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Body Image & Mental Health: Part 3

Updated: 4 days ago

Illustration of nine people with diverse bodies.

So far in this series about body image and mental health, we have covered some of the basics about how these issues relate to and affect each other.  We also discussed some of the populations who are disproportionately affected by negative body image and resulting mental health challenges.  In the third part of this series, we are going to look at some basic building blocks for improving body image, which can pave the way for positive changes in mental health. 

Accepting, Neutral or Positive Body Image?

Body positivity has become somewhat of a catch-all phrase when we talk about breaking down weight, size, colour, and shaped-based stigma.  It is important to note that the term “body positivity” may not resonate with all people, especially those that face additional challenges in society like illness and disability.  It can be helpful to break the concept of body positivity down into different components, such as body acceptance, body neutrality, and body positivity.  Body positivity can be understood as a social movement that emphasizes the celebration of all bodies regardless of size, shape, colour, gender markers, or physical abilities.  Body acceptance can be understood as accepting your body for what it is, how it looks, and what it can do - regardless of your satisfaction with how it lines up with society’s idealized bodies.  Body neutrality is an effort to maintain a state of mind where one is at peace with their body, what it can do, and its limitations - a nonjudgmental, mindful approach where one is at peace in their own skin.  In this series of posts, we are utilizing the term body positivity, however we encourage you to find the wording that best embodies the relationship you want to have with your body image.

Improving Perceived Body Image

Perceived body image is the subjective way that you view yourself, informed by the messages you receive from the world around you.  One of the best ways to safeguard your perceived body image is to be vigilant about the content you consume.  If your social media feed includes content about dieting, exercising, and undergoing procedures to fit a certain ideal, blocking and restricting those posts can be a way to regain control of body image.  Another tip is to be intentional about the people you rely on for advice or guidance about your body.  This includes setting boundaries with friends, family and coworkers about your wishes not to discuss certain topics (such as weight, diet culture, or criticizing others’ looks).  When presented with a point of view that makes you feel uncomfortable about your own body, an important question to ask yourself is “who stands to gain something from making me doubt myself?”  The diet industry in the US is projected to be worth over $90 billion in 2024.  By making folks feel dissatisfied with body image, and offering ways to change that image at a cost to consumers, there is profit to be made by promoting insecurity.

Improving Behavioural Body Image

Behavioural body image involves the things that you do to maintain or change how your body looks.  This may involve dieting, exercising, cosmetic procedures, and utilizing things like shapewear to achieve a desired aesthetic.  Being mindful of the behaviours that help you and those that harm you is the first step towards improving your behavioural body image.  Restricting calories, overexercising, and taking diet aides are just a few of the behaviours that can cause physical harm when someone has poor body image; furthermore, they can perpetuate the cycle of poor body image when one doesn’t feel they are meeting the physical ideal they have in their mind.  Improving behavioural body image skills can involve things like eating intentionally (eating things you enjoy that make you feel good, make your body feel nourished, and power you throughout your day), exercising in a way that celebrates movement and promotes harmony in your life, and practicing self care in forms that are meaningful for you.  This can be a tricky road to navigate on your own, and working with a therapist and other specialists such as a doctor and registered dietician may help you walk that path confidently.

Improving Affective and Cognitive Body Image

Affective body image involves how you feel about your looks, and cognitive body image involves what you think about your looks.  These both can be difficult aspects of body image to unpack on one’s own, and are areas that a therapist with a special interest in body image can help you examine and shift.  The affective aspects of your body image can be conceived of as your feelings; the cognitive aspects of your body image (like labeling yourself as “I am unattractive” or “My body is undesirable”) can start to feel like facts.  A key component of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is learning to understand that both feelings and facts are valid, however feelings are not facts.  A therapist can help you explore behavioural changes to build a healthier (positive, accepting, or neutral) body image, and this will be reflected in your feelings about your body image.  By fostering change in how we treat ourselves, we can foster change in how we see and value ourselves; by fostering change in how we value ourselves, we learn to treat ourselves with the love and respect we deserve.

This post is part of a series about body image and mental health. If these topics are resonating with you, consider reaching out to a member of our team to schedule a free consultation to explore how therapy can help.  

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