Understanding Body Image And Learning To Love Your Body (Just The Way It Is)

Millions of Americans struggle with body image, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to love the skin you’re in.

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I’m not sure when it hit me that I cover my mid-section when I’m alone. In the car, fully clothed, I still grab for a sweatshirt from the back seat and drape it across my lap. I sit in the living room with a pillow against my stomach. I’m 35 years old, and I’m as uncomfortable in my own skin as I was as a 12-year-old still learning to make sense of hips and breasts and stretch marks. I want to love my body. I want to. But the words “positive body image” leave me gasping for breath. The first time I made myself throw up, I was 14. That was more than two decades ago, and yet I carry bulimia around with me every day, a devil perched on my shoulder urging me toward the toilet. I am healing, but I don’t know that I will ever be healed. And I know I’m not alone. In a 2009 University of Central Florida study of girls just 3 to 6 years old, half already worried about being “fat.” A third said that if they could, they’d change at least one physical attribute. The numbers hardly improve from there. In a Dove-sponsored survey conducted in 2016, 85 percent of women and 79 percent of girls said they opt out of day-to-day activities (from sports to spending time with family) when they don’t feel good about the way they look. Nine in 10 women said they’d keep themselves from eating if they weren’t feeling good about their looks. For some, it stops there. For many, struggles with body image take them into dangerous territory. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) estimates that at least 30 million people suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. That’s people of all ages and genders. ANAD’s statistics show that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. So how do we combat that? How do we face a society rife with photoshopped models and fat-shaming tabloids only to come out on the other side with a happy, healthy mind and positive body image? Can you be that mom on the beach rocking a bikini with her tiger stripes out there for all the world to see—or the woman in the mall wearing a tank top, her upper arms bare and tanned? I’d like to be her one day. But learning to love my body just the way it is has made me face one salient fact: I need to understand body image before I can form one that’s positive.

What is body image?

It seems self-explanatory, right? Body image is the image you have of your body. But according to Lauren Smolar, program director at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), the concept is much more nuanced than that. “Body image is how you see yourself when you look in the mirror or when you picture yourself in your mind,” Smolar tells HealthyWay. “It encompasses what you believe about your own appearance, how you feel about your body, how you sense and control your body as you move, and how you feel in your body; [it’s] not just about your body.” In other words, our body image isn’t just visual. It’s mental. It’s emotional. It’s physical. And it’s ever changing. “We hear the idea of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ body image quite often, but in fact, body image isn’t that simple,” says Ashley Solomon, psychologist and executive clinical director of Eating Recovery Center. “It’s never all good or all bad, and it’s not static. It’s constantly evolving, even as we move throughout our day.” Studies have found that the way we look at and feel about our bodies can be complicated by everything from the way different manufacturers cut clothes to the images in the media. And it’s not simply what we see in media but how the world around us responds to that media. In one study performed in Nicaragua, for example, a group of 80 men and women who lived in a small town that had little exposure to Western media were shown images of thin and “plus sized” (the term used by the researchers) models. The study determined that exposure to the images shifted the participants’ perception of ideal female body size. The women internalized it, but the men also had their views skewed by the imagery. Feeling judged based on impossible standards only exacerbates the problem. Writer Roxane Gay has long been a vocal opponent of fat shaming, all while sharing her own body image struggles with the world in frank and poignant essays. In her recent New York Times best seller, Hunger, Gay wrote, “This is what most girls are taught—that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space. We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us.” Bucking those expectations is not easy. And yet, for all the bad news, for all the statistics, there are the success stories. There are the people who love their bodies or at least accept them. There are the people who have struggled and have come out on the other side. So what’s the difference between them and people who tear themselves down? It may come down to how our brains work, says Kimberly J. Ujcich Ward, PhD, a professor in the department of psychology at Middle Tennessee State University who specializes in body image and children. “Research with individuals with anorexia and bulimia suggests that certain brain areas seem to be negatively impacted in those who inaccurately perceive their bodies and/or are dissatisfied, especially the parietal lobe (somatosensory cortex),” Ward explains. “Recent research across medicine and psychology (especially neuropsychology) [has] been working to try to more clearly define the brain–behavior relations and to evaluate the neuropsychological and body image connections over time.” Other risk factors for body image concerns include biological ties to someone who has struggled with mental illness, especially an eating disorder, and living with conditions that are diet controlled, such as diabetes. A parent’s difficult relationship with their own body image—particularly a mother’s—can also heighten your risk, especially if they are vocal about it in your presence. Your risk of developing an eating disorder also jumps if you identify as LGBTQ, have a history of dieting, have suffered from weight-related teasing or bullying, or struggle with an anxiety disorder.

Positive or Negative?

