Suzanne Manser, PhD

Licensed Psychologist

The Skinny on Changing Your Body Image

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BODY IMAGE

Do you know the definition of body image? It’s one of those concepts that we all kind of know what we mean, but not exactly. Body image is how you see, feel, and think about your body. It is how your brain interprets your body, and its various parts, on any given day, in any given moment. Body image is usually categorized as “positive” or “negative.” It can change, and it can be different for different body areas.

Body image is not simply a reflection of how your body looks. Though it is related to what you see in the mirror, it’s about how you see it. Your body image is how you feel about your body. Your body image is reflected in the things you say in your head and out loud about your body and the way you treat your body.

Your body image is your interpretation of your body. This is key. We are trained to interpret our body in a specific way, with specific standards that have nothing to do with anything except the diet industry’s profits. We are trained to interpret our body specifically based on its size and appearance and to believe that a certain size and appearance is most valuable. We can be re-trained.

The skinny is that we don’t have to feel bad about our bodies, or see or think about them negatively, regardless of what may be happening with them. Changing our body image takes some work, but it is hands down a healthier path than deciding that your body must be different to be acceptable. How we interpret our body is much more in our control than our body size is.

Though society does train us to value our bodies in very specific ways, society is not entirely to blame (or we’d all have terrible body images all the time. Oh wait ….). Body image is complex; it is processed in nine different areas of the brain. It is influenced and impacted by a variety of factors. Once we understand what influences body image, we have the strategies to change it.

BODY IMAGE INFLUENCES AND CHANGE STRATEGIES

Body-related messages

Let’s start with the most easily identifiable culprit – society. We have a beauty standard that we apply to all bodies, as if all bodies are actually supposed to look the same. If your body varies from this ideal, you are substandard and less valuable. It’s more than a little ridiculous when you stop and think about it. But we don’t stop and think about it, which is a problem. We buy the beauty standard as if it were truth. We take in all of the messages we’ve received about bodies, including from our family, friends, and the media, and apply them to our body. We expect our body to look the way others tell us we should look.

If you want to change your body image, one hugely important strategy is changing how you take in body-related messages. You don’t have to see them as truth or believe that your body is related to your worth.

How we feel about ourselves

Body image is how we feel about our body, which – and hopefully this is not a surprise – is related to how we feel about ourselves. If we feel like we’re not good enough, we are going to feel the same way about our body. If we carry shame about ourselves, we’ll feel shame about our body. If we love ourselves, it is much harder to hate our body.  If we accept ourselves, we don’t judge our body.

How we feel about ourselves matters. There are lots of ways to get on the paths of self-love and self-acceptance.

  • Naturally, I believe psychotherapy can be extremely helpful. So can many other healing modalities and strategies. One brief session of equine therapy changed my life.
  • Practicing loving-kindness, firing your inner critic, and practicing self-compassion are three on-point strategies to try.
  • You can also practice this iffirmation several times a day for two weeks: “What if it’s possible that I am acceptable and worthy as I am, without having to change anything?”
  • Notice how the people around you (including those in your social media feeds) make you feel about yourself. Move closer to those who make it clear how acceptable and loveable you are.

Mood, stress level, and sleep

Body image is also influenced by mood, stress level, and sleep – factors that can color how we see the world in general. When our mood is crappy, and we’re stressed and haven’t slept enough, we are much less likely to feel good about anything, much less the thing we’ve been trained to feel bad about. We’re less likely to be running our own show; we let the crappy mood, stress, and tiredness run things. Our thighs suddenly seem extra ridiculously, embarrassingly huge. We cannot put up with our belly for another second. When just yesterday, they didn’t seem quite so terrible.

It is not your thighs’ fault. Your belly has not grown three sizes overnight. We need to look elsewhere for explanations.

Mood

To change your mood, pay attention to what you’re focusing on. If you are focused on being upset about your mood or the thing that caused it, you will likely stay upset.

  • If you can acknowledge your mood, be willing for it to change, and then focus on something meaningful, uplifting, or funny (and keep bringing your focus back when it wanders), you can shift your mood.
  • Connect with someone who makes you feel good. Read something or listen to something that makes you feel good.
  • Get into nature, or wherever your happy place is, if you can.

