What is body image? We think of body image as standing in front of the mirror hating our thighs, stomach, or even ankles! It is that, but there is more to it:
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) says that body image is how you see yourself when you look in the mirror or when you picture yourself in your mind. It encompasses:
Our body does a lot for us. It houses our "self" as we move through the world around us. We use our body to interact with others. We use our body to convey information about ourselves to others (both passively and intentionally). We use our bodies to sense whether or not we like something or we dislike something or we feel safe or afraid. This is our "gut feeling." Our human experience is sensed through the body. Our body image is so much more than perception of size. It is about our relationship with our self.
At birth we experience our body and our emotions in a raw, sensory way. We experience physical sensations of cold/warm, hunger/satiety, tired/alert, light/dark, loud/quiet, and pain/comfort. We also experience basic emotions, we long for physical safety and security, which we sense snuggled up with mother. When an infant does not feel safe, they will show physical signs of distress in tightening of muscles, flailing limbs, and loud crying. As babies, we do not interpret our bodies as good or bad, they just are, and they give us information about our world.
Our bodies are our way of interacting with the world and we learn quickly if that interaction feels good or feels bad. We also learn about our bodies by the way our caregivers react to what our bodies do. Are our natural and uncontrollable process met with warmth, caring, and acceptance, or do we learn that our bodies do "gross" things that burden others until we can keep them secret? We proceed into early childhood with an already bias for or against our physical being.
In childhood, we develop a sense of self, and that self includes our bodies. Already, our peers make judgments about what is and is not acceptable when it comes to appearance. For some, this judgement is brutal. We find that we are judged by all aspects of our body and many suffer ridicule for any real or perceived difference. We also learn that our sex and our skin color have complex sets of expectations attached to them. As women, we learn that it is very important to be pretty, to be thin, to be not too tall and not too short. Perhaps we learn that certain hair or eye color is preferred. Perhaps we learn our skin color or hair type is not preferred. We learn that it is important to be liked by boys (even if we do not really want that kind of attention from boys). Above all, we learn that, no matter what body we have, there is something that is not right. We learn early on that our bodies are not good enough, and we feel that we are not good enough.
Our bodies alert us to our feelings: a rapid heart rate when we are in fear, pressure in our eyes when we feel sad, lightness and flow of energy when we feel happy. Our bodies alert us when we feel our personal boundaries are violated, physically, emotionally, or both. We may have learned that it is unsafe to feel our bodies, to know what they are telling us. We may use control over our body size and shape as a way of protecting ourselves from pain or abuse. We may be frightened of what our bodies might say. We learned to "turn off" our knowing. We became disconnected from our full living experience.
As adults, we may find that much of our mental and emotional energy is focused on achieving a certain body size and shape. We may find that, if we stop to think about it, we have restricted ourselves from life, believing that we are unworthy and undeserving of full inclusion in life as our body image reigns over our day-to-day living.
In these and other ways, we have a complex relationship with our bodies that goes far beyond weight and size. Our sense of self-worth, our sense of belonging, and our ability to fully experience sensation and feelings in life is intricately tied to our beliefs about and sense of our bodies. Body image encompasses all of these aspects of our physical experience. Being at war with our bodies is the only kind of relationship that is presented to us.
There is another way. We do not have to agree to hate our bodies and use them as a battle ground in a losing struggle for self-worth. We can life fully, wholly, joyfully in our bodies.
Karen J. Helfrich, LCSW-C
As a therapist, mother, daughter, partner, and seeker, I am always on the journey toward a more peaceful, authentic life. I hope to share knowledge, insights, and the ongoing unknowns I find along the path...