Article – Body image

‘The moment you change your perception is the moment you rewrite the chemistry of your body.’ Bruce Lipton

Imagine what life would be like if the way we looked held no weight and our food choices held no emotion.

Like many of us, I grew up surrounded by diets, people dieting, meal replacements, exercise fads and discussions about appearance. As a kid I was called ‘a looker’, being praised for my blonde hair and blue eyes, and having my appearance compared to my sister. Then, as a teenager, a friend told me she, ‘would love to have my body, but not my face.’ A crappy boyfriend advised me I was too chunky to wear jeans. Every magazine I read told me how to have a flatter stomach or get leaner, while the unrealistic images that accompanied these pieces brainwashed me with what I was meant to look like.

I am not alone in these experiences and we are not taught how to manage this information coming at us. And what it does, is set us up from a young age to think that the way we look holds far more value than it actually does. It is so important to build resilience in the way we see ourselves. Our body image is influenced by so many things and the impact of poor body image can be cataclysmic. As a sports dietitian I see everything from healthy, positive body image through to mildly disordered eating (skipping breakfast, salad for lunch and binging after dinner), over exercising, depression and anxiety and severe eating disorders. The goal is to keep our body image as healthy as possible to protect against the negatives. Working with body image issues, I see that knowledge is power. The more you can understand food and nutrition and how to develop and maintain a positive body image, the better your physical and mental health are and the better you perform in your sport and your life. 

Body image is how you see yourself, how you feel about the way you look, and how you think other people see you. Body image is made up of four aspects:

  1. Perceptual: how you see your body (which may not be how you actually look).
  2. Affective: how you feel about your body. How satisfied or unsatisfied you feel about your shape and weight.
  3. Cognitive: how you think about your body. And also, how much you think about it.
  4. Behavioural: how you behave because of your body image.

Even though our body image is an internal process, it is influenced by many factors and can change over time. When we receive negative feedback from the people around us about the way we look, perform and behave, we are at risk of developing dissatisfaction with our bodies. Being teased about the way we look regardless of our actual appearance, having a perfectionist, high achieving personality type and being exposed to role models (family and friends) who diet and worry about their weight, all increase our risk of developing a negative body image.

Social media is obviously a strong contributor to body image. Our social media feeds and magazines are full of digitally manipulated images and carefully crafted content, which are often completely unattainable, even for those pictured in the images. If your body image and values are not well anchored, constant comparison to unattainable ideals can result in body dissatisfaction and body image issues. Theodore Roosevelt said, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy,’ and he wasn’t wrong. If your self worth is too heavily influenced by your body image the risk of disordered eating and exercising increases.

 Positive body image comes from accepting and respecting your body as it is and appreciating what it is able to do, despite what society holds up as the ideal. A positive body image helps us to have more resilient self-esteem, better self-acceptance, healthier behaviours and a healthy outlook on life. It protects us against disordered eating and allows us to make decisions that are aligned with our core values rather than external influences. When we are making choices about food, exercise and life with a positive body image, we don’t look at our food as good and bad, it’s just food. We are more objective, intuitive and curious about the food we eat and we bring more balance to our exercise and training.

How can you build more resilient body image?

  • Make a list of all the things you appreciate about your body. What does it allow you to do?
  • Start every day writing down three things you are grateful for.
  • When you hear yourself say something negative about yourself, stop the sentence or and replace it with a more positive one. This one is so important.
  • Set yourself health-related goals rather than weight loss goals e.g.
    • What do you want for your body?
    • What do you enjoy about food?
    • How can you keep it healthy and active until you are old?

For example, I want to eat 3 cups of veggies and/or salad each day. I want to make sure I have 25g fibre every day from high quality carbs, veggies and fruit and focus on learning how to do that. I want 4 “hits” of protein every day. I want to make sure my nutrition supports life and exercise goals. I want to understand what sugar is so I can make my own decisions about how much of it to eat. Anchor your health goals into the bigger vision you have for your life.

  • Avoid comparing yourself to others by being clear on your core values and what you want for your own life.
  • Have good social media hygiene. If it makes you feel bad, unfollow. If you find you’re negatively triggered by something, reflect on why and then get rid of it. If it is suggesting you need to change the way you look, avoid it.
  • Question what you see in the media. Remember many images are digitally altered and not real.
  • When it comes to food and drinks, arm yourself with knowledge to let you be a critical thinker. The only way to combat the barrage of fad diets and media food hype is to build a solid core of nutrition knowledge. Find a sports dietitian to work with you to learn what you need to know about nutrition and your health.
  • Focus on what sparks joy in your life that is not related to the way you look.

You have the rest of your life to spend with you, so building resilience in your body image is very much worth it. The sooner you learn to love yourself for who you are, the sooner you get to love your life.

If you are worried about someone, are struggling with your body or have developed some unhealthy habits around eating or exercise, find a great professional to work with. You can contact me or alternatively The Butterfly Foundation and InsideOut Institute are two great places to start.