Keeping Tabs on Your Changing Body Image

Negative body image is a hallmark of eating disorders and all-too-common among people without these disorders as well. In a previous post, we explored the historical context for the ever-changing “ideal” body type and introduced you to the notion that “ideal” could be quite a fluid concept.

In fact, body image – even at a personal level – is also a fluid construct.

Consider some examples of the ways that body image can fluctuate over the course of the day:

  1. You’re not thinking much about your body at all, and then you get on the scale at the doctor’s office. After seeing that your weight is up a few pounds, you start to think you’re fat, become uncomfortably aware of the fitted waistband of your pants, and cut back a little bit at your next meal.
  2. You are in a lousy mood as you head off to the mall to shop for dresses for a friend’s wedding. You are anticipating that nothing will fit you to your liking, but the first dress you find flatters your curves and your coloring. This makes you feel confident and positive about your body. It is an immediate mood booster.
  3. This morning you awoke feeling heavy. Thinking about what you had for dinner with your family and then your late-night snacking with friends only worsens this feeling. But once you get up and get going, you become distracted by other aspects of your day – an important work meeting, a funny movie, or a bunch of errands you need to run – and suddenly you realize that you’ve not thought about your body (or felt particularly heavy) for a few hours.

Body image can also fluctuate over the course of your lifetime. For example, the strength and confidence you feel in your body as a child can give way to awkwardness and self-consciousness during puberty, neutrality or discontent during young adulthood, awe as you or your contemporaries experience pregnancy and childbirth, and appreciation as you age. The thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and mental image you hold related to your body may be quite impacted by your life stage and circumstance.

When it seems as though your body image feels all bad, all the time, it can be helpful to get back in touch with this notion of body image as a fluid concept. After all, how we feel about ourselves (our bodies included) can be influenced by many different factors. It’s also useful to remember to aim for neutral more-often-than-not, rather than positive all-the-time, as a body image goal for yourself.

What Can You Do?

To reconnect with how your body image fluctuates, a little bit of do-it-yourself data collection (often referred to by clinicians as self-monitoring) can go a long way:

  • Try rating your body image on a -5 to +5 scale (where 0 is neutral) on an hourly basis for a few days.
  • If you only remember to rate when you feel bad, try using a Smartphone App or an alarm clock to help you remember to self-monitor at regular intervals irrespective of how you’re feeling.
  • Make a note of any feelings or thoughts you’re are having about your body at the moment you record your rating, and the context that is giving rise to those feelings or thoughts.

How Can Self-Monitoring Help Your Body Image?

Self-monitoring body image works in a couple of different ways:

  • First, it can provide you with a real-time assessment just how fluid (or stagnant) your body image is. This is especially important since our recollection of how we felt in the past is usually biased by how we are feeling in the present.
  • Second, it can increase awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with your concept of your body – and the situations that tend to precipitate you feeling lousy or reinforce you feeling great. With this knowledge will come clarity about aspects of your body image that might benefit from a little more of your attention (either independently or with the help of a therapist).
  • This type of record-keeping may help you develop ideas for small changes to try on your way toward the larger goal of a better body image. And certainly, it will help you appreciate moments of success – times when you are not dwelling on or even thinking about your size or appearance, and times when that focus is positive.

Self-monitoring can be used in conjunction with other strategies known to help tackle negative body image: eliminating “fat talk,” finding other aspects of self-esteem on which to focus, rethinking what mirror time should mean for you, redefining healthy eating, and challenging other types of distorted thoughts that may worsen your view of your body.

Remember, your body image is changeable; in fact, it’s changing slightly all the time.

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