Body image, whether it’s good or bad, everyone seems to be talking about it. I’ve previously written about body confidence and how important it is. But it’s not quite as simple as saying “it’s important”.
I can’t remember ever being ok with my body; of course, I probably was when I was a toddler, when I had no idea that judging one’s body was even a thing, but as far back as I can remember, I’ve looked at bits of my body with disappointment or even disgust and generally felt it’s overall too big.
There, confession out the way…
I think it’s safe to say I’ve had pretty poor body image.
I was told, when recovering from anorexia that I had to put on weight, no matter how I felt about it, I had to do the physical stuff first and my mind would catch up. I cannot remember the number of times I was told I would feel better about my body given time. I see the logic, they all say you have to feed your brain before you can have therapy that will help with the thoughts and feelings.
People recovering from anorexia find weight gain really difficult, being underweight is a fundamental aspect of the disorder. It’s not about vanity, poor body image goes hand in hand with the disorder that strips you of your value and worth.
Unfortunately, my brain has never caught up, I’ve been weight restored for many years now and I’m just as judgmental about my body as I’ve ever been. It doesn’t matter whether I’ve been severely underweight or a healthy weight, I had a poor body image through the lot – I think what I think is justified, others disagree…
Some people have extremely positive body image, take Jessica Kellgren-Fozard for example, she has a disability that impacts her life and her body but she absolutely loves her body and is very open about it! Seriously, this girl is awesome! Follow her on YouTube!
There are various techniques, such as positive affirmations repeated regularly (even if you don’t believe them) that are meant to help with positive body image. This feels so far beyond what I could manage, given the strength of the negative feelings about my body! Pretending to be body positive is false (for me) and being false is as aspect of my illness I wish to walk away from, I used to “fake it til you make it”, I would fake being happy to please everyone else but it didn’t work and this just added to my feelings of guilt, shame and failure!
Body neutrality, however, could be within reach! Being neutral towards our bodies is about not necessary liking our body but it’s about accepting it. It’s ok to have flaws, to notice them but be ok with them.
I can see objectively that my body is healthy so I could I look at what it’s done and be positive about that?
I’ve severely abused my body, I’ve forced it beyond its limits. There’s no body system, from my bones to my gut that’s been untouched by the gruelling demands I’ve placed on it. And yet, it digests food efficiently, it keeps me warm, it’s carried me through some half marathons, my brain is pretty quick at mental maths, my hands enable me to make beautiful jewellery, to play emotive music and to knit wonderful creations; I’m not boasting or saying my body is better or worse than anyone else’s, I’m just stating the facts. Although it malfunctions due to chronic illness, there’s a lot is does pretty well!
Body neutrality is about being able to stand in front of the mirror and say “I accept my body how it is”. It may let me down occasionally but that’s because it’s working pretty dam hard. I’m not going to let it down, I’m going to look after it and try to keep it healthy.
Of course, I can say these things, I can state facts about my body, it may be a few steps until I fully accept my body as it is!
As someone who’s suffered from anorexia, I get fed up with people thinking it’s all about vanity. Thinking you look so ugly that you want to stop existing is so much more serious than taking excessive pride in one’s appearance. Vanity is about loving your looks, anorexia is about considering your worth in relation to how badly you’ve treated yourself (ie you’re worth more if you’ve starved yourself to lost weight).
Body confidence is a massively underestimated subject.
Parents often observe their toddlers having fun with their looks, they like dressing up, putting on Mum or Dad’s shoes or having their face painted, they might look ridiculous but they also look incredibly cute as they laugh and smile at themselves in the mirror, often even kissing the mirror in shear delight at how they look.
At what age does this stop? At what age do we gradually slide down the pit into hating how we look, poking bits of our body in disgust, looking at portions of our body and planning how to get rid of it?
Body confidence isn’t about how you look, it’s about the way you think you look.
