Hi I’m Caroline, the clinical lead for My Possible Self: The Mental Health App. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, an opportunity for everyone to raise awareness and promote practical things we can all do to look after our mental health.
This year’s focus is body image. Whilst body image is intrinsic in all of us, it’s not something some of us can openly talk about. So let’s understand what it is before I give you 6 steps to feeling good about yourself.
What is body image and what does a healthy body image look like?
Body image is defined as “the subjective picture of one’s own physical appearance established both by self-observation and noting the reaction of others.”
So body image is about your perception of yourself and others and not reality. A healthy body image is the positive and realistic perception of the size and shape of one’s body.
Whilst young people I see are not usually referred for ‘body image’ issues, it’s in the background all the time. Children who are being bullied, who struggle to deal with a school’s no make-up policy or have difficulty with PE lessons are often struggling with negative body image.
Image, including body image, is very prevalent with young people as they are trying to identify the person they are or want to be. It is a key part of this developmental stage.
Our perception of self, starts at 8
As part of my doctorate to become a clinical psychologist many years ago, I ran published research with school children regarding body image (shape and weight concerns in primary school-aged children). We discovered that by the age of 8, children are more concerned about their body shape and weight than any other type of physical attribute such as facial disfigurement, being a wheelchair user or an amputee.
It reinforced the literature out there, that by the age of 8 both girls and boys are overly concerned with body shape and weight and added to the literature that they rated bodily shape and weight as being of high importance in how they see themselves. These perceptions are what drive body image.
Children were asked to pick which body images they most aspire to be by looking at a number of line drawings of boys or girls ranging from very under to very over-weight / obese. All the children aspired to the body image picture that was underweight. They generally deemed the underweight body image as normal which can set kids on unobtainable and unhealthy goals so perceptions are everything.
Perception not reality
Have a think about what you consider a normal body image to be? Do you have any examples?
We can often present ourselves in exactly the same way but feel that we look better one day than another depending on how we feel. It’s always hard to see yourself rationally and get a balanced, healthy perceptive. With that in mind here’s 5 steps to maintaining a healthy body image.
Feel good about yourself in 6 steps
1. Love yourself
Think about the positive things you like about yourself. We’re naturally good at spotting the negatives so sometimes we need to consciously consider the positives so that we all have a healthier, more balanced view of ourselves.
So instead of them saying, “I hate my…”, consider “I love my….”. It’s a great exercise to prompt your brain to think more rationally which leads to a more balanced, healthier body image. Instead of thinking what your body can’t do maybe look at what it can do.
If you’re struggling think about Stephen Hawking – look what his body has achieved!
Those that get into the habit of looking for the negatives, often then become very good at it. Some people have a negative mental filter i.e. those that keep hold of the negatives and let the positives pass through.
A positive doesn’t have to be massive, it can be anything. I work with people living with chronic pain so someone managing to put their own socks on that day when they’re struggling is a positive. For me, it’s hitting my five fruit and veg a day target. P.S. I don’t often hit this target – no one’s perfect!
2. Lead by example
One of my friends stands out as having a positive body image because she makes other people feel good about themselves with the genuine compliments she gives them.
Her mum had always been on yo-yo diets so I think that had an impact on her in a positive way – she’s lucky in that respect.
She’s very kind so she would never be critical or judgmental of someone’s weight. If you can learn to become more positive about yourself then it will rub off on others.
3. Think about others in a similar boat
If you’re struggling with something, imagine what you would say to someone you cared about if they were feeling the same way, what would you say to them?
Innately we tend to be kinder to other people than we are to ourselves. That desire we have to want to make things better for people means that we’re less judgmental of others than we are of ourselves.
Practicing this technique will prompt your mind to think in a more rational way which is healthier.
4. Try not to draw comparisons with others
It’s easy and very human for us to compare ourselves to others even though we know that we shouldn’t. We know that can have a negative effect on our wellbeing. So rather than battling against this urge, try to accept that you’re having those feelings and acknowledging that they aren’t helpful. It’s much easier and effective to think in this way than battle against something.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is all about accepting the feelings and thoughts that we have and looking at the function behind these. Generally, they are probably trying to make things better for you but getting it a bit wrong. Accepting rather than challenging them allows you to move forward in a meaningful way.
5. You can only try your best
Humans aren’t perfect, perfection is only a perception that we all perceive differently. If you see a friend struggling, try to support them in the best way you can. If they don’t want that help then you’ve got to listen to that and move on. You can only try your best.
Be mindful giving compliments such as “You look well” can sometimes be perceived as negative, “oh so I don’t look well the rest of the time”. Such a negative translation can be a reflection of their own body image or negative style of thinking and not you. You can’t account for everything so just go with what you think helps.
6. Be compassionate
Taking care of your body through your eating habits, sleep and activity levels is important in developing a positive body image.
Making any sort of lifestyle change is hard because it takes you out of your routine. If you are looking to change something about your eating or activity or other lifestyle issues then make sure you reward yourself when you do meet smaller bite size milestones.
Try the exercises above and see how you go. If some don’t work out then don’t beat yourself up about it. Some will work better than others.
At the end of the day, doing your best (but not all of the time) is all that you can expect, knowing that mistakes are how we learn and develop.
If you’re looking for longer term ways to tackle unhelpful thinking then take a look at our Tackling Unhelpful Thinking module available as part of a subscription to My Possible Self. We’re the mental health app that uses clinically proven content to reduce stress, anxiety and low mood.
Have a lovely day. 🙂