6 psychologist-approved ways to deal with negative body image
Do you turn into your own worst enemy during times of stress? Next time you’re going down a negative body image spiral, try these six tips suggested by psychologists and body image experts.
Let’s start off on a positive note: collectively, we’ve come a long way in how we talk about bodies in general.
As a child of the 90s, I am no longer surrounded by magazines telling me to “get a bikini body!” I look back and laugh at the preposterousness of the knackering Special K diet and social obsessions over sculpting my body to be as desirable to the opposite sex as possible. (Thinking about it, is it really a surprise that so many of us have grown up to develop negative thoughts and feelings towards our own bodies?)
Luckily, body positivity has taken a turn. Contrary to my childhood, I now see bodies of different shapes, sizes and colours in the media – owned, embraced and celebrated. Sure, there’s no escaping trolls and media outlets who fat- and skinny-shame – but we can now see those vultures for who they are.
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As Katie Antoniou noted in her Stylist article about body image and diet culture: thanks to broader education on fitness and nutrition, social media campaigns like This Girl Can and the body positivity movement, “talk of diets [now] seems outdated, unfashionable and superficial.”
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And yet… it’s not always sunshine and rainbows, is it? Some days, we wake up feeling like sad sacks of flesh. What’s worse, some of us feel like that every single day. A survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that one in five adults felt shame, just over one-third (34%) felt down or low, and 19% felt disgusted because of their body image.
And that study was before the coronavirus pandemic. When the UK went into lockdown, eating disorder charity BEAT saw a 35% increase in demand for its services. According to Emmy Brunner, spiritual recovery coach and founder of The Recover Clinic, “much of the focus on our lives has become limited to what we do physically and what we eat every day, [so] existing issues around body image can become amplified.”
On a personal level, as a GB kickboxer, I’ve found the closure of gyms and the change in my daily training, routine and diet challenging. Despite finding my personal body positivity last year after my own private lockdown, I’ve been confronting my demons all over again.
Yes, we know that during isolation, we should check our privilege and feel lucky to be alive – but that doesn’t keep intrusive, negative thoughts about our bodies from finding their way into our psyche.
“For many reasons, lockdown is a risky time for those with poor body esteem,” Dr Bryony Bamford, clinical director at The London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image tells me. “Most notably, because body esteem tends to worsen with low mood or high anxiety, two emotions which of course are increasingly prevalent in lockdown.”
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Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of feeling shit about my body. It’s tiring, it’s boring, it’s neggy and I say things about my body that I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy. If anyone ever turned to me and said, “Jesus, your arse looks like two rotting cauliflowers,” I’d fork them in the eyeball then carry on eating my cheesecake. Yet I say it to myself.
I also hope to God you never receive the LinkedIn invitation I recently received from someone whose job is “helping female copywriters lose 7lb and tone the wobbly bits.” Consider yourself ignored, Heather. And thanks for stopping by.
None of us ever deserve to feel crappy about our bodies. So I asked therapists, psychologists and body image experts for some advice on things we can all do when we’ve having negative thoughts about our body.
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How to beat negative body image in lockdown
1. Accept your feelings
Let’s start small. Whether you’re being battered by a tidal wave of ever-changing emotions or feeling absolutely nothing at all, just sit with it. They’re there. Feelings have occurred. So, let’s ‘av it.
“When we’re going through hard times, body image becomes especially fluid, just like our emotions,” says Holli Rubin, body image specialist and psychotherapist. “One day we are coping with everything, the next day we are in floods of tears as reality hits.”
“Acknowledging that you feel these ways is the first step. All feelings are normal and acceptable right now, so be compassionate towards yourself. They are temporary and will pass after you accept that you are experiencing them.”
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2. Reduce unhelpful body comparisons
According to Dr Bamford, when we compare ourselves to others, those of us with poor body esteem will almost always make “upward comparisons,” i.e. we’ll compare ourselves to those we believe “look better” than us in some way. As a result, we’re only comparing ourselves to a very select group of people and maintaining an unrealistic view of how people really look.
