Body image is the subjective sense we have of our appearance and the experience of our physical embodiment.

It is built from memories that go back to our childhood. It is also influenced by wider social and cultural standards (viz. The media). In the west the message 'thin is beautiful' carries great power. The result is for women and even quite young girls to be very concerned with the shape and size of their bodies. It can also affect men, though not to the same extent. In this leaflet, we will be dealing with female body image, though some of it will apply to men.

  1. Problems with body image
    • Feelings and thoughts. If you have a very poor body image, you are likely to be preoccupied with some features of your appearance. You may wish for different looks, you may compare yourself constantly with others; you may always see yourself in a negative light. Your anxieties will intensify your thoughts and feelings.
    • Behaviour. Poor body image can stop you going to parties, doing sports, wearing fashionable clothes, etc. You may even try to disguise the parts of your body you don't like. It may interfere with romantic relationships because you are afraid of another person getting close to you and touching you.
    • Self-esteem. Your feelings about your body may become a barometer of how you feel about yourself as a person. Your obsession with your body may make you forget that inside it lives a valuable human being with unique gifts and qualities.
    • Blinkers. By making superhuman efforts to give your body the right shape, you may miss other opportunities in life and fail to develop your potential. There is so much futility and waste in hating your body.
    • Depression. You may feel so negative about your life and your future prospects because of how you look that you become depressed. Common symptoms of depression include low mood, feelings of worthlessness, constant fatigue, sleep problems, lack of appetite, etc.
    • Eating disorders. The subjective sense that we have of our appearance often doesn't correspond to our objective shape and size. People with eating disorders usually over-estimate their size, and although they may look normal or thin to an observer they feel quite differently inside.
  2. Persistence of a Negative Body Image
    • The myth that 'thin is beautiful' and attainable. The myth goes something like this, 'if only you worked hard enough at dieting and exercising you would be thinner and acquire the right shape.' Buy into this myth and you perpetuate it. Only a minority of women are genetically programmed to continually fall within the narrow weight range of the cultural ideal. For most women the fashionable shape is unattainable. This has always been the case. Every society contrives to promote body images that elude the majority.
    • Internalised negative script. Your body image is built up from experiences of how you were cared for as a baby, a toddler and later a child. The messages you received from your parents and peers will have made a difference, and how you used your imagination to make these experiences your own by internalising them. The negative script was created over many years, but it can be changed.
    • Fear of change. Any change, even for the better, can be scary. Faced with change we are always tempted to maintain the status quo. Perhaps you used your negative body image to stop you from taking responsibility for making important changes in your life, because they felt risky to you. But in choosing to make no changes, your life can become stuck and mired in your anxieties.
  3. Improving your body image
    • Shift your attitude. As one woman put it, 'unless you feel beautiful inside, you will not see your outer beauty, let alone believe or enjoy it.' You can look attractive to others yet feel fat and ugly inside. The inner shift has to come first and it doesn't happen overnight. You need to move from a position of disliking or even hating your body to a position where you are treating yourself with compassion and willing to learn how to appreciate yourself. However awful you may feel about yourself, it is very likely that deep down inside you there is a small voice that wants you to feel better about yourself and your body. Find this voice, listen to it and strengthen it.
    • Challenge distorted patterns of thinking.
      1. Emotional reasoning. 'I feel fat, therefore I must be fat.' You are assuming that how you feel reflects how things really are.
      2. All or nothing thinking. 'My thighs are big, therefore I'm totally unattractive.' You see everything in black and white terms.
      3. Discounting the positives. 'I can't stop thinking about my flat chest.' You pick out negative details and dwell on them, and completely ignore all the positive aspects about yourself.
      4. Changing positive feedback into negative thoughts. If somebody says to you, 'You look really well', you might turn it into, 'that means I have put on weight and am getting fat.' Or you might think, 'They're only saying that to please me, they don't really mean it.' With all of the above, say 'STOP' to yourself and deliberately replace the negative thought with a positive affirming one, even if that feels slightly strange to begin with. Learn to accept and enjoy compliments.
  4. Practice positive affirmations. Affirmations can serve as antidotes to the destructive, toxic messages that you give yourself. They can be a powerful tool for inner transformation and healing. Even if you are disappointed with your body, you need to develop a compassionate way of relating to it, because a change for the better can only follow from greater self-acceptance. For example:
