"Are you Being Kind to Yourself?" - Investigating the Effects of Body Image.
Updated: May 17
The focus of Mental Health Awareness Week is “Body Image” and a report by Mental Health Foundation asks how do we think and feel about our bodies. The report reveals that 10% secondary school boys would consider taking steroids or missing a meal in order change how they look, whereas 46% of school age girls admitted to worrying about their body.
The pressure to have the “ideal body” affects everyone at any age. This pressure stems from childhood, and views towards body image are consolidated by parenting style, culture, race, age and sexuality. What messages did you grow up with around body functions, hygiene and self-care? Puberty can be a confusing time as some cultures celebrate changes in the body whereas other people’s experience can be surrounded by taboo and secrecy. How was food explored, over compensation shown through food or treats are only on certain special occasions? Common misconceptions are that weight, looks are a sign of "having it all" or a lack of self-control - reflect on what you are projecting?
When life is chaotic or stressful, a quick way to regain control is the body. This control is displayed by counting calories or comfort eating and intrusive harsh self-talk. The impulse to correct weight is perpetuated by media messages such as the "ideal body". According to the report, for men the ideal body is tall and muscular and for women is thin with curves. In therapy, time is taken to explore the need to control weight and often it is symptomatic of deep emotional needs not being met. There can also be an increased sense of isolation and anxiety when the body is experiencing change such as illness, ageing, post-pregnancy or dying
Do we view our bodies with a sense of shame or pride? In the age of the “selfie” when you look at a photo of yourself do you instantly hear an internal list of criticisms? Uncomfortable feelings such as shame or disgust are expressed by how we treat and view our bodies. Notice the amount of time spent comparing and despairing on social media or around friends. This can lead to chipping away at self-esteem and increased stress about body image. The oppressive swinging from too much, too little – never quite right and in extreme cases can lead to eating disorders or body dysmorphia.
I notice how disconnected we are from our bodies due to “living in our heads”. Often the heady part of us is noisy, demanding, creating lists, rationalising and trying to make sense of everything. The body is way ahead - of the head! It is communicating to us all the time what we like, when it is safe. A client maybe curious about shoulder ache, I will ask “What does it look like? If it could speak what would it say?” Pain is something to be honoured – what is it telling us?! Be curious!
Another powerful method working with body image is exploring inner child. Often the child part of us will hold shame and anger at how it was treated during childhood. Connecting with inner child can be a useful way of recognising what was abusive, healthy and identify needs that did not get met. Start by finding a picture of yourself at a young age, how is that looking at yourself in this way and meeting your inner child. Notice any feelings and see if you can stay with the feelings?
Recommendations from the report by Mental Health Foundation include a spring clean of social media, being mindful of how you feel about your own body appearance, consider unfollowing accounts which lead to lower self-esteem. Also to model healthy behaviour by eating well, exercise and encourage statements that veer away from looks or appearance and to cultivate a sense of being kind to yourself.
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Access the report from Mental Health Foundation.