to your deeper values—i.e., what’s really meaningful to you, what really gives you joy and satisfaction.