If you want to reduce body criticism, achieve more realistic body ideals and reduce appearance-related thinking, Dr Bamford recommends consciously noticing every third person you see, rather than just the people you see as “better” than you. She also recommends unfollowing unhealthy ideals on social media.
Dr Bamford is not the only one. “Instagram impacts our mental health more negatively than any other social media,” says Rubin. “Protect yourself, limit your time online and unfollow whoever doesn’t make you feel good about yourself.”
3. Limit body checking
Have you noticed that being at home more since lockdown and hybrid working has meant we’re seeing ourselves more in the mirror? Have you been trying on certain clothes to see if they still fit? Are you, like me, the type of person who thinks grabbing handfuls of stomach or arse is an accurate and totally scientific measurement system, as opposed to self-torture? This is all “body checking” and this kind of touching yourself has got to go.
“Body checking is not just unhelpful,” says Dr Bamford, “it can also be inaccurate. The images we see in mirrors, photographs or videos are simply representations of how we look and are not necessarily a true and accurate reflection of our appearance.
“Unfortunately, the more you check, the more ‘tuned in’ you will be to seeing things in your appearance that you don’t like. Reducing body checking will help you to focus less on the parts of your body you are unhappy with and will serve to reduce body attention in general.”
4. Remind yourself of the value of your body
Just like us, our bodies are trying their best right now. They’re doing everything they can to keep us safe, protected and alive during these weird times. So why are we still being cruel to them?
“Pressure to lose or maintain weight is about trying to maintain some semblance of control,” says Rubin. “When we feel out of control, which we all do more than usual these days, we try to exert control on what we can. Our bodies bear the brunt of it – a metaphorical punching bag for all our stresses and worries.”
So what can we do to make amends? Don’t say sorry; Rubin says, “say thank you. Show gratitude for keeping us healthy and try to remember to do what you can to keep it healthy too.”
This means, getting active with your feelings: Dance around your room, sing, create, jog, get outside in nature for some feel-good Vitamin D. “Without judging its appearance,” says Rubin, “notice how and what the body can do as opposed to what it looks like.”
5. Be a friend to yourself
If there’s one phrase I’ll never tire of hearing, it’s “Be kind.” Plaster it on t-shirts, Instagram grids and Piccadilly Circus. You can never have enough of it. While we’re all encouraged to check in with our loved ones, it’s important to remember to show yourself some kindness too.
Brunner recommends three things that will increase your sense of wellbeing: meditation, writing gratitude lists and journaling. “Give yourself just 10 minutes a day to sit in silence and focus your thoughts upon an affirmation that makes you feel good,” she tells me. “For example: ‘I accept myself today, just as I am’.”
Have you ever tried journaling? Buy yourself a journal that feels special to you, write lists of things you are thankful for, or even just write three things you can do to cultivate a kinder and more loving relationship with your body.
Personally, when I’m having a ‘bad body’ day, I’ve taken to wearing all-black-and-baggy and going for a walk with Louis Theroux’s new Grounded podcast. But that’s just me. Find what makes you feel good.
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6. Seek help and support
“It is hard to sit with feelings alone,” says Rubin. “Once you’ve identified them, share them. There is enough to worry about right now, so don’t do it alone.”
But what about if you’re on the other end of the phone to a friend who is struggling? What’s the most helpful thing for them? We have a habit of telling our friends, “Don’t be silly. You’re fine as you are” but this only invalidates their feelings.
Rubin encourages offering support through “active listening.” This means giving them the chance to just talk and be heard objectively. “Validating their feelings that it is particularly hard right now, while everything else is so uncertain, is really helpful.”
Brunner, meanwhile, stresses the importance of letting the people know that they are so much more than a physical body. “Don’t conspire with this cultural issue we have of validating/praising people simply for how they look,” she says. “We’re all so much more than what size jeans we put on in the morning.” Praise them for being the brilliant people they are. Did they Instagram a cake they baked recently? Call them your Star Baker!
While some of us will be able to call a friend, or implement some of the above tips and see an improvement in our body esteem, for others it is more difficult than this. “For these people,” says Dr Bamford, “seeking help from an experienced therapist may be essential in helping them out of a distressing and debilitating cycle of poor body esteem.”
For help and support with body image problems, visit the Beat website.
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