As part of Body Image & Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2021 I wanted to do my part to raise awareness by writing about the various things that impact body image, how negative body image can increase your risk of developing disordered eating and my top tips for developing body appreciation.
(CW: discusses body image, fatphobia, weight stigma and eating disorders)
Body image in its simplest definition is how we view our own bodies. With the alarming statistic of 1 in 3 people having serious body image concerns it’s something that needs to be addressed1.
Negative body image has been identified as a risk factor for1:
- Low self-esteem
- Risk taking behaviours (i.e. sexual behaviours & smoking)
- Poorer academic achievement during adolescence
- Engagement in unhealthy dieting, exercise, or muscle building behaviours
- Weight cycling
- Clinical eating disorders
What impacts body image?
Negative body image or body dissatisfaction has been predominantly associated with social factors2. Media has been identified as the most influential and insidious contributor2.
In Australia, in 2014, over 70% of the population was active on social media3. Given that 19% of the population was aged less than 15 years, this was a significant proportion of people4. Although I couldn’t find current data, it wouldn’t be surprising if this number was now higher due to the reliance on social media to remain connected during this global pandemic.
Two theories have been proposed to explain the correlation between media exposure, body dissatisfaction and disordered eating2.
This is where media presents its audience (predominantly women) with an impossible, unrealistic thin beauty ideal2. This ideal is usually internalised, comparisons are made and inevitable failure to achieve this standard, all unsurprisingly contribute to body dissatisfaction2.
This theory suggests that, particularly in western society, media will portray the female body as an object to be viewed and judged by its audience2. Repeated exposure to this is thought to contribute to self-objectification, particularly in women2. This can lead to a hyper awareness of the body’s external appearance and often contributes to shame and anxiety regarding the body2.
Another social contributor to body dissatisfaction is Fatphobia. I tried looking up an official definition for this, but everywhere I turned the use of the O word was unnecessarily present. So, let’s break it down, Fat – “a naturally oil substance occurring in animal bodies, especially when deposited as a layer under the skin or around certain organs” and Phobia – “an extreme or irrational fear or exposure to something”5.
If we put the two together in its simplest definition Fatphobia is an irrational fear of the layer of the naturally oily substance found under the skin or around certain organs. What we are in fact seeing in society is that this fear positions fat people as inferior and they become objects of hostility, shame, hatred, bigotry and discrimination6.
In her book, You Have The Right to Remain Fat, Virgie Tovar discusses both cultural and internalised fatphobia. She highlights how it has been normalised and the harm it is now doing, predominantly to people in larger bodies, but we can’t deny it’s contribution to the overall rise in body image concerns and disordered eating behaviours.
Body Image and Disordered Eating
The most common response to being dissatisfied with one’s own body and having an unrealistic idea of what it “should” look like is to try and change it. This often leads to disordered eating, which is “a disturbed pattern of eating that can include fasting and skipping meals, eliminating food groups, restrictive dieting accompanied by binge eating and excessive exercise” or extreme changes in diet7.
Disordered eating and dieting are the leading modifiable risk factors for developing a clinical eating disorder.
The Butterfly Foundation has more detailed information on eating disorders and helpful resources.
How to improve your own body image
Do a Media Overhaul
Knowing the huge role the media, particularly social media, plays in creating body dissatisfaction my first suggestion is to do a complete media cull. It would be naïve of me to suggest removing all media triggers because there are certain types of media where exposure is inevitable. However, things like who you follow on Instagram and Tik Tok and who you are friends with on Facebook are completely within your control. When going through your feed I want you to take a moment to notice how each account makes you feel. Remove any that cause comparison or unpleasant feelings. Consider exposing yourself to more diverse accounts, particularly fat positive accounts.
Stop buying trashy magazines, you know the ones I’m talking about. Every time I visit the grocery store standing at the checkout, I am met with multiple images of celebrities with titles that judge either their body shape or size changes and/or what they are currently eating. Yes, these magazines need to take responsibility and stop writing such shameful articles, but if everyone stops buying them, they will get the message quicker!
Get Rid of the Scales
Your weight is your gravitational pull towards earth. It doesn’t measure health (despite what you have likely been told), it doesn’t measure worth, and it certainly doesn’t measure happiness. By eliminating the temptation to check on that number you allow yourself the headspace to feel your body and to listen to what it needs instead.
