Body Image: What Is It And How Can We Protect It?
Let’s talk body image. You have probably seen plenty of discussion on body image, body satisfaction, and body positivity but what is body image? When people say body image what are they actually referring to? Scholars have consistently defined body image as a person’s thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of their body (Grogan, 2006; Hosseini & Padhy, 2019). In other words what thoughts and feelings do you have about your body and how do you view yourself? We begin developing our body image during childhood and continue to take in information that shapes our body image throughout life. As you might imagine many factors impact a person’s body image. Sociocultural factors including culture, family, peers, intimate relationships, and media can greatly impact body image as they explicitly and implicitly communicate messages about what is considered “ideal” when it comes to appearance.
By adolescence, young women are particularly vulnerable to body dissatisfaction due to societal pressures on women to live up to unrealistic beauty standards. Mainstream beauty standards are especially challenging for Black women as they are often based on “idealized depictions of White women’s physical features” such as lighter skin tone and straighter hair texture. (Walker Gautier, 2021). Attempts to meet idealized beauty standards can result in dissatisfaction with various aspects of body features including weight, shape, face, hair, etc. Due to social comparison and exposure to unrealistic beauty standards, frequent social media use can increase preoccupation with physical appearance and increase the risk for negative body image (Mills et al., 2018).
So how can you take care of yourself and maintain or work toward a healthy body image amid these various sociocultural influences?
BE MINDFUL OF SOCIAL MEDIA.
Don’t worry I am not here to come for your social media and tell you to delete all of your accounts. However, like most things, social media is best in moderation rather than excessive amounts. Being mindful of your consumption is important for many reasons including protecting yourself from negative influences on your body image. Start to pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after using social media. How does it impact your mood? Are you comparing yourself to perfectly curated photos of other people? Do you find yourself spending too much time trying to capture and post the perfect photo at the most precise angle? These may be signals that it is time to set some parameters around your use so as not to become preoccupied with your body and social comparison. Some ways to set parameters can include: turning off notifications to reduce your inclination to constantly open apps, deleting apps for a period of time to see how you feel, or scheduling specific times you allow yourself to use social media and setting a timer to hold yourself accountable.
Think about the messages you have received throughout your life around what is considered ideal when it comes to body type, shape, and features? Who do these idealized standards include and who has been left out? Do you see yourself represented, is there diversity in who has been represented? Chances are the answer is no. For Black women, in particular, it is important to reclaim our bodies and redefine beauty for ourselves as we too often have been devalued and objectified by society. Be intentional in noticing and defying these messages rather than internalizing them. Counteract these idealized images by intentionally exposing yourself to a diversity of women of various shapes, skin tones, sizes, etc. Think about who and/or what you follow on social media and what you watch on television. Diversify your exposure because representation matters. It’s important to see yourself and others who range in appearance and body type on a consistent basis.
PRACTICE GRATITUDE & COMPASSION.
It’s easy for our thoughts and feelings about our bodies to become hyper-focused on weight and appearance. What might your relationship with your body feel like if you shifted toward appreciation and gratitude for your body? You can do this by considering the unique characteristics of your body or thinking about the many ways your body serves you. What important functions does your body do for you without you even having to ask? Practicing gratitude can start by naming or recording 1-3 things per day that you are grateful for about your body. You might thank your body for something very specific like a deep cleansing breath or something broader like getting you through your day. Practice noticing your body nonjudgmentally and with kindness. This is the practice of compassion. Combined with gratitude this consistent practice can help shift how you relate to your body.
FOCUS ON HEALTH OVER WEIGHT.
Negative body image can often consist of appearance-related aspects such as weight and body shape. Shifting to focusing on overall physical health as opposed to what one is “supposed to” look like can be a useful reframe. Valuing and appreciating your body can include setting intentions around taking good care of your body. Think about how to nourish and care for your body in terms of what you consume when it comes to food, substances, etc. These are ways of being kind to your body that can aid in cultivating a healthy relationship rather than one that is toxic and judgmental. And as a bonus, taking care of yourself physically has positive impacts on your mental health!
SEEK SUPPORTIVE SPACES.
As you practice cultivating a healthy body image, be sure to surround yourself with people and environments that align with this important goal. Limit time and/or practice setting healthy boundaries with people who make negative comments about your body or those of others. Just like it is important to be mindful of what you expose yourself to digitally, it is also important to monitor your exposure in your day-to-day life. Surround yourself with people who are compassionate and nonjudgmental. These might be friends, relatives, a therapist, etc. Remember body image is impacted by these social aspects of your experience so be sure to surround yourself w/positive and supportive influences.
Just as body image can be shaped, it can be reshaped. Use these tips to help with attaining or maintaining a healthy relationship with your body and notice how you feel. Your body and your mind and will thank you.
*Dr. Speshal Walker Gautier (a.k.a. Dr. Spesh) is an Atlanta-based Clinical Psychologist, blogger, and diversity consultant.*
Grogan, S. (2006). Body Image and Health: Contemporary Perspectives. Journal of Health Psychology, 11(4), 523–530. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105306065013
Hosseini, S. A., & Padhy, R. K. (2021). Body Image Distortion.
Mills, J.,S., Musto, S., Williams, L., & Tiggemann, M. (2018) “Selfie” Harm. Effects On Mood And Body Image in Young Women. Body Image, 27, 86-92,https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2018.08.007.
Walker Gautier, S. (2021). Black Beauty: Womanist Consciousness as a Protective Factor in Black Women’s Body Image Satisfaction. Journal of Black Psychology, 47(8), 631-656.https://doi.org/10.1177/00957984211034960.