The facts and figures sound daunting, but body image can and does go either way. There are hundreds of thousands of women (and men) out there who love their bodies. Nor is every single bad thought about yourself proof that you’re doomed. Simply feeling like you don’t look good in a v-neck shirt at the mall is not a sign you’re going to have an eating disorder. Nor is it symbolic of “negative body image.” “Negative body image is a distorted perception of your shape—you perceive parts of your body unlike they really are,” NEDA’s Smolar explains. “This can mean you are convinced that only other people are attractive and that your body size or shape is a sign of personal failure, you may feel ashamed, self-conscious, or anxious about your body, and you feel uncomfortable and awkward in your body.” Positive body image, on the other hand, is what Smolar calls a “clear, true perception” of your shape. “You see the various parts of your body as they really are,” she notes. “In addition, you celebrate and appreciate your natural body shape and you understand that a person’s physical appearance says very little about their character and value as a person. “You feel proud and accepting of your unique body and do not spend large amounts of time worrying about food, weight, and calories and you feel comfortable and confident in your body.” Clinicians tend to speak of the two sides of the coin in terms of satisfaction. There’s body satisfaction and there’s body dissatisfaction. Treating the latter means helping someone find their way toward the former. But as with anything else, there are degrees. “It’s really important to note that even people with an overall positive body image can have plenty of critical thoughts or negative feelings about their bodies,” Solomon points out. “What’s more important is how much those thoughts and feelings take a front seat.”

Is there a better way for us?

It’s the push for overall positive body image that’s led to the body positivity movement, a grassroots effort that’s been gaining steam on the internet in recent years. Linked to the fat acceptance movement, the trend dates back to the 1990s, but it’s social media that’s amplified voices from people who were long ignored by traditional media, people who don’t fit into the ideals once favored by mainstream magazines. Instagram is now home to hashtags such as #LoveYourBody and #EffYourBeautyStandards. Bring them up on your phone, and you’ll find not dozens or even thousands but millions of images from people working out, showing off bodies in a variety of sizes and colors, and proudly proclaiming their confidence. Alongside them are photo sites like the 4th Trimester Bodies Project that allow women to celebrate their changing bodies in the wake of pregnancy. Simply looking to them may be a way to find our own sense of peace with our bodies, Solomon says. “We can learn some wonderful things from people who have a good relationship with their bodies,” she explains. “Our research has started to pay more attention to these people in recent years to determine just what we can learn. People that have a positive body image tend to see their bodies as functional—they help serve a purpose and a greater good. They tend to treat their bodies well by fueling them with regular meals and water, getting enough sleep, and moving regularly. They are grateful for the gifts that their bodies give them, like carrying a child or running a race.” Another key facet of body positivity comes in embracing change. People who have high rates of body satisfaction tend to recognize that their bodies will change, be it over time or through different experiences. They accept it and often embrace it. That is important, Solomon says. “Body acceptance doesn’t mean loving every nook and cranny of our bodies or always feeling happy with the way that we look,” she points out. “It means deciding that you will stop fighting against yourself and actively commit to treating your body well.” Solomon calls it body peace—making a truce with your own body and accepting the status quo. “We don’t have to like each other, but we have to co-exist and show respect!” she says. “Body peace starts with some important basics—dropping the punishment and nourishing your body well. For me, just getting enough rest is an important way that I cultivate body peace. Practicing gratitude can also be an opportunity to build a stronger awareness of all that your body allows you to do.” Author Lindy West is known for fighting the internet’s body shaming and calling out the concept of the perfect body as a lie. Coming to love her body, however, is not a perfect process either. As she put it in her memoir, Shrill, “I hate being fat. I hate the way people look at me, or don’t. I hate being a joke; I hate the disorienting limbo between too visible and invisible; I hate the way that complete strangers waste my life out of supposed concern for my death. I hate knowing that if I did die of a condition that correlates with weight, a certain subset of people would feel their prejudices validated, and some would outright celebrate. I also love being fat. The breadth of my shoulders makes me feel safe. I am unassailable. I intimidate. I am a polar icebreaker. I walk and climb and lift things, I can open your jar, I can absorb blows—literal and metaphorical—meant for other women, smaller women, breakable women, women who need me. My bones feel like iron—heavy, but strong.” There’s no magic pill to get us to that point. But Solomon likes to say that our bodies are vehicles for our values. “How can we show kindness to them so that we can do the things we love and be the people we want to be?” she asks. “It can be easy to fall into the trap of believing that we’ll love and appreciate our bodies a few less pounds from now, or if we were a few inches taller, or if that skin cream works a little harder. I see my patients fall prey to a lot of the industries that profit off of all us hating our bodies and selves. It’s hard not to, especially when they invest billions in convincing us that we are not quite good enough. But we are good enough, even without any special creams or diet foods.”

What if I don’t love my body?

Okay. So loving your body is good, even when you can’t do it all the time. But if you’re not there yet, that doesn’t mean you need to feel left out in the cold. “Being an advocate of positive body image doesn’t always mean loving your body 100 percent of the time,” Solomon says. Instead, it means creating an environment in which all body types are embraced and valued. To that end, she advises people to:

  • Stay away from discussions that talk about food or weight in a negative light, such as avoiding discussions of food as “bad” or “good”
  • Refrain from talking about calories
  • Not comment on weight loss or gain for yourself or others
  • Engage in “media literacy,” thinking critically about the appearance-related media messages you see, hear, and read

Finally, don’t buy into the hype that a “perfect” body type will solve your problems. “Everyone is different, and genetics can influence one’s body shape, weight, and size,” Solomon says. “One’s ideal body weight is the weight that allows you to feel strong and energetic rather than the size the media thinks is acceptable. If someone is struggling with their body image in a society that promotes an unattainable ideal, we encourage them to celebrate all the good things their body allows them to do and recognize that their self-esteem and identity comes from within.” If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or an eating disorder, there is help available. Please call the National Eating Disorders Association’s toll-free hotline: 1-800-931-2237. 

Jeanne Sager
Jeanne Sager is a writer and photographer from upstate New York. She has strung words together for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and more.