Here are a few stats about why, what young people think about how they look, is important:
- 6/10 girls are choosing not to do something because they don’t think they look good enough
- 31% of teenagers withdraw from classroom debate because they don’t want to draw attention to the way that they look
- On days when they don’t feel good about the way they look, 1/5 skip class
- If a young person doesn’t think they’re thin enough they will score lower grades than their peers who are not concerned with looks. This is data has been gathered from Finland, the US and China, and it is true regardless of how much you actually weigh. This is probably true across the world but not enough research has been done into this area.
This continues into adulthood as 17% women would not show up at a job interview on a day when they weren’t feeling confident about the way they look.
Low body confidence is known to lead to:
- Taking less physical activity
- Eating less fruits and vegetables
- Low self esteem
- Being more easily influenced
- A higher risk of depression
People with low body confidence are more likely to use alcohol, drugs, cosmetic surgery, unhealthy weight control practices that can lead to eating disorders, unprotected earlier sex and self harm in order to make themselves feel better.
So what do we need to do about it?
1. Educate for body confidence in schools. There are 6 core themes that need to be addressed:
- Teasing and bullying
- How we talk about appearance
- The influence of family, friends and relationships
- Media and celebrity culture
- Competing and comparing looks
- Respecting and looking after yourself
2. Be better role models – as adults we need to be mindful about what we say and do. We need to think about how we compliment each other and in particular what we post on social media.
3. Work together – this isn’t an issue we can leave to schools to deal with, we need to work together in communities, at a government level and in the work place to improve body confidence for all.
We need to work towards ensuring we:
- Value ourselves for for who we are and what we do rather than how we look
- Value individuality, each one of us is unique and that’s beautiful
Low self esteem can be a painful condition and many of us suffer in silence, unaware of the damage being done, unaware that there is a way out.
Throughout my mental health journey, I was asked numerous times if I had low self esteem, I would struggle with this question. The definition of self esteem is:
“Confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect”
Since I did not believe I had any worth or abilities, how could I possibly have confidence in them? I did not believe there was anything about me to respect. Therefore, the question baffled me because if there is nothing to feel good about how could I rate it as low or high? It’s only since my self esteem has improved have I realised how rock bottom it was and I had previously been viewing myself through a distorted lens. Once the cycle of low self esteem started, add in mental illness and you soon reach no self esteem!
We build a picture of ourselves and our self esteem grows from a combination of the following:
- Experiences at home, school, work and in the community
- How other people react to you and treat you
- Illness, disability or injury and how those around you cope
- Your own thoughts and perceptions
- Culture, religion and societal status and role
- Media messages
Problems associated with low self esteem include:
- Feelings of fear and anxiety – an all consuming fear of doing something wrong, looking stupid.
- Isolation and avoiding new situations – these things can feel too overwhelming when you assume you won’t be able to cope.
- Staying quiet and not sharing thoughts or ideas, not initiating conversation – anything to avoid looking bad, stupid of inept and avoiding rejection.
- Underachieving and lacking ambition for fear of not coping or being rejected,
- Or overachieving – constantly working inordinately hard to prove worth and competence to self and others, striving for perfection and perceiving failure if it’s not achieved.
- Seeking or remaining in destructive relationships through fear of not managing alone.
- Depression – persistent low self esteem with negative self-talk can lead to other symptoms of depression such as low mood, not sleeping, poor appetite etc
- Hypersensitivity – assuming negative thoughts from others leads to being on the look out for these signs that confirm these fears. These could lead to acting on a sign that wasn’t perceived accurately (for example a compliment will sound sarcastic). Sometimes people will throw out “tests” to see what people think of them.
- Lack of assertiveness – anxiety and fear can lead to difficulties sharing feelings and asking assertively for needs to be met. This can lead to people being passive and being “walked on”, which can lead to a build up of pressure and aggression being expressed as being defensive, sarcastic, brusque or even rude. Putting other people down (not necessarily deliberately maliciously) may be a way of covering up a low self esteem. Being passive-aggressive is common, examples include being manipulative, planned tardiness, throwing out cues for others to pick up on and gossiping.
- Obsessions or addictions can be a way of coping or covering up. From workaholic behaviour through to developing serious mental illness such as anorexia or obsessive compulsive disorder with intrusive thoughts etc
- Behaving in a needy way, relying on others for direction and trying to please others.
