Ways to Overcome a Negative Body Image

by Nicole Hawkins, PhD

How often do you look in the mirror and say "If I could just lose ten pounds, then I would be happy"? Unfortunately, the majority of American women and girls are dissatisfied with their bodies, and many take extreme measures in an attempt to change their bodies. For example, one study found that 63% of female participants identified weight as the key factor in determining how they felt about themselves - more important than family, school, or career. Other research suggests that 86% of all women are dissatisfied with their bodies and want to lose weight. Women and adolescent girls regard size, much like weight, as a definitive element of their identity. Some girls assume there is something wrong with their bodies when they cannot fit consistently into some "standard" size; others will reject a pair of jeans simply because they won't wear a particular size. The majority of girls step on the scale to determine their self-worth; if they have lost weight, then it is a good day and they can briefly feel "okay" about themselves. If the number on the scale has increased ever so slightly, then the day is ruined and they feel worthless. Body image has now become intertwined with one's weight, and therefore, if women are not happy with their weight, they cannot possibly be satisfied with their bodies. Unfortunately, girls and women take this a step farther and rationalize that negative body image is directly equated to self-image. We are now living in a society where young girls believe the one way to definitely improve their self-image and to feel more confident is to lose weight and become thinner.

Women and young girls are now living in a society where their bodies define who they are. Girls are terrified to gain weight and are continually reminded by the media about various new diet products on the market, and the value in weight loss. They are also bombarded by countless television shows on plastic surgery, and the number of cosmetic surgeries in this country is increasing every year. Women today face impossible images of beauty on a daily basis when they watch television, see a movie, or view a magazine. It is estimated that young girls are exposed to 400 to 600 media images per day. Young girls and women inescapably feel insecure about their bodies and physical appearance and often believe they must change their bodies to gain self-esteem. A recent survey found that only 2% of women in the world would describe themselves as "beautiful." The vast majority of girls want to change various aspects of their appearance. In today's society, self-esteem and body-esteem have become one and the same. Unfortunately this is having an emotional toll on young girls, and they are feeling inadequate and often turn to severe behaviors in an attempt to manipulate their bodies to "fit into" an unrealistic standard of beauty. Eating disorders have flourished in this beauty-driven society. Young girls and women are trapped in a negative cycle of body hatred. Women with eating disorders are particularly vulnerable to this negative body image cycle.

Although a large majority of women are displeased with their bodies, many women and girls experience extreme body image difficulties that can be part of more complicated problems. These extreme body image disturbances include body dysmorphic disorder, eating disorders and severe depression.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder:  This is a disorder of "imagined ugliness."  What individuals with this disorder see in the mirror is a grossly distorted view of what they actually look like.  Often, these individuals will spend hours examining, attempting to conceal, or obsessing over their perceived flaws.  Some people actually spend thousands of dollars on plastic surgery in an attempt to improve their bodies.

Anorexia Nervosa: This disorder is characterized by an extreme fear of gaining weight and these individuals actually perceive their bodies as larger or "fat" even though they are grossly underweight.

Bulimia Nervosa: Individuals with this disorder are also very dissatisfied with their bodies and have extreme concern with body weight and shape.

Depression: In many instances, individuals with depression often have a distorted view of themselves and believe they are less attractive than they really are.

Since negative body image is a prevalent problem for many women and girls and can also be a component of many serious disorders, it is critical that women learn to change their body image towards a healthy and positive view of self.

Seven Ways to Overcome Negative Body Image

Click the (+) next to each topic to learn more.

+ 1) Fight "Fatism"
+ 2) Fight the Diet Downfall
+ 3) Accept Genetics
+ 4) Understand that Emotions are Skin Deep
+ 5) Question Messages Portrayed in the Media
+ 6) Recognize the Influence of Body Misperception
+ 7) Befriend Your Body

In conclusion, negative body image is a serious problem and has damaging affects on women's self-esteem. It can lead to depression, as well as an eating disorder. Changing our world starts with you. Self-love and respect, and the end of prejudice start with one person at a time. The external pursuit of changing your body can often damage spirituality by taking you away from the internal-self - the spirit, the soul, and the whole genuine self. If you or someone you care about suffers with negative body image, please seek professional help and stop the cycle of body hatred.

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?, Thomas F. Cash, Ph.D., Bantam Books, New York, 1995.

When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies, Jane R. Hirschmann & Carol H. Munter, Fawcett Columbine, New York, 1995.

Body Wars: Making Peace with Women's Bodies, Margo Main, Ph.D., Gurze Books, Calsbad, 2000

Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, Mary Pipher, Ph.D., Random House, Ballantine Books, New York, 1994.

Intuitive Eating: A Recovery Book for the Chronic Dieter, Evelyn Tribole, M.S., R.D. & Elyse Resch, M.S., R.D., New York, 1995.

Courtesy of Center For Change