Our body image is our internalised sense of how we look. "This can be thought of as a mental representation or map of our body, against which we judge our external appearance"*. Negative body image is a persistent perception of your appearance and how you present to the world as bad or not good enough. When you look in the mirror (which in itself is an inaccurate depiction of how you actually look), you're unsatisfied with what you see and want to change one or several features of your physical appearance; whether that's a desire to lose or gain weight, have flawless skin, a more chiseled jawline, prominent cheekbones - I could go on forever! This is different from body dysmorphic disorder which can be very extreme to the point where you avoid all social interaction outside those absolutely necessary for fear of how you will be perceived by others, and must be diagnosed by a mental health professional.
It is human nature to crave public approval, wanting to belong to a tribe and be accepted. Historically, human beings needed to be accepted into groups or packs for protection and we have not evolved as much as we'd like to believe, therefore we continue to crave acceptance either to blend in and go unnoticed entirely or to be elevated in status and praised or complimented. So don't feel ashamed if you struggle with this as majority of us are going through it too! Even the ones who look so confident on the surface.
How can you identify if you struggle with negative body image?
If you are preoccupied with thoughts of changes you'd like to make to your physical appearance every day; find it near impossible to share a photo without a filter, edit or preset; have social anxiety ahead of events or gatherings for fear of people noticing and commenting on features you believe are "flaws" like acne-prone skin or having a "fupa"; if you struggle to list several things you love about your body - you more than likely have a negative body image and would benefit from working to change your orientation and perspective on yourself.
Unfortunately, a lot of this perspective is planted in our minds very early on in life which makes it so incredibly difficult to overcome. For example, people who have been bullied or abused in childhood tend to feel that they are being judged harshly or mocked even when they are not, and can become excessively preoccupied with their appearance. Likewise, if you were constantly passed over or compared to a sibling, cousin or friends growing up, this can make you even more desperate for acceptance and recognition which tends to be awarded disproportionately to people that are "conventionally attractive" or of a more celebrated body type. These thoughts have become a part of our subconscious and we have to be so intentional, persistent and patient in trying to combat and hopefully eliminate them for good!
There are a few myths that drive negative body image such as the idea that if you gain weight you must be doing something wrong and lacking in self control. Research has proven that weight management has very little to do with self control and much more to do with bio-individual responses to food and lifestyle factors. Another myth is that you stop growing at age 21 therefore there is no real excuse for weight gain in your twenties and beyond. The truth is that while we may stop growing in height roughly around that age, the cells in our body continue to evolve until we die and each stage of development on the inside affects how we evolve on the outside.
The greatest diet culture myth that harms a lot of us mentally and leads to deep-seated negative body image issues is the idea that larger bodies are necessarily unhealthy. The same way it's possible to be unhealthy in a smaller body (see smoking, drug abuse, suffering from an eating disorder or unbalanced diet/sedentary lifestyle), is the same way you can be incredibly healthy in a larger body with no signs of frequent illness, low levels of stress, joyful living with food freedom and balanced nutrition, and movement that keeps your heart healthy!
Now it's one thing to have all this information and another to experience day to day life especially as Africans where your worst fears and negative body image can be reinforced by your fave aunties' comments like "you have added" or "you need to take it easy!" or "hasn't it been over a year since you had the baby? You should be back to normal by now!" - with no regard for what you may be going through, how their comments make you feel or whether you are actually in good health or not. Unsolicited comments like these grind my gears and even I am still deeply affected by them from time to time! However, here are some tips that can help you slowly overcome negative body image and reclaim the belief that you are in fact, a bad b*tch!
Do not ignore the feeling and don't feel any shame - It is completely normal that you feel this way so don't pretend otherwise and wonder what's "wrong" with you. Having a negative body image is not your fault. You are not responsible for the lifelong programming of trending bodies in the media, micro-aggressions from relatives and classmates growing up with regards to your body shape and size, your unique genetic composition, none of it! With time and practice you will learn to love all (or most of) your parts but for now, acknowledge your feelings so you can start to release them.
Intercept these negative thoughts and question them. How do you feel when you're alone and don't face the prospect of criticism or evaluation of how you look from external sources? Are you comfortable? Are you in good health? Do you have decent stamina and a relatively active lifestyle? So what else do you need? And if you don't have all these things, realise that it may be time to prioritise your health over just your appearance.
Set boundaries that protect you from your triggers. Cleanse your social media feed and control the images and messaging you receive! Anything that makes you feel less than you do not have to expose yourself to. Choose wisely what you feed your mind as that's where your negative body image lives and you can either fuel or starve it with the information you consume.
Start appreciating diverse forms of beauty in others so you can appreciate your unique place in the world too. A lot of us value body types that are praised in the media despite not having that body type ourselves. Be inspired by the confidence in other women who have learned to embrace their looks without conforming to socially acceptable norms. The more we explore the beauty in others, the more we begin to see it in ourselves
Explore various fashion options! Have fun with how you dress and adorn yourself and accentuate the parts of you that you love. You won't love every single part of your body but focus on the ones you do love and give them extra attention.
I will continue to talk about body image over time on the blog but these are just a few things I'm continuously working on and some days it's a struggle but I'm so happy those days are fewer and further between and I can share more of what I'm learning with you as I go along! Negative body image may always rear it's ugly head but the important thing is to actively work on changing your perspective so that overall your life is more enjoyable and filled with self-appreciation. This is something I would love to help you with through my health coaching sessions.
Does any of this resonate with you? Do you still struggle deeply with this or have you learned ways to manage or overcome it? Please share your experience in the comment section below!
* Overcoming Body Image Problems including Body Dysmorphic Disorder by David Veale, Rob Willson, Alex Clarke