The Nuances of Body Image

People with and without eating disorders struggle with their body image; for some, it becomes a clinical concern whereas for others, it’s more of a nuisance. Either way, it can be helpful to understand the different components of body image and why curiosity and neutrality are the key to stopping bad body image moments from ruining your day.

Different Components of Body Image

There are three main components to body image

  1. How you perceive your body – what does your body look like in your mind’s eye? When you look in the mirror?
  2. How you believe others perceive your body – what do you think other people think about your body?
  3. How you feel in your body – how does your body feel? What physical sensations do you notice? How does your body take up space?

For some people, their concerns are focused around one component, whereas others have concerns about all three. Some folks experience dysmorphia, where what they see does not match reality due to the influence of their eating disorders. For others, they experience fatphobia, which significantly impacts how they view themselves and how people and society view them. Different life experiences can also impact which aspect of body image is most distressing, such as pregnancy, childbirth, illness, stress, or trauma.

The Importance of Curiosity

Approaching bad body image days with curiosity can be helpful because often there are underlying issues or stressors that are influencing how we see our bodies. For example, I recently had a client come to session saying her body image “tanked” and she didn’t know why, but it was causing distress. When we showed some curiosity toward her shame and anxiety, we realized it had a lot to do with an argument she had had with her husband a few nights before, which left her feeling disconnected from him. She noted that when she feels lonely, she starts to critique her body, as if her body is the reason for the disconnection. Another client was feeling more anxious about her body and realized that this was largely due to an upcoming trip where she had to fly and was worried about fitting comfortably in the airplane seat. By showing curiosity rather than judgment, we can validate both the body image concern and the adjacent issues as well.

Body Neutrality

You may have heard this term before, as it is slowly creeping its way into pop culture, but it basically means being grateful for what your body can do and not actively hating how it looks. This can be incredibly difficult for clients who have spent years, decades even, hating their bodies. For some this is rooted in unrealistic body ideals, and others it’s trauma. Finding ways to speak more kindly to your body can be incredibly beneficial to healing your relationship with your body. On days where you don’t like how you look or you’re feeling uncomfortable in your body, show some curiosity (like we talked about earlier) and then ask yourself what your body has done or will do for you that day. Maybe your body helps you play with your child or do a task at work or walk to your neighbor’s house. Maybe it helped you cook a wonderful meal for your family or write a paper or even flip off someone while driving (although we don’t condone this!). The more you practice body neutrality, the easier it becomes, especially when you surround yourself with people or social media accounts that are doing this too. By normalizing neutrality (or even positivity or liberation) via the people around you, you might be more likely to believe it about yourself. Yes, this will take time, but getting to a place where your body image doesn’t ruin your day is worth it.