The Power of Positive Body Image
What do you see when you look in the mirror?
The thoughts, feelings, beliefs and behaviours related to your body are what makes up your body image. Body image is a multi-faceted construct which embodies the subjective picture of your own appearance .
The personal perceptions surrounding body image are influenced by a number of factors, including socio-cultural pressures from peers, family and social and media influence .
Negative vs Positive Body Image
How you perceive your body image can have both a beneficial and detrimental impact on your psychological and physical quality of life.
When someone has negative thoughts and feelings surrounding their own body, body dissatisfaction (or a negative body image) can develop. There are many reasons why this can develop, such as growing up in an environment where looking a certain way is emphasised or being bullied and teased based about appearances . A prominent factor influencing body dissatisfaction is the socio-cultural pressure for the “ideal body”. Comparing ourselves to images we see (especially on social media) can enhance feelings of envy and dissatisfaction around our personal appearance , and we then become more critical and less accepting of ourselves. This body dissatisfaction can also lead to engagement in “self-enhancing” behaviours, such as extreme dieting or exercise, in order to conform with body ideals .
Historically, research around body image has focused on ways that negative body image
can be reduced or prevented. In recent years, research within the body image field has begun to shift from a pathology driven frame of “what causes negative body image and how can we treat it?” to a focus on “what makes a positive body image and how can we foster it?” .
Positive body image is a unique multifaceted construct which is conceptually distinct from negative body image. Positive body image is described as an encompassing feeling of appreciation, love and respect for one’s own body. It also refers to being in a state of embodiment and connection to the body. Research has suggested that a positive body image can help shift a person’s focus beyond concerns and dissatisfaction toward their body (e.g. feeling they need to diet), to a perspective which is more balanced and complete .
There are many different facets (or characteristics) which make up positive body image. For an in-depth review of these facets, I recommend reading the research paper by Webb, Wood-Barcalow and Tylka .
Positive body image can be enhanced by shifting perceptions around body-related thoughts and re-conceptualizing our beauty standards. Ways in which we can shift to a more positive can body image include:
Body Appreciation :
Appreciating the features, functionality and health of the body. This includes making the choice to accept your body regardless of size and imperfections and taking care of your bodily needs through the engagement of health-promoting behaviours (including adequate sleep, nutrition, stress management and social support).
Body Functionality :
Recognising and appreciating the various functions our bodies are capable of beyond physical appearance. This includes functions such as the capability to walk, dance, digest, be creative, sing, communicate with others and engage in self-care.
Being able to sense and respect the body by taking the time to ‘tune’ into thoughts about the needs of our bodies and using this information to guide positive behaviours. The practice of this daily mindful self-care (mindfulness) can help us meet the bodies’ physiological and emotional needs, through awareness of your thoughts relating to self, environment, relationships and daily routines. This can include regularly engaging in social support, adequate sleep, gentle movement, self-compassion and mindfulness practises.
Broadly conceptualising beauty :
Broadening your definition of attractiveness beyond the socially accepted physical appearance or perusing thinness as a goal. This includes focusing on inner characteristics such as confidence, generosity and personality when determining beauty, in others as well as yourself.
Positive and self-accepting body talk :
Disassociating yourself from people who engage in negative body or “fat” talk and surround yourself with others who talk positively about their bodies. This can include setting boundaries such as “It is important to me that we talk neutrally or positively about our bodies” in order to detach from negative self-talk.
Ways of Fostering a Positive Body Image
Facets of positive body image such as body appreciation have been shown to be associated with a number of factors relating to wellbeing such as self-esteem, stress-management, optimism and overall life satisfaction . Furthermore, A positive body image may also promote a “body-protective filter”, which helps to reject idealised images of bodies, diets and food restriction.
Some ways of fostering a positive body image include (but are not limited too):
Engaging in physical activity:
One study found that women who participated in belly dancing reported higher levels of body appreciation than women who had never engaged in belly dancing . It has been suggested that engaging in activities based around joyful movement, fun and challenge (as opposed to controlling the size and shape of their bodies) may emphasise body function and promote greater gratitude toward one’s body .
Mindful media consumption
Being media savvy and choosing to reject messages which portray unrealistic and fabricated images by unfollowing social media accounts or diversifying your media consumption to contain non-appearance-based media. A recent study found that choosing to consume non-appearance-based media (such as documentaries or information-based shows) may reduce appearance comparison and thin-ideal internalisation, which can lead to higher overall body appreciation .
Being out in nature
Exposure to natural environments has been found to elevate body appreciation and body functionality in participants across multiple cultures. It has been suggested that being out in nature can help individuals to distance themselves both mentally and physically from behaviours that are appearance-focused (such as checking Instagram on your phone) and can help to highlight and appreciate body functionality (appreciating your eyes for being able to see the flowers and ears for being able to hear the wildlife) rather than focusing on self-appearances .
Promoting positive body image to others
Choose to surround yourself with people who hold (or are striving to hold) a positive body image. It has been reported that people with a positive body image may also have close peers who accept and feel positively about their bodies also. This idea has been termed reciprocity, meaning being in an environment where people unconditionally accept their bodies can lead to individuals feeling more positive about their own .
For many of us, we have been taught from a young age that our bodies should be changed or moulded to fit “the ideal” body. This has made it difficult to feel positive about our bodies and can lead to us fostering a negative body image throughout our lives. Learning to protect ourselves from the negative and unrealistic views of our bodies, and shifting to a positive outlook can take time, practise and support, but it can be liberating and beneficial for our overall physical and mental health.
We are all worthy and capable of feeling appreciation, satisfaction, tranquillity and respect for our own bodies. Fostering a positive body image is a powerful weapon that we can all employ and share with others, to help us celebrate and live peacefully with the precious bodies that we inhabit.
Lucy is a Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr) with a passion for all things food and nutrition. Lucy specialises in a non-diet, weight-inclusive approach. Lucy believes that everybody (and everybody) is worthy of achieving health and well-being, no matter what weight or size, given access to non-stigmatizing support and care. To start your journey using Lucy's approach book her expertise here.
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