Body image is important because it is linked to our sense of self-esteem. Self-esteem describes how we feel about ourselves. It involves having a positive or negative attitude (it can be a mixture of both!) towards yourself.
If we have a lot of negative feelings towards our bodies, it is likely that we will not feel good about ourselves in general. Negative body image may mean that one has an inaccurate, distorted view of what they look like, and may feel shame, awkwardness and anxiety about their appearance. Often people with negative body image feel that their appearance takes away from their worth as a person. Poor body image has been linked to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, dieting and eating disorders.
Having a positive body image means that one has a realistic perception of how one’s body looks, and enjoys it as it is. This means that we understand that healthy bodies come in all fabulous shapes and sizes!
It also means that we understand that the way we look does not reflect everything about who we are as a person and our self-worth. It means that we learn to keep our sense of self-esteem separate from what we think about our bodies. This allows us to spend more time feeling good about ourselves, rather than stressing out over how we look. As a famous saying goes; our bodies are instruments, not ornaments!
Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is a psychological disorder which is a more harmful form of negative body image. People with BDD can become obsessed with parts of their bodies that they do not like, even if these perceived ‘flaws’ aren’t actually there. This is NOT the same as thinking you don’t look your best on a particular day, in a particular outfit, in a particular photo, etc.! BDD this is when these perceived ‘flaws’ consume your thought processes and your world begins to revolve around this ‘flaw’ and how you can ‘fix’ it.
BDD can affect a person’s life dramatically – their relationships, work, school and their feelings about themselves. A person with BDD is can experience anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, BDD is very treatable, usually with a combination of medication and therapy.
Many factors can affect your sense of body image. Here are a few examples;
- Looking at ‘perfect’, idealised bodies in the media. There are beautiful (often digitally altered) images of men and women at every turn – on social media, on TV, in films, on the front of magazines – they are almost impossible to avoid unless you run away and live in isolation (not ideal).
- Listening to comments, often from family and peers, about your appearance or that of others. It is easy to start applying the same way of thinking when judging your own appearance. The more we talk about appearances, the more weight we place on their importance. Appearance-talk is absolutely everywhere – from our own homes to school to TV to social media – this means that people can get into the habit of always talking about how people look and in turn thinking and talking about how we ourselves look.
- Admiring ‘dream bodies’ means that we develop body ideals. Almost everyone is guilty of looking at a celebrity at some point and thinking “I would kill for a body like that”. We often compare ourselves to these ideals (even if it is not realistic, and often not even real – cheers Photoshop and Facetune!) and forget to show love to the bodies that we DO have.
- How often we compare ourselves to others. This can be damaging to our body image as it can lead to negative thoughts about ourselves, if we feel someone else has something that we don’t.
- The experience of sexual, physical, verbal and emotional abuse can result in a negative body image. This may even include something that seems minor, like a playground bully teasing you about your appearance when you were young, or more serious situations of abuse, prejudice or discrimination.
Research has shown links between poor body image and sexual anxiety, resulting in being less satisfied with your sex life. How you feel about your body and how you feel about having sex often go hand in hand, as you are sharing your body with someone else, and this can make you feel worried and a little paranoid. We all know how difficult it is to relax and enjoy yourself if you are feeling self-conscious. Millions of people around the world experience this problem, and their sex lives can suffer as a result.
Here are some signs that your body image may be affecting your sex life:
- Insisting on ‘lights off’ sex, to hide your appearance from your partner.
- Having sex only in positions that stop your partner looking or touching particular parts of your body.
- Not actually fully enjoying sex, as you are too busy worrying about how you look.
- Only having sex under certain conditions, e.g. you have to be wearing a T-shirt, sex has to be an under-the-sheets affair.
- Feeling that your partner would rather be having sex with someone else, no matter how much they seem to be enjoying it with you.
- Arguments with your partner about how often you have sex, and the conditions that have to be met.
- Feeling you would enjoy sex more if you could change parts of your body that you don’t like.
- Feeling that your body isn’t ‘good enough’ for your partner.
If any of these ring a bell, don’t worry It is essential that people feel comfortable and respected during sex – for instance, you never ever have to have sex fully naked if you don’t want to. Putting pressure on ourselves to be confident may just compound the problem and make us feel more anxious! Confidence in any area of life takes time and experience. Also, you may be not sexually active yet, but the thought of someone getting up close and personal to your body in the future may make you feel quite anxious. The bottom of this page will suggest ways of learning to love the skin you’re in, or simply just care less about it! This may help you have confident, comfortable sex, now or in the future. Because you ARE worth it!
YES! Poor body image is not an issue exclusive to girls.
In fact, research has shown that body image has become a more and more serious issue among young men in recent years. While ladies are often trying to achieve a super-slim figure, or more recently the Kardashian-esque exaggerated hourglass figure, boys are looking to bulk up to achieve a chiselled, muscled, athletic body (these gender norms are getting old now, aren’t they?!). Young men are putting more and more pressure on themselves to build this toned and strong body, which we see all the time in the media. One only needs to look at a cologne or aftershave ad to know that this body shape the media favours at the moment – the bigger and musclier, the better.