Stress

To reduce stress, locate the source(s) of the stress and notice which parts of it you have control over. Those are the parts to focus on.

  • Consider high-level changes, like changing the thing that is stressing you (job, relationship, amount of news you consume).
  • Practice deep breathing or mindful meditation to engage the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce the body’s stress response.
  • Connect with a friend or pet; experiencing connection and attunement reduces stress.

Sleep

If you are not consistently getting enough sleep, there are steps to take.

  • It is important to decide that getting more sleep is valuable, as a starter.
  • Plan on going to bed at least eight hours before you plan to wake up (if you’re a procrastinator, plan on going to bed nine hours before waking up). If this is a leap from where you currently are, start slow. Go to bed 30 minutes earlier tonight and for the next few nights and step it down in 30-minute increments.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene: don’t exercise for 3 hours prior to sleep; put screens away at least 30 minutes prior to sleep; have a going-to-sleep routine (e.g., brush teeth, wash face, journal) to indicate to your body that you are getting ready for sleep.
  • Waking up at the same time each day also helps.

Big Picture: Change Your Focus, Not Your Body

Did you notice that none of the strategies I’ve discussed involve changing your body? What your body looks like is such a small slice of the body image pie (if you don’t believe me, pay attention to how many people with “good” bodies are dissatisfied with them). It is almost irrelevant to your body image – you will find a way to be unhappy with your body if that’s where your head is.

Most of the strategies for changing body image are based in changing our focus, paying attention to something more useful than body judgment. We can only change our focus when we are aware of it in the first place. Start by spending a day or a week paying attention to all the ways your body image shows up. Notice how you see your body, how you feel about your body, and how you think and talk about your body.

Once you are aware of when your focus is on your body image, you can do something about it.

  • Move your focus away from negative body judgment whenever you notice that your mind has wandered in that direction.
  • Remind yourself of your goal of changing your body image.
  • Remind yourself that you don’t have to pay attention to how your body looks or what your weight is and that they have zero relevance when it comes to your worth or fabulosity. The things we tend to focus on with such intensity – our looks and our weight – are not usually relevant to our ability to thrive in life.

The natural next question is, “What should I focus on instead?” It almost doesn’t matter, as long as it is not negative body judgment. But it’s a good idea to have an “alternative focus” ready ahead of time.

  • You could think about what would help you thrive in life.
  • You could think about what you love about your best friend.
  • You could think about a TV show or podcast.
  • One of my favorite suggestions is to focus on body neutrality. Having a “neutral” body image is not focusing on the body as a point of judgment at all. Body neutrality reminds us that the purpose of the body is not to look a certain way, but to allow us to live (you know, that little thing). There is nothing to judge about that.

When we think and feel about the body through a body neutrality lens, we are paying attention to how our body is allowing us to experience life. There are lots of ways to practice this.

  • Notice all the ways your body is working in this moment. If there are parts that aren’t working as well as they could be, you can notice that too.
  • Focus on the best parts of being alive, or the best parts of today, and what role your body plays in those moments.
  • Appreciate that your body just does all its thousands of jobs, that together keep you alive, without you having to do anything other than eat, drink, and sleep. We get so much for doing so little. And still we aren’t satisfied (Myself included. I am still offended by my belly if I’m not paying attention).

IN CONCLUSION

Body image happens in the mind, not the body. We need to stop trying to feel better about our bodies by trying to change them. Diets don’t work in the long term for almost anyone, and they require significant sacrifice on just about all fronts after the initial excitement wears off. The damage they cause to our self-esteem and self-acceptance is tragic.

You can drop the weight of body judgment and change your body image. Without changing your body. Pay attention to which factors make you feel bad about your body, see it as unacceptable, and think about it as if it is not you. Change those factors. Focus on other things. Figure out what is meaningful about your body and focus on that.

Can you imagine what life without a negative body image would be like?? Seriously. Imagine it, vividly. And then take steps in that direction. The only thing keeping you back is your mind, and you can change that.

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