How Do I Develop a Positive Body Image?
Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses, caused by a combination of environmental, biological, and psychological factors. While our environment is only a part of the equation, it is important to look at the ways it does contribute, and what we can do to change it.
Societal Pressure to Be Thin
We are constantly bombarded with the message “Thinner is better.” Our casual conversations about weight loss, unrealistic expectations portrayed in the media, and diet culture are all environmental factors that can contribute to body image issues, and in some instances, eating disorders. Most of us hear comments like “I had a huge lunch–I’ll need to work that off later!” or “I look so fat” on a daily basis. Additionally, we’re exposed to social media highlight reels (often featuring very carefully shot and edited photos), diet ads, and Hollywood’s worship of people who are one very specific body type every time we reach for our screens.
It’s so pervasive that it can almost feel like background noise. And that’s insidious because these messages filter into our collective consciousness without our knowledge. But that doesn’t mean it’s right, and it doesn’t mean it should be normalized. Fortunately, we are starting to see more and more pressure on media outlets to be inclusive of all shapes and sizes, to eliminate the use of Photoshop to alter bodies, and to stop encouraging unhealthy body standards for actors and models. Change is happening slowly but surely.
How Can We Promote Body Acceptance?
But what can we, as individuals, do to change our environment right now? How can we promote a healthier environment, as well as support loved ones who may be struggling with an eating disorder? Changing the way we talk about food, weight, and body image is a great place to start.
Here are some things we can all do every day to help change the conversation:
- Talk less about food and weight. Avoid making comments about a person’s dietary habits and intake, including a person’s weight and physical appearance. Instead, do more to make the environment one in which it is easier to make choices that are conducive to health.
- Losing weight does not necessarily mean improving health. Focus on giving people positive feedback for behavior changes and improvement in self-esteem and self-image, not weight.
- Model the behavior. Advocate physical activity because it feels good, gives energy, and helps to relieve stress. Encourage a variety of foods to get a variety of nutrients, but don’t villainize “junk foods” as off-limits.
- Keep the focus on overall health, not weight. Encourage people to share the benefits of healthy behavior changes as opposed to weight loss.
- Ensure people know they have value regardless of their weight or health status. Low self-esteem is common in those who struggle with weight (and also those of normal weight). Ask what a person feels good about and reinforce those good feelings.
- Encourage language change about others’ weight and your own. Commenting negatively or positively about weight can set people up for eating disorders in the future.
- Support media outlets and entertainers that promote body acceptance.
Adapted from: Neumark-Sztainer D, “I’m, Like, SO Fat!”: Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices about Eating and Exercise in a Weight Obsessed World. New York: The Guilford Press; 2005.