    • 'I'm alright just the way I am.'
    • 'I like myself.'
    • 'My legs are strong and powerful and they work well for me.'
  5. It's even better if you create your own affirmations. The more imaginative and self-affirming the better! Always make them positive: e.g. 'I like myself' rather than 'I don't hate myself.' Repeat them often, place them on cards, stick them around your room, and carry them around. The goal is to deliberately reprogram some of the deep, largely unconscious, wiring that has been causing you so much distress. If you encounter a strong internal resistance to an affirmation, don't give up. Check where it's coming from- there may be important clues as to why you don't yet wish to let go of your negative body image.
  6. Exercises Our imagination can help us to get in touch with the intuitive and emotional aspects of ourselves more easily than the logical mind. We can use our imagination to take us a step further in our efforts to transform our body image.
    In doing the following exercises make sure that you won't be disturbed or interrupted.
    Exercise 1
    Choose three words or phrases that best describe your negative feelings and attitudes about your body, and write them down on separate pieces of paper.
    Arrange the pieces in a pile with the one you identify with most at the bottom. Focus on the top piece of paper. Imagine that it's a kind of garment that you are wearing. Make it as vivid as possible. Notice the colour, shape, texture, etc.
    This garment is one of the ways in which you define yourself. Explore how it feels to be defined in this way. What sort of thoughts, sensations, feelings go along with this self-image? Explore how this self-definition affects your self-esteem, your relationships, your peace of mind- in other words how does it limit and affect your whole life?
    In your imagination, now take this garment off. Notice how it feels to be without it. Is there a shift in your feelings, sensations and thoughts? Examine what it is like to be without it. What do you gain? What do you lose?
    Follow the same steps with the other two pieces of paper, finally of course dealing with the word/phrase that you feel is closest to you. When you have finished, rest quietly for a while before starting some other activity.
    In doing this exercise regularly, you can see if you are able to gradually let go of some of your negative self-definitions.
    Exercise 2
    This involves writing a letter to your body and your body writing back to you. You have two sheets of paper. On the first one, write a letter to your body as though your body were a person. Try to write continuously without censoring anything. Then put this letter aside.
    Now close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and try to identify with your body. In your imagination become your body and experience how it feels to receive the letter. Stay with the experience for a moment or two.
    Now using the second sheet let a response from your body form itself in your imagination. Once again don't censor anything. Just write without stopping.
    Finally sit quietly for a while and reflect on the exercise. What have you learnt? The purpose of this exercise is to open up a channel of communication between you and your body. Constructive mind-body communication will ease integration, harmony and self-acceptance.
  7. Changing your behaviour List the things that you avoid because of the way you feel about your body. Then put them in order from least feared to most feared. Using this list gradually change your avoidance behaviour. Suppose the least feared is wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt. In spite of feeling self-conscious and anxious, try wearing it on a few occasions, even just keeping it on at home. When it becomes easier, try the next item on the list. You will start to gradually regain your sense of control.
  8. Cultural issues related to body image At different times different female shapes have been fashionable. During some eras, today's cellulite, i.e. dimpled flesh, was a sign of beauty and health. A slim silhouette, so fashionable today, was considered sickly and unattractive. In the 19th century, a tiny waist was in vogue, and to acquire it, women practiced squeezing their bodies into corsets, bruising their internal organs and sometimes breaking their ribs. In China foot binding was considered the height of fashion, resulting in a stump that could hardly be walked on. The ideal in fashion is usually difficult to attain, elitist, and highly competitive. It requires time and money. If too many women attain it, then the ideal changes to become elusive once more. Gaining a wider and wiser perspective on the changing ideal of perfect shape and size may give you a more critical view on the absurdities associated with body image. Restricting food intake, worrying about calories, endlessly finding fault with yourself bring little in the way of peace of mind, happiness or fulfilment.

For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.

For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.

For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.

For beautiful hair, let a child run his/her fingers through it once a day.

For poise, walk with the knowledge that you never walk alone.

People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed,

revived, reclaimed and redeemed; never throw out anyone.

Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of each arm.

As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself and one for helping others.

Audrey Hepburn