Body image is defined as ‘the subjective personal interpretation of an individual’s body.’1 It consists of our thoughts, feelings and perceptions of our own bodies.
Most of us are unable to ‘see’ our bodies as they really are. Distortion of body image is a pervasive cultural dysmorphia, with more than 75% of us having some kind of body obsession.
In some cases, body dissatisfaction may develop into Body Dysmorphic Disorder. This occurs in approximately 1% of the adult population2 and is defined as ‘intrusive images, thoughts, or urges centred on body image.’3
Body dysmorphia is the most widely known contributor to the development of disorderly eating behaviours, affecting 39% of inpatients with anorexia nervosa.
WHY WE ARE SO BODY OBSESSED
From a sociocultural perspective, our perception of how we look may become distorted because we are constantly exposed to images of ‘ideal bodies’.
In 2021, value is placed upon the slender, fit bikini body, a physique which is portrayed as the ticket to wealth, success and social approval.
The widespread distribution of this body ideal across print and online media inevitably stimulates comparison: we are socially conditioned to evaluate and measure ourselves against this idea of perfection.
This comparison leads to body dissatisfaction since there is often a mismatch between what society dictates we should look like, and how our bodies really appear.
Dissatisfaction with appearance is one of two disturbances in body image that will be addressed in this article.
DISSATISFACTION WITH APPEARANCE
During my research on the subject of body image, I asked 50 women: ‘if it were possible, which part of your body would you change?’
The most common answer was ‘stomach,’ a physical aspect with which I have also had a lifelong fixation. My midsection is where my body tends to store fat; and, having had an eating disorder for 26 years, I also suffer from chronic bloating and distension.
This obsession with my stomach began aged 11 when I first developed anorexia nervosa. This is typical of this form of eating disorder, with many anorexics suffering from ‘persistent anxiety that eating may stretch the stomach or make it bulge; they can feel relaxed only if the stomach is completely flat.’4
The women who I interviewed also expressed a desire to change their legs, particularly their thighs; their breasts that were believed to be either too big or too small; their glutes that needed to be ‘firmer’; and their bingo wings. Three women said that would change everything.
Of the 50 interviewees, only one said that she would not change any part of her body.
For those of us who are unhappy with aspects of our physiques, we may manage our appearance by excessive body checking. This includes measuring, weighing and constantly looking in the mirror.
Keeping bodies under surveillance through mirrors can develop into a compulsion. For as long as I can remember, I have always checked my appearance (particularly my stomach) every time that I catch my reflection in a mirror or shop window.
The reason why we look in the mirror multiple times a day is to seek reassurance that we are still the same: to check that our bodies have not suddenly gained 10llbs in the last half hour.
If we feel like we are bigger, or more wobbly than we imaged, however, we then take action to ‘correct’ our bodies in the form of dieting and exercise.
For those who suffer from body image distortion, many of us are aware that there is a disjunction between how we perceive our reflected image, and the reality of appearance. One woman I spoke to admitted: ‘even though I know I’m not overweight, when I look in the mirror I see a much larger person looking back at me.’
APPEARANCE AS IDENTITY
The second aspect of body image distortion is defining our identity in terms of our appearance.
Modern society holds beauty in high regard as a necessary trait; and so strong is our desire for social belonging that we alter our bodies to meet the physical ideal.
This need to be accepted within our social group is driven by a biological urge, and positively reinforced by the encouragement we receive when our bodies conform to cultural standards.
For example, in Western society, weight loss is often praised, with an individual’s ‘after’ pictures often receiving ‘likes’ and compliments. In addition, in the world of fitness competitions, many federations include a transformation category where the prize is awarded to the most drastic physical change. The more weight lost, the better.
This type of appearance-based approval can be very seductive. In 2015, I was in the best physical shape of my life and became a Pro Bikini Competitor. Subsequently, I received frequent compliments on my physique; and comments praising my willpower and dedication. This attention served to validate my efforts to emulate the beauty ideal, and strengthened my resolve to work even harder.
Being a competitor became my identity.
Basing your identity and self esteem on something as transient as your appearance, however, is a risky business: something that I discovered the hard way.
After being starved and dehydrated for show day, returning to a more ‘normal’ diet following a competition causes the body to react by storing water and rapidly gaining weight.
This weight gain can exacerbate a competitor’s body dysmorphia since they compare their now now heavier, softer physique to what they looked like onstage. Many of my fellow competitors told me that during this post-competition period they usually ‘feel fat,’ and some even ‘hate’ their bodies.
They also reported being concerned about other’s people’s judgements of their figures: they fear that they will fail to live up to others’ expectations of how they ‘ought’ to look.
Basing your identity on your appearance, therefore, makes you incredibly vulnerable. In my case, losing my stage physique had a direct effect on my confidence; and triggered my most severe relapse into anorexia nervosa to date.
Now, 5 years into my recovery, I would like to share four things that I have learnt during my ongoing journey towards body acceptance:
- The way that we perceive our bodies is not necessarily reality.
- We tend to fixate on aspects of our bodies that cause us concern. The more we hone in on these aspects, however, the worse they will seem. So take a step back and look at your body as a whole; or, better still, avoid looking at your body at all.
- The closer I became to achieving my idea of a perfect body, the more miserable and anxious I felt. Having the ‘ideal’ body does not make you happy: in my case, it had the opposite effect.
- Happiness and self-worth need to come from something other than your appearance. For me, this is still a work in progress but I am getting there.
In conclusion, it all comes down to the way we feel. When we look in the mirror, the reflected image is distorted by how we feel about our appearance.
While we are waiting for society to shed the beauty ideals that inform these feelings, we can remind ourselves that it is not our bodies that require alteration, but our perceptions of them. And we can change these by done by working on accepting our bodies, just the way they are.
- The Journal of Psychology
- Phillips, Katherine, ‘Fixing the Broken Mirror: Body Dysmorphic Disorder’, http://www.psychweekly.com/aspx/article/ArticleDetail.aspx?articleid=112
- Nussbaum, Abraham, The Pocket Guide to the DSM-5 Diagnostic Exam, American Psychiatric Publishing (Washington; London, 2013)
- Bruch, Hilde, The Golden Cage: The Engima of Anorexia Nervosa (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978; 2001)