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Has your body image ever affected your mental health?
Having struggled with body dysmorphia nearly my entire life, I can safely say my body image has seriously affected my mental health. At one point it was so bad, I was convinced that I’d never find love because I was so ugly.
Now I know what you’re saying: that’s totally ludicrous. And of course I know that now. But cognitive distortions about body image can be incredibly powerful. To the point that you can be the most beautiful person in the world and still hate your body so much that it damages your mental health.
Why is that??
How Does Negative Body Image Develop?
This question is still up for debate. Some camps say that relentless media messaging about unrealistic body standards are to blame. Others blame cultural, religious and societal expectations, especially those geared towards how a woman should look and behave.
We tend to think of body image issues as an adolescent issue. And, while it’s true that one survey found that 94% of teenage girls reported being shamed for their appearance, negative body image can actually start much earlier.
Bodily shame often starts early, almost as soon as a child starts to develop a sense of self. This can happen when parents make comments about a child’s body, calling them out for everything from being too skinny to too heavy, too short or too gangly. Or poking “fun” at features they might find humorous about their child.
A lot of times this gentle ribbing is a family tradition, a way for an adult to connect with a kid. No big deal right? Well, the problem is, kids, especially very young ones, can’t easily differentiate their bodies from who they are as a person.
Even if you might think it’s all in good fun, this joking can spark deep self hatred in a child. Because they view their body and, by extension, their self as wrong. Consistent negative reinforcement from media sources, peers, and institutions like schools and churches can deepen this self hate.
How parents view their own bodies has a big effect on a child’s self perception as well.
One moment in my life sticks out to me here. While we were out shopping for clothes, my mom became really upset about her body. I think other things were going on at the time that made her just loose it.
I recall just how terribly upset she was, hitting the steering wheel of our truck and calling herself a “fat, ugly, old witch.”
Years later, in the height of my body dysmorphia and depression I used those same exact words to describe myself. I hated myself because I had seen someone who obviously looks very much like me hate on herself. It wasn’t her fault, she was trapped in the same heinous cycle as I was. But it certainly had an effect.
This is an extreme example but milder instances can be just as harmful.
We’ve normalized hating our bodies. It’s something many adults don’t think about as they discuss how they dislike their arms or how ugly they feel their nose is. In front of their children.
But, guess what? Those kids are listening. And filtering all this information through their heads developing a whole slew of cognitive distortions. And as they grow, they’ll perpetuate the same cycle of casual self hatred.
How Does Body Image Affect Mental Health?
Bottom line: hating your body isn’t normal. It can cause serious mental health consequences like body dysmorphia, eating disorders, suicidality, and depression. One study even posits that the reason why women experience depression at higher rates than men is due to body image issues.
On the flip side, a positive body image is correlated with better physical and mental health according to womenshealth.gov.
What is a positive body image, you ask? It’s where you feel comfortable in your body and have a generally positive attitude towards how you look.
Developing A More Realistic Body Image
Now, if you’ve dealt with body and self esteem issues for a long time, it’s going to be really difficult to build a positive body image at first. I always say it took me 30 years to get like this, so it’s going to be whole heck of a while until I can unlearn all the yucky toxic beliefs about myself.
So instead of aiming for all out positivity – I find it more helpful to encourage myself to be more realistic. Some tools for that are:
- Looking in the mirror and saying “neutral” things about my body. Like “I have a nose” instead of “I have a beautiful nose.” This worked for me in the beginning of my body positive journey because my mind just would not allow me to say nice things about myself. Saying something neutral was believable to my brain and provided me with a good, realistic, attainable middle step in my journey.
- Focusing on the incredible things my body does for me instead of what it looks like – When I’m having a hard day with body image, I try to remember how much my body cares for me. My legs power me through long work days. My hands and mind create healing art and writing. My heart beats and keeps me alive. You get the idea! It’s a small form of gratitude that helps me focus on what’s truly important about having a body.
- Challenging Black and White Thinking – Black and White Thinking is one of the cardinal cognitive distortions responsible for body dysmorphia. This is when we think in absolutes, either believing we are the best or worst and nothing in between. It keeps us from seeing the whole picture of our bodies. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques have been immensely helpful to me when it comes to busting out of the absolutes.
And Speaking of Seeing The Whole Picture…
When I could see beyond the extremes of Black and White Thinking, I was finally able to absorb some pretty important lessons waiting for me in that grey area.
I put those lessons together in some graphics for you to enjoy and learn from!
Wrap Up – Body Image and Your Mental Health
Even with all this knowledge, I still have lots of bad body image days. And that’s okay.
Unlearning toxic thought patterns is a life long process. So if you’re struggling with building a better body image, just remember – it takes time. It’s okay to feel all the feelings that come along in this journey.
The important thing is not to sit with them forever.
So keep moving towards your ideal body positivity and no one else’s.
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