Eating disorders are also becoming more common among young men. So, if you’re a lad and you feel like you’re having issues with your body image, you have nothing to be ashamed of. ‘Muscle dysmorphia’ or ‘bigorexia’ is a relatively new and worrying problem, which is particularly common among young men. People who experience this type of eating disorder typically obsess over their physique, worry that they are underdeveloped and underweight, and become addicted to lifting weights, strict diets, food supplements and sometimes other substances, such as steroids. So, as you can see, body image difficulties and eating disorders do not discriminate – they can affect anyone regardless of their gender or what body parts they have.
Your body is your home for life. Your relationship with yourself is the most important relationship you will ever have. Your relationship with your body specifically might change a little or a lot. Hopefully it will be an ongoing relationship of acceptance, love and respect, even if you two have bad days too! Here are some ideas that you can try to guide you towards a healthier attitude towards your bod…
- Create a collage, mood-board, note-jar or scrapbook, or keep a diary or journal, and include all the things you love about yourself. Keep adding every time you think of something positive about yourself. Try to focus more on things that you like about yourself as a person – not just about your physical appearance. For example, you might be good at speaking a foreign language, taking photographs or horse-riding. You might be kind, funny, resilient, a good friend….all things that no diet or surgery can ever hope to procure! Your physical appearance is only one (very very very tiny) part of YOU; making note of all these fantastic things about yourself can help remind you that there are so many other things that define who you are.
- Also – remember we don’t have to absolutely adore our bodies. After all, that can feel like a challenge in a world where we are constantly sold products to change the way we look. There is also a way of thinking called ‘body neutrality’ (as opposed to ‘body positivity) which assumes that the way we look is pretty insignificant in the scheme of things – which is actually a very refreshing way to view and value ourselves.
- Practice (and it does take practice) talking kindly to yourself! You can try using ‘positive affirmations’. This involves repeating positive phrases or sentences to yourself. Using good affirmations like these, while also taking deeeeeep breaths can help to relax you and put you in a better mood when you are feeling low about yourself. Try to talk to yourself like you would a best friend – kindly, respectfully and with tonnes of love!
- Be media savvy – learn more about what actually goes into making people look perfect in pictures. Many celebrities have described how much work goes into making them look their best; an army of make-up artists, hair stylists, photographers, lighting and a whole lot of Photoshop. They often have access to the best chefs, personal trainers, beauticians and products on the market, all of which contributes to making them look ‘acceptable’ for the extremely critical media and fame industry. It is important to realise that this is not realistic and is simply part of their job to look a certain way and make money for the people they are working for. Models have often said that it is a horrible experience watching someone Photoshop their image. A quick Google search can show you ‘before and after’ pictures of celebrities who have been photo-shopped or dolled up to the nines! Much more realistic, yes? And no less beautiful – beauty is subjective in that everyone sees and feels it differently.
- You can transform how your social media feeds look if you find they are impacting on your body image. Smash that unfollow button on any pages that don’t make you feel good! Actively seek out body-positive and body-neutral awareness pages – there are a pile to choose from! For instance, actress Jameela Jamil has led a very powerful and inspiring campaign called ‘I Weigh’ and is very active on social media in the fight against body shaming – have a peep!
- Introduce some mindfulness – this includes being very aware of what your body does for you every day, and is a great way to learn to love your body and realise how amazing it really is. Our bodies do not just give us our physical appearance, they allow us to grow, to play sports, to dance, to walk, dance, skip, hug, kiss… the list is endless. Our bodies are constantly working to keep us alive and well, fighting off infections and healing injuries, and allowing us to defend ourselves. Your body really does love you!
- Try using a guided meditation CD, where you relax your whole body, taking a hot bath or treating yourself to a massage or facial. Make time to do things like this that make your body feel better and recharge. It’s useful to also pay attention to what your body is capable of. Next time you are going for a run, dancing, swimming or stretching in the morning, picking up a pet or brushing your hair.…be aware of the strength and flexibility you have in your body and how it allows you to do all the things you love doing.
- Be wise about the company you keep! Sometimes if we hang around with people who are very negative about their own, or other peoples’ bodies, we can start to think in the same way. Try and spend time with people who have a more positive attitude. It’s normal to have discussions about body issues with your friends. However, if you feel it is happening very often and is bringing you or others down, try changing the subject, saying ‘I don’t really feel like talking about this’ or ‘I don’t feel comfortable talking about his/her appearance, it doesn’t feel good’, or try limiting the amount of time you spend with those people if possible.
- If you are worried that you or someone you know may be struggling with their body image and it is affecting their life, please talk to someone you know and trust; a teacher, parent, sibling, friend, counsellor, nurse or GP. There are organisations which work to help people overcome such issues. For example, BodyWhys offers many types of support to people with eating disorders and those close to them. The most important thing is to talk to someone, and decide where to go from there.