Have you ever said to a friend, “I’m so fat,” only to find that they are dismayed and perhaps even offended by your comment?
This is just one example of body image disorder, most commonly defined as one’s distorted internal perception of their external self.
There are many ways this disorder can play out. A typical example is overestimating the size of certain body parts, like the stomach, thighs or buttocks.
For some, this discrepancy may actually be a true sense of visual distortion where, for instance, the brain transforms the sight of a slightly longer nose into that of, say, a horse muzzle.
In general, though, body image disorder is a belief that one’s body is unacceptable – something to be disparaged, hated and hidden. When these feelings interfere with social and/or occupational functioning, cause elevated levels of anxiety and depression, or the development of eating disorder behaviors, it’s time to seek out professional help.
“So how does this body image disorder thing get fixed?” you may wonder. There are hundreds of self-help books out there filled with tips on how to learn to love one’s body. But research shows that talk therapy, especially cognitive therapy (also known as cognitive behavioral therapy), is the most effective way for people to overcome body image disorder.
There are several tools outlined by some of the top researchers in the field of body image treatment, including Thomas Cash, J. Kevin Thompson, James Rosen, and Thomas Pruzinsky. They include but are not limited to:
- create a self-assessment of how negative body image developed
- keep diaries about events that surround moments of body image dissatisfaction
- relaxation training
- desensitization to body exposure through imagination and systematic desensitization
- identify negative body image thoughts and begin the work of adjusting those errors in judgment
- self-defeating and avoidant behaviors are identified and challenged
- new strategies are developed and implemented to deal with difficult events and people that provoke negative body image
- relapse prevention strategies are created and practiced
While therapy is the core element in recovery of positive body image, there are other treatments that are considered essential in creating a loving sense of the body. Nutrition counseling can be vital for those who want to treat their body lovingly and stop the cycle of deprivation and binge eating that come with the body-loathing, yo-yo dieting routine all too common in America.
Exercise is also a great way to love and respect one’s body. For some, competitive sports are a source of true joy, while others opt for yoga, dancing, swimming, walking, biking, or any number of other non-competitive forms of movement.
The idea is to learn that the body craves release and expression of its gifts.
Additionally, massage, also known as bodywork, has been found by many to have great benefit in allowing the client to listen to their body’s internal cues.
When dealing with body image issues, it’s common to find clients disassociate from their bodies and become avoidant of touch (especially those who have been the victim of abuse and find any touch too emotionally charged). Massage brings people back into awareness of their bodies, and can even bring about memories or thoughts buried deep in the psyche that prohibited progress in body image disorder treatment. It also allows the client to learn to let someone else nurture their body, often a difficult experience for those with body image disorder.
Along with therapeutic interventions, here is a list of ways one can recover from body image disorder:
- Develop criteria for self-esteem that go beyond appearance. One way to make appearance less important is to develop other benchmarks for self-evaluation.
- What skills do you have? Do you have strong connections with friends and family?
- Cultivate the ability to appreciate one’s body, especially how it functions.
- Engage in feel good behaviors.
- Reduce exposure to noxious images.
- Exercise for strength, fitness, and health, not weight control.
- Seek out others who are respectful and caring. Teaching them how to talk about and touch one’s body is healing.
- Get out of abusive relationships.
- Identify and change habitual negative thoughts about the body.
- Decode more complicated thoughts about body image. Are negative thoughts and feelings a distraction from other issues?
Here are some tips for parents to help keep their children from going down the lonely road of body image dissatisfaction:
- Communicate with your child. Listen when your child wants to sit down and talk.
- Don’t criticize your child’s weight.
- Offer your child healthy food choices. Don’t constantly harp on how “bad” food can be for you.
- Avoid frequently commenting on how beautiful someone is due to their weight.
- Limit media input. Avoid buying fashion magazines and try to keep the television watching to a minimum.
- Cook with your child. Experimenting with recipes can be fun!
- Compliment what they do rather than how they look.
- Demonstrate a healthy fitness plan. Show your kids you enjoy exercise.
- Avoid teasing your child about their appearance.
- Show your child that you care about them and love them.