Before social media existed, our socially constructed image of beauty came from the pictures of beautiful women who appeared on our television screens, magazines and advertising. Nowadays however, social media has brought society’s unachievable standards a lot closer to home. We’re now exposed to a constant barrage of pictures of our friends as well as celebrities on Instagram and other platforms, portraying an image of themselves and their lives which is often very far from the truth. Many of these pictures are carefully chosen, edited and adapted to create an image of perfection. For young people growing up in such an environment, the pressure to conform and live up to such standards is both pervasive and harmful.
The human body comes in many different shapes and sizes, based on a combination of genetics and environmental factors. Despite this knowledge, many people are unable to appreciate the uniqueness of their own body and instead compare it negatively to what they regard as the ‘ideal body’. A negative body image can be defined as perceiving your body or parts of your body differently to how they really are or feeling unattractive and uncomfortable in one’s body. This often leads to feelings of low self-worth, depression, anxiety, and unhealthy eating patterns and behaviour.
Throughout my years as a therapist, I’ve worked with many clients, usually young women, who find it very difficult to appreciate and accept their bodies. Somehow, they never felt pretty enough, slim enough or as attractive as other women. With this in mind, I’d like to provide some guidance on how we can develop a healthier relationship with our body.
Ditch the narrative that looking a certain way will make you happier
People often believe that being more physically attractive may make us happier. Certainly, physical beauty may get you more likes on Tinder or admiring looks from passers-by. A number of studies even found that physically attractive people are given more opportunities in the labour market (Abrevaya et al 2010; Mamermesh et al 2011). What physical beauty doesn’t do, however, is keep you in a job or result in a successful and happy relationship, for instance. This is because more enduring qualities, such as intelligence, persistence, creativity, genuinity and kindness are what enable you to prove yourself in the workplace and maintain healthy relationships. Happiness as a concept is based on many factors, most of which extend well beyond our looks. Loving yourself and accepting yourself exactly as you are is a deep, internal process which involves the whole person and not just the physical body.
Acknowledge the amazing things your body does
Seriously, have you ever really acknowledged how amazing the human body is and the complex processes going on within us every second of the day? There may be some aspects of your body you don’t like, but what it allows you to accomplish daily is nothing short of a miracle. As you read this, your heart is pumping blood throughout your body whilst the billions of neurons in your brain are co-ordinating your thoughts, behaviour and every movement and sensation. Your body allows you to walk, run, swim, dance and take care of your daily needs. If you notice yourself focusing on parts of your body you don’t like, stop a moment and think about your body in terms of the things it allows you to achieve and enjoy. Not everyone has this privilege!
Challenge your body
To really see what your body is capable of and maximise the gratitude you feel, set yourself some challenges. A few ideas are – climbing, abseiling, swimming in the sea, jogging, daily walks, a dance class, yoga or pilates. The more you engage in activities which allow you to get in touch with your body and experience the sheer brilliance of it, the more likely you’ll look beyond the superficial.
Stop judging other people’s bodies
One way to reduce the cycle of body shaming is to prevent fuelling it yourself. Before concluding that someone doesn’t exercise, or eats too much, try to take a broader and more compassionate view. Firstly, many people have underlying health issues we are unaware of which may impact their weight, which may relate to their physical or mental health. Apart from that, not everyone has had the same opportunities, guidance and support to maintain a healthy lifestyle as you may have had. You may notice also that as you judge people less, you’ll be less likely to expect others to judge you. Call it karma or whatever you like but being kind and understanding with others really has a way of coming back to you in surprising ways.
Fine tune your social media feed
What we choose to focus on can have a huge impact on how we feel. Nowadays, we spend far too much time on our phones, often scrolling through images of slim, ‘beautiful’ people. Instead of this very aesthetic focus, why not limit or unfollow such feeds and replace these with sites or people who promote healthy eating, active lifestyles and so on? In this way, your focus moves to something you have more control over and which will benefit your physical and mental health. You’ll also be less inclined to feel the need to comply and share pictures of yourself looking great, meaning you can use this time and energy to just enjoy yourself!