Pop quiz time: Which of the following three scenarios is indicative of a healthy body image?
Before dashing out of her home in the morning,
A. Jordan glances in the mirror and decides she really likes how she looks in her green sweater, the way the neckline falls and how the color compliments her eyes.
B. Jordan glances in the mirror and decides that she hates how her arms look in her green sweater.
C. Jordan glances in the mirror and decides she looks alright in her green sweater.
She then grabs her bag and her keys, locks the door behind her, and goes on with her day.
Trick question! The answer is “D,” all of the above.
When I ask people wishing to improve their body image what they consider a healthy body image to be, the answer I commonly hear is something like, “I want to look in the mirror, like what I see, and feel comfortable all the time.” In my opinion – both as a clinician specializing in the treatment of eating disorders and body image distress and as a human being with a body – this is not a realistic goal. Our expectations matter when it comes to feeling better and reducing body-related distress.
Ironically, the term body image can seem amorphous. Yet, it can be broken down into several inter-related components. First, there are behaviors, actions or avoidance of actions related to appearance. Second, there are thoughts, ideas that can pop into our minds fairly automatically (and sometimes, depending on the context, quite predictably). Third, there are emotions, feelings about or in our bodies. Finally, there is perception, the visual snapshot we hold of ourselves in our mind’s eye.
In the examples above, Jordan’s behaviors and thoughts are more obvious than her emotions, but because thoughts and emotions tend to be highly related, we can make some educated guesses about her feelings. Her self-perception is a mystery to the reader-observer, and this is also often the case in real-life. Nobody can really know how we see ourselves. And nobody can truly ever have the same perspective of our bodies because no one else’s head can sit atop one’s body.
Each scenario described above can be reflective of a healthy body image because body image is comprised of a series of positive, negative and neutral experiences of ourselves. Facets of body image change all the time, over the course of a day and even an hour (For an exercise to keep tabs on your fluctuations in body image, see this related post.), and intermittently having a negative experience of one’s body is par for the course of the human experience.
It’s how we respond – internally and externally – to these moments of negativity that can make the most difference in reducing body image distress and getting us back to neutral. For example, if Jordan responds to scenario B by changing tops multiple times, she is reinforcing the idea that the most important aspect of getting ready is to unequivocally like her appearance. This would deprive her of the chance to move on with her day and focus on what she values most. If she responds to scenario B by scrutinizing herself in the mirror or measuring or pinching her body, she is playing a cruel trick on her brain. The attention she is giving her body will encourage her brain to favor detailed information about perceived flaws rather than to take in global information about her appearance (a problem referred to as attentional processing bias). And if Jordan reacts to scenario B by scrolling through her phone to look at a picture of herself in the green sweater the last time she wore it, she is setting herself up for unhelpful comparisons that strengthen the false notion that we should look and feel the same all the time. Instead, by leaving the mirror behind and entering the world, Jordan gives herself her best chance of improving her world.
How exactly can you leave the temptation to obsess about appearance behind and get on with your day? Consider identifying something meaningful that you can accomplish by parting ways with the mirror (e.g., “If I walk away now, I can use 15-minutes to do some travel-planning or listen to a podcast before my shift starts.”). Try to hold in a mind an example of a time when you didn’t think you looked your best, but someone complimented you nonetheless. Or, do a behavioral experiment – for example, go out without feeling 100% about your body and see if anyone responds to you differently (Hint: they probably won’t!).
Body image (like our bodies) comes in all shapes and sizes. It varies from one person to the next and, within an individual, from one moment to the next. Our work is, therefore, to set realistic expectations and respond to the difficult moments – and whatever emotions they bring – in thoughtful ways that keep us from getting stuck in the details and return us to the life we wish to live.