None of these are meant to be criticisms but it’s helpful to know that people behave in all sorts of ways, unintentionally, in order to manage such a negative feeling. It may be helpful to realise that you have low self esteem and that how you’re managing it is having a negative impact on you and the people around you. If you notice other people’s behaviour is annoying, unhelpful or irrational, this may be the tip of the iceberg and it might be worth thinking about whether their self esteem is playing a part, the real root may be hidden.
My lack of self esteem was mostly internalised and exaggerated as I turned to self punishment.
I became depressed, used self harm to manage my emotions and hid inside anorexia to manage strong negative feelings about myself. Once I was on my road to recovery and I was able to reflect on some of my unhelpful thinking I became very aware of my fear of arrogance – my overwhelming fear of my head being too big had pushed me so far in the other direction I was suffering for it! A balance is important. (Arrogance is unattractive, and while some people may think it’s got them places, I never want to venture down that path.) I can be assertive while using humility to keep arrogance at bay!
It is really important to boost your own self esteem and the self esteem of those around you and to avoid unhelpful coping patterns. Here are some tips:
- Stop comparing yourself to others – a trap a lot of us fall into, thinking it helps us know where we stand but it’s unrealistic as we’re all unique with different abilities and strengths. Get to know yourself rather than thinking you need to be the same as someone else.
- Don’t strive for perfection – some people believe only God is perfect, others believe it does not exist. Being OK with “good enough” was one of the best things I ever did for my recovery. Don’t get me wrong, I love my perfectionistic streak (it’s part of who I am) and I can turn it on if I want to but I keep it in cheque!
- Make mistakes – it’s natural, it’s the way we learn and it’s fun! They will happen, there’s nothing we can to avoid them so we may as well enjoy them! Apologise if necessary, learn what we need to, treat yourself with compassion and move on – that’s the most important bit!
- Focus on the things you can control – focusing on our worries and the things we can’t control leads to a downwards spiral of negativity. Instead, if we look at what we CAN change not only will we feel better but we’re more likely to actually achieve what we want.
- Talk to yourself in a positive way – imagine recording a repeater tape with “I’m no good, I can’t do this, I’ll never achieve anything” – if you didn’t believe it in the first place, you will after a very short time! This is what goes on inside the head of someone with low self esteem. Instead, we need to replace it with “I can do this, I’m an OK person” etc. Work out what you want and tell yourself you can do it! If someone you know has low self esteem, make sure you are their positive repeater tape – without prompting tell them they are lovable, tell them what they’re good at, tell them they’re unique.
- Do things you enjoy and help others do the things they enjoy – having low self esteem makes you focus on the things you’re no good at. For once, just relax and do something you know you’re good at – go to the park and read a book, spend some times stroking your cat, make a smoothie, do some weeding. Anything! Helping other to find something they enjoy has its rewards – it will improve their self esteem and you might find something new and fun too!
Breaking out of low self esteem can be hard. It’s especially hard if its become habitual to behave in these ways over years and years. But improving self esteem will improve every aspect of your life! Feeling better about yourself will mean you will be able to:
- Communicate better, which in turn improves relationships, from intimate relationships to work colleagues to acquaintances.
- Manage challenges better – challenges come along, they can defeat us or make us stronger depending on how we approach them.
- Managing illness better – one of the biggest improvements I’ve seen is that when I’m unwell I’ve started asking for what I need instead of assuming I don’t have a clue and hoping other people will know better than me!
- Get what you want out of work – being honest about whether you want to achieve highly, be a CEO or whether you want something else – don’t let your self esteem dictate whether you over or under achieve!
- Have a healthy work-home-life balance – everyone’s different and needs/wants different things out of life. We should not allow our self esteem to allow us to be dictated to by others. Working out what works for us as a unique individual is vital for a healthy life!
If low self esteem is caught up in mental ill health, external support will be vital, recovery is tough but I wouldn’t give up my journey for anything. I’ve learnt so much about me and those around me, my life has been enriched by the experience. Wherever you are on your journey or whether you’re journeying with someone else, I hope my blog has helped in some way.