Women’s bodies are closely linked with their identity. One of the most fundamental parts of a woman’s self image and self esteem is her body image.
What is Body Image?
Body image involves your perception, imagination and emotions (Better Health Victoria). It encompasses:
- What we see in the mirror
- Our internal dialogue we have about our body
- How we feel about our body
Body image is not what we actually see or what others see. Our body image is quite different from our physical body.
Poor body image is often linked to dieting or eating disorders such as binge eating, anorexia nervosa, bulimia and to other mental health issues such as depression and anxiety (Better Health Victoria; Kausman, 1998).
Body image is a real issue. Research has shown that:
- 45 per cent of women in the healthy weight range think they are overweight.
- At least 20 per cent of women who are underweight think that they are overweight and are dieting to lose weight.
- Body image has some cultural links – for example, some research shows that Asian women, after moving to Australia, take on body image and diet habits that are not common in their own countries. (Better health Victoria)
How is body image formed?
A woman’s body image is formed as a result of her life experience, and it is further shaped by her comparisons with society’s stereotypes.
Our body image develops in childhood. Life experiences lead some people to relate to their bodies in a positive and satisfying way, others travel down a less enjoyable path. A large contributor to is our culture, for example, little girls know that Cinderella wins the handsome prince, not the ugly stepsisters! Children start to judge their own body appearance (Cash, 2008).
Also, your family has most likely taught you a lot about your own body. Did your mother have her own body image issues? Was she always dieting and complaining about her body? Our mother’s views of her body are often passed onto daughters.
The media also has a lot to answer for. Some research conducted with reality TV shows and body image and self-esteem showed that women who watched the a reality TV show on having cosmetic surgery to look and feel better about themselves reported lower self esteem that lasted for 2 weeks, compared to those women who watch a reality TV show on home improvement (Cash, 2008).
Every time we pick up a fashion magazine we are looking for guidelines to achieve attractiveness and happiness. When the magazine says we need to be 5 inches taller or 10 kgs lighter – we feel as if we don’t measure up (Cash, 2008).
Women’s Bodies linked to their Identity
Most women see their body as their “total being” and if they are overweight or experience any negative fluctuations in their weight they see themselves as a “failure”, and forget that inside their body is a valuable human being.
Many women think that if they embark on a strict diet they will be happier. They may feel great initially when they see the weight drop of, however, they need to sustain this for the rest of their lives to maintain it, and we all know that is not realistic. Who wants to sign up for a life of control, counting, restraint and deprivation?
Changing your external appearance won’t guarantee a lasting improvement to your self-esteem. Furthermore, body dissatisfaction in women is remarkably stable across their lifespan. No matter how old women are – they are never happy with themselves!
If we try to change our bodies without transforming our self and body image, the change will most likely be temporary. That’s because sustainable change needs to come from within. This partly explains why 95% of women who diet regain their lost weight and put on even more than when they started! (Kausman, 1998). The real reason why some women don’t feel good about themselves or overeat is rarely addressed.
Acceptance is the key
The key to feeling free in your body and becoming more self-confident is to accept yourself as you are, especially if you are overweight. This is not the same as resigning yourself to it.
Many women think that they have to beat themselves up about their bodies. They feel that if they accept their body right now it will never change. They often think “how can I accept my body when I look and feel like this?”
The simple answer is we can’t change anything that we don’t accept. If you don’t accept your current reality, you don’t own it. Instead of acceptance, women often turn to commendation, self-hatred and punishment. This strategy is unhelpful and can be very damaging to women’s self esteem. It does not create change – it suppresses what’s going on.
Let me share a case study from one of our client’s who attended one of our Transforming Your Self and Body Image programs.
A client (name withheld) came to the first group session and disclosed that she weighed herself every day. One morning she weighed herself and she was 1.5kgs heavier than the day before. She then went to her wardrobe and got out her ‘fat’ clothes, she went to work and felt terrible about herself. This event affected her whole day in a very negative way. She ruminated all day over the 1.5kg perceived weight gain and felt depressed. She was not productive at all that day at work.
That evening she came home, got out the scales. She weighed the same as what she weighed the day before (minus the 1.5kg from the morning weigh in). The difference in weight could have been down to many reasons, most likely being hormonal. This experience in the morning affected her day in a negative way. Her mindset, mood, disposition and interactions were all affected. This one event to lower her self-esteem and self worth.
Does this story sound familiar?
What’s the Solution?
A healthy, positive body image is very achievable. Every woman is entitled to feel great in her own skin, feel confident and free and also make peace with their body (regardless of their shape and size). A good healthy, positive body image is essential before we can learn how to eat and bring our weight within its proper range and keep there.
Next time you have a “fat day”, remember that it’s all in your head. Rather than rushing off to the gym, or trying the latest diet as a way to try to establish some form of control, remind yourself that your feelings are not linked to your physical body, it’s linked to your perception, imagination and emotions.
There is an alternative to yo-yo dieting, deprivation and constant anxiety. It’s called self-acceptance and working from the “inside-out” to make permanent changes which will lead to a more fulfilling and satisfying life.
- Better Health Victoria. Body Image and Diets. Retrieved on 25th March 2012 http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Body_image_and_diets?open
- Cash, T. (2008). The Body Image Workbook: An Eight-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks, New Harbinger Publications, CA: Oakland.
- Kausman, R. (1998). If not dieting, then what?, Allen & Unwin, NSW: Cross Nest.