We hear the phase body image bandied about a fair bit don’t we? But what exactly is body image? In general terms body image refers to how we experience our body. Everyone has a body image and the term itself does not actually mean something is wrong or distorted.
In their book “Living with Your Body and Other Things You Hate”, Emily Sandoz and Troy DuFrene describe three elements to our body image. The first element is what they call “from the inside out”. This refers to what we feel inside our skin, and will include sensations such as the feeling of our clothes, hunger or thirst, and various minor aches and pains throughout our body. Often people who struggle with body image actively avoid paying attention to these aspects of their experience of their bodies, and as a result become kind of alienated from them.
The second element is “from the outside in”. This refers to our experience of our reflection and how our body appears when we look at different parts of it. Sandoz and DuFrene point out that many people who struggle with their body image have a complex relationship with their reflection. On the one hand they may feel very distressed seeing their reflection or parts of their body, and attempt to avoid this by wearing baggy clothes, getting showered in the dark and so on, but on the other hand it may be very anxiety-provoking not to check their body and make efforts to “fix” their appearance. So, people who struggle with body image may spend more time than they would like studying or checking their body in mirrors and more time and effort than they would like trying to avoid their reflection.
The third element of body image, according to Sandoz and DuFrene, is our thoughts and feelings about our body. In other words our body image is not just what we feel in our body and what we see with our eyes, but also the thoughts and feelings that rise up about our body. Again, many people who struggle with their body image try to avoid these thoughts and feelings as much as possible, perhaps by using alcohol and drugs, or by avoiding situations that might trigger uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, such as wearing bathers at the beach or using communal changing rooms.
If we struggle with body image, our life can start to feel like we are continually working hard to avoid feeling or thinking about our body or directly experiencing it. This is exhausting, and because we can get so lost in trying to avoid our experience of our body, we often miss out on things that are meaningful and important to us as well, our relationships, interests, even our values and things that really matter to us.
How can psychologists help? Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT for short, describes four ways to change the way we might interact with our body. The first is learning to be present to our ongoing experiences of our body and the rest of the world with interest rather than judgement. This is the essence of mindfulness. The second involves learning to “see beyond our thoughts” – the capacity to notice them without letting them dominate or control what we actually do in the world. The third is learning to accept and allow those distressing feelings to be present. This does not mean that we have to learn to like them. Rather, it means that we can allow them to be present without engaging in behaviors that help us avoid them but have other unintended outcomes in our lives as well, pulling us away from meaningful and life-enhancing activities. The fourth is developing the capacity to contact our real selves, selves consisting of more than how we see, feel and think about our bodies.
Please contact me if you would like to learn more about how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can help you with your body image struggles.