Throw Out or Donate Clothes That Don’t Fit
Often when my clients get rid of their scales, they continue to body check by how clothes feel on their body. This is equally as harmful to your body image. Feeling comfortable in your clothes is an important part of feeling comfortable in your body. Choosing clothes that feel comfortable in the present is an important part of letting go of comparison.
I think it’s important that I highlight thin privilege here. If you are unable to access clothes that comfortably fit your body in a regular, brick & mortar store or face paying a higher price for clothes that fit your body, that is NOT you or your body’s fault. It’s a prime example of how larger bodies are discriminated against. Eat Love Live have written a blog post listing some of the options within Australia.
Be Kind to Yourself
Offer yourself the same kindness and compassion you would your best friend. The way you treat and talk to yourself plays a big role in how you feel. Here are some affirmations taken from Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch that you can use8:
- My body deserves to be fed
- My body deserves to be treated with dignity
- My body deserves to be dressed comfortably and in a style I like
- My body deserves to be touched affectionately, with my consent and with respect
- My body deserves to move comfortably, to the extent it is possible
Accept Your Genetic Make-up
Despite what you read in the media, there is evidence that suggests that your body size/shape is 70-80% hereditary9. We can’t argue that there would also be environmental contributors but getting caught up in the idea that you have more control over the size of your body than say your height or eye colour has proven time and time again to cause harm. Accepting your body as it is can be hard. Especially if you have spent a large amount of time, energy and money trying to change it. You can start by listing things you appreciate about your body in this moment. It’s also ok to reach out for professional help to unpack the beliefs you hold about your own body.
Respect ALL Bodies
Cultural change must start with us. Eliminating fatphobia and weight stigma is an important part of improving body image. To do this we must respect ALL bodies.
A great place to start is to unpack your own fatphobia. Ask yourself: Do you judge people in larger bodies when you are out in public? Do you compliment people for losing weight? Do you express health concerns for people who are in larger bodies, based solely on the size of their body? If you are struggling to understand how these things can be harmful it may be helpful for you to get assistance from a HAES® aligned psychologist or counsellor.
It’s important we acknowledge and accept that just like there is diversity in height, hair colour, eye colour, skin colour, there is diversity in body size. The size of a person’s body doesn’t tell you anything about that person except the size of their body. As a society we need to stop making judgements and assumptions on face-value. Let’s change the focus to neutrality, compassion, and RESPECT FOR ALL BODIES.
As a dietitian who is deeply committed to weight inclusive practice and stamping out weight discrimination, I will continue to elevate this issue to raise awareness as much as I can. I commit to continue to work on dismantling weight stigma to help those who unjustifiably experience it on a regular basis.
I am currently in the process of collating a list of helpful resources to improve body image. If you have any suggestions, please email (email@example.com) or reach out via social media.
- The Butterfly Research Institute. Insights Into Body Esteem: A survey of Australians’ experience of body image and its impact on day to day life. Crows Nest: The Butterfly Foundation; 2019. 40p. Available from: https://butterfly.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Insights-into-Body-Esteem-Report-PDF2.pdf
- Holland, G., & Tiggemann, M. A systematic review of the impact of the use of social networking sites on body image and disordered eating outcomes. Body Image. 2016 June;17:100-110. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26995158/
- J. Social Media and Body Image. In: NEDC e-Bulletin: Issue 46 [Internet]. Available from: https://nedc.com.au/research-and-resources/show/issue-46-social-media-and-body-image
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. Population by Age and Sex, Regions of Australia, 2014 [Internet]. Accessed 7 September 2021 Available from: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Previousproducts/3235.0Main%20Features102014
- OED Online [Internet]. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2018 [cited 7 September 2021]. Available from: https://www.oed.com/
- Tovar V. You Have the Right to Remain Fat. London: Melville House UK; 2018. 15-25 p.
- The Butterfly Foundation. Risks and Warning Signs. Accessed 7 September 2021. Available from: https://butterfly.org.au/eating-disorders/risks-and-warning-signs/
- Tribole E, Resch E. Intuitive Eating. Fourth Edition. New York: St. Martin’s Publishing; 2020.
- Stunkard AJ, Foch TT, Hrubec Z. A twin study of human obesity. JAMA 1986;256(1):51–54.