Relationships between women and their bodies can be complicated, and the pandemic certainly didn’t make it easier. Perhaps your favourite pre-pandemic jeans don’t fit, and shame has kept you home. Or maybe you have avoided a long-awaited gathering with friends because societal pressures don’t make you feel good enough to be seen. If you or someone you know has said, “you don’t like the way you look, “you wish you looked like that other person,” or “there’s something wrong with me,” — you are not alone.
We spoke with Karma Stanley, the in-house Nurse Case Manager and Advisor at Inkblot Therapy, who is extremely passionate about body image and works to be an advocate for weight inclusivity and health in every size. She told us about body image issues ranging from how body image affects mental health, how it influences body image, and how to improve body image and self-esteem.
What is body image?
Body image is a mental and emotional reflection of what you think you look like, feel when you see yourself in the mirror, and react and respond to your body. Body image also accounts for the features that make you, you. Stanley shared that, unfortunately, “people have the misconception that there’s an ideal weight and that overweight equals unhealthy, which is simply not true. We want to ensure we are taking steps to make sure we have a healthy [physical] body.” She says, “weight commentary, glorifying thinness, [and] muscularity really have negative stigmatizing effects on our brains. We are constantly trying to reach a goal that is not attainable or not sustainable.” Mary Jelkovsky, a body-positive advocate, often featured in TedTalks, cautions that “our bodies are not an image, [they are] an experience.”
So, how do we make body image a positive experience?
Positive vs. negative body image
Body image is dependent on mindset. To understand the difference between positive vs. negative body image perspectives, Stanley told us a story about a student in her nursing program who said: “I feel so fat!” The professor responded by asking, “Do your legs walk you around every day and get you where you need to be?”
In asking these questions, Stanley says her professor was able to “shift [the] focus from parts of the body [her colleague wasn’t] happy about [to being] grateful for what [her] body does.” While her colleague viewed her body image negatively, her professor showed her the positive side and to be grateful. Positive spins on body image are ramping up more thanks to the body positivity movement, shifting the societal narrative away from the “perfect body” or “ideal body” to accepting all bodies regardless of size, shape, gender or physical abilities. It celebrates stretch marks, cellulite, and smile lines, with which social media influencer, Brittnee Blair, is familiar. She’s dispelling expired social constructs and wants “to live so fiercely in [her] own skin that hopefully, it inspires others to do the same.” A positive body image view correlates with higher self-esteem and healthier mental well-being.
Unfortunately, negative body image is still pervasive in society. Stanley says, “if a person is having negative thoughts, it often provokes feelings of anxiety that you want to withdraw or step away from.” Individuals, especially women, may avoid social gatherings, struggle to achieve academic or professional abilities, and lack confidence. In this way, negative body image views are linked to lower self-esteem and lower mental health, leading to unhealthy eating and potentially causing physical illness.
How does body image affect mental health?
Body image and mental health may only mean one thing: you don’t feel good when you don’t like your body. “Body image impacts all parts of our minds and bodies, so we want to make sure we have healthy bodies to help us operate well. We also want to make sure we are protecting our psychological health,” explains Stanley. Unfortunately, many women believe that their body reflects their value. According to a 2022 Ipsos study, more women than men reported having issues with body image, linking self-worth to weight, grappling with feelings of guilt and low self-esteem. It could lead to body dysmorphia, disordered eating, depression and anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. This is why body image is so important, especially for women.
What influences body image?
Body image is influenced by society, our upbringing, and the rising tide of social media. Stanley shared that “biological factors influence how you may look…[and] psychological factors influence how you process and interpret those messages you are receiving all the time.” Interpersonal factors force us to think about the kinds of people we hang out with, especially what our family situation looks like and what went on in the home. She talked about food and body image related to restrictions and whether or not people had a “parent figure who [restricted] foods, asking questions like, do you really want to have that?” Stanley pressed that “parents need to be mindful not to put those restrictions in place.” However, social media and body image concerns could be the most influential.
While social media has connected us, it has also disconnected us from ourselves and our bodies. Research conducted by Simon Fraser University proved that Canadian women with higher internet use had an increased rate of body dissatisfaction, and Stanley says it may be because we are constantly comparing ourselves to one another. “People post pictures…[that] are just a visual image and people comment, making it hard not to compare.” She says, “while comments may be well-meaning, they perpetuate the concept called complementary weightism: whereby individuals will think they are being complementary and say something like “you look great, have you lost weight? Have you been working out?” However, Stanley says this only perpetuates the problem. “Complimentary weight-isms reinforce the stigma that thin is better, making the person who receives the message believe that they look best when thin.” She said we need to “refocus our messaging and offer feedback not related to their appearance.”
How to improve your body image and self-esteem
When we asked Stanley how to help someone with negative body image, she said we need to avoid complimentary weightism and “be mindful of the language we are using and reframe our comments.” She also suggests focusing on the emotional and behavioural elements by using positive statements such as, “it’s so good to see you — it looks like you are feeling happy!” The goal should be to remove weight bias and honour the individual.
Other ways to improve body image and self-esteem
- Take a break from social media.
- Set health goals such as goals drinking more water.
- Implement grounding practices like deep breathing.
- Leave a positive trail of notes around the house.
- When moisturizing, greet each body part with a “thank you.”
- Make sure you are setting expectations for how you want to be treated.
- Encourage people to circle back and look at their emotional responses.
- Look at things about ourselves that we feel good about and the accomplishments that we are making toward healthy bodies.
- Respond to comments without using complimentary weight-ism, and respond with emotional messages because you will feel better and someone else will feel better.
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