When you think about describing your experience with body image to others, what comes up for you? For many women, body image is described only as negative thoughts and feelings that they have about their bodies. Emily Sandoz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and leading body image researcher, argues that the definition of body image is broader than just the negative perceptions of the body. She defines body image as a person’s whole experience of her body, including perceptions about outward appearance, awareness of internal body experiences, and all of the thoughts and feelings that are associated with these experiences.
When women only focus on certain aspects of their body experience, especially the ones they do not like, they may notice engaging in their world in limited ways to manage their discomfort with their bodies. For example, a woman may avoid going to the beach during a summer vacation because she does not want to be seen in a bathing suit. She may avoid dating because she wants to feel more comfortable with her body first. The cost of engaging in these avoidance behaviors includes spending less time and focus on present moment experiences that really matter.
In her book, Living With Your Body and Other Things You Hate, Sandoz describes an approach to changing one’s relationship with body image that allows one to focus on living the life you are currently living, rather than being governed by body image distress. Below are some techniques that can facilitate creating a healthier relationship with your body image.
Present Moment Awareness
The practice of present moment awareness involves noticing the ongoing experiences of your body and your environment as they are happening within and around you. For women experiencing body image distress, they may notice their awareness being pulled into the past or pushed into worries about the future. For example, while attending a luncheon, a woman’s awareness may be stuck in remembering a past unpleasant experience in which she was judged for her appearance, and she has trouble separating from those thoughts to enjoy the luncheon. She may find it difficult to enjoy the luncheon because her awareness is preoccupied with worries about others’ perceptions of her body, and she engages in behaviors to manage body image. Being present requires practicing the ability to notice when you are focused in on your body image and not paying attention to your experience in the moment, and then mindfully choosing to shift your awareness back to luncheon.
Seeing Thoughts as Simply Thoughts
A key way to change your relationship with body image includes noticing your thoughts about your body without giving them the power to rule your experience. When a woman gets stuck on a body image thought, for example, “my stomach looks big in this shirt and people are going to judge me,” she will likely use that thought to shape and explain her experience at the luncheon. She may decide to remain seated for most of the luncheon, even when she wants to get up and speak to others. She likely missed when others were engaged in what she contributed to the conversation, or when someone laughed at her joke. Her distressing body image thought ruled her experience. But interestingly, thoughts can be just that - simply thoughts. They do not have to dictate our experience.
Acceptance involves tolerating distressing thoughts and feelings, while still engaging in and committing to actions that matter. By letting go of efforts to keep body image distress at bay, a woman may find relief from the struggle and room to invest time, energy, and resources in more meaningful experiences. So she may decide to wear the colorful shirt (rather than worrying about what other people think), committing to focusing on the people around her and the content of shared conversations.
Here at CTWPS, we support women with changing their negative thoughts and feelings related to body image. If you are struggling with your body image, consider reaching out to us for support.