In the “body positive” era, more and more people – both women and men – find themselves bombarded by dissonant messages about body appearance that generate a real Gordian knot. The same magazines that tell us to love our bodies just the way they are, keep posting photos of perfect abs, perfect buttocks, perfect arms, perfect smiles, perfect skin…
As a result, it’s not unusual for most mortals to set out to love their body one day, only to find themselves struggling the next day with that new wrinkle, that unruly love handle, or sagging that begins to appear in the most unexpected places.
Obviously, love of the body is not imposed and cannot be the result of fashion. In fact, the seemingly empowering phrases that are born from body positivity are more likely to have a counterproductive effect and end up generating more frustration and dissatisfaction.
The love of the body goes through acceptance and a deep inner work that demands a very solid self-esteem. Only in this way will we be able to be relatively immune to the contradictory messages and fashions that dictate how bodies should be or how we should relate to them.
What is body image?
Body image includes our perceptions, beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and actions about our physical appearance. In essence, it is the relationship we establish with our body and the way we perceive it, value it and how we feel about it.
Unfortunately, that relationship is not always positive, satisfying, or healthy. One of the signs that we do not have a good relationship with our body is conflict. If we are constantly “fighting” with our bodies in a love-hate relationship, it is likely that there are parts of ourselves that we reject. For example, we may think that if we were just a little taller, thinner, or stronger, everything would be easier. In these cases there is no total rejection of the body but of what we consider “defects”.
Another common sign of a poor relationship with the body, usually based on a more general feeling of rejection, is abuse. We abuse ourselves when we insult ourselves because of our appearance, but also when we go on extreme diets, exercise until exhaustion or eat in excess.
To maintain a healthy relationship with our body, it is important to accept that there are things that we can change and others that we cannot. We can keep fit, but we cannot prevent aging, for example. Having an adequate body image will allow us to better relate to our body and the changes it undergoes throughout life, which will ultimately result in our self-esteem and well-being. To achieve this, positive phrases are not worth it, we must work on the components of body image.
The components of body image that mediate the relationship with the body
1. Perceptual: how do we see ourselves?
This component of body image refers to how we see ourselves. In fact, the perception we have of our body is not always a reliable and objective representation. For example, people with anorexia may feel fat when they are actually extremely thin. Other people may feel “ugly” because of the shape of their nose or a mole that most people don’t really even notice.
We do not always look in the mirror with good eyes. Sometimes we can see our body through the veil of our insecurities or unrealistic expectations. In order for our perception to match reality, it is convenient to practice mindfulness without judgment. Looking at ourselves in the mirror as if we were complete strangers will help us assume the necessary psychological distance so as not to be so implacable critics.
We also need to make sure that we are not judging or labeling ourselves during that rediscovery process. The presence of spots or wrinkles, for example, does not mean that we are ugly, just as the love handles do not always indicate that we are fat. “Ugly” or “fat” are labels we use as a result of judgment. Therefore, the goal is to explore our body without judging it. Neither negatively nor positively. So we can get rid of the distorted lens through which we were looking at ourselves.
2. Cognitive: how do we think about ourselves?
This component of body image includes the thoughts and beliefs we have about our bodies. It is everything we tell ourselves about our appearance and the beliefs that mediate our relationship with our body. Many of the beliefs about the ideal body come from society, so they are often dysfunctional and get in the way of a healthy relationship with our bodies.
Thinking that we should stay young is an irrational belief that pushes us to reject the natural aging process. Believing that only being thin or muscular can be happy is another irrational belief since there are many ways to feel satisfied with oneself. If we don’t eradicate these unrealistic beliefs and thoughts, we will probably never feel good about our bodies.
For that reason, to develop a proper body image we must be attentive to our internal dialogue about our body. Instead of trying to avoid aging at all costs, we should focus on healthy aging. Instead of trying to become Arnold Schwarzenegger, we should focus on gaining muscle mass in a healthy way. It is about changing the epicenter around which our thoughts revolve, moving from the merely aesthetic aspect to health and well-being.
3. Affective: how do we feel?
This component of body image refers to the feelings we experience towards our body, which fundamentally reflects the level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with our appearance. It includes all the things we like or dislike about our bodies and how they make us feel.
Obviously, the feelings that we experience towards our body are strongly influenced by society, by the images we see on television, magazines or social networks. So if we want to feel better about how we look, we may have to question the media we use and the effect it has on us. To experience more positive feelings towards our body, it is important that we introduce media that truly reflect body diversity, moving away from those that promote a cult of unrealistic aesthetics.
Of course, the thoughts and beliefs that we have about our body, as well as the perception of it, will also influence the feelings that we experience. It is impossible to love each other if deep down we continue to ruminate on insecurities, irrational beliefs or have a distorted body image. It is important to remember that self-hatred is not a requirement for change and that we can feel dissatisfied with a part of our body and still accept it. The love towards the body does not come from perfection but from the acceptance of uniqueness.
4. Behavioral: how do we behave?
This component of body image includes all actions related to our body. If a person has a healthy body image, he is likely to take care of his body and appearance, but without exaggerating or obsessing over it. Instead, those with a negative body image may engage in self-destructive behaviors that lead to eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia or to vigorexia in an attempt to change their appearance.
To develop a healthier relationship with your body, it is also essential to stop comparing yourself with others, both with your neighbor or friend, as well as with the influencer of the moment or the fashion celebrity. All bodies are unique. Perfection and beauty are nothing more than ideals that change according to cultures and times.
Instead, we can begin to think of our body as a temple. The body allows us to enjoy and connect with the environment. It should be a source of satisfaction, not self-inflicted complexes. We should think of the body in more functional, salutogenic, and hedonic terms. Take care of it Explore it. Accept it. Be realistic about our limitations. Explore our potential. And be greatful for everything it allow us to do and experience.
Burychka, D. et. Al. (2021) Towards a Comprehensive Understanding of Body Image: Integrating Positive Body Image, Embodiment and Self-Compassion. Psychol Belg; 61(1): 248–261.
Cohen, R. et. Al. (2020) The case for body positivity on social media: Perspectives on current advances and future directions. J Health Psychol; 26(13): 2365-2373.