Shifting Your Body Image
Updated: Feb 12, 2020
Early body image is formed relatively unconsciously. During adolescence and my early 20’s, my self-perception was formed by environment and peers. I took no role in actively curating an image of myself or my body. I absorbed the examples around me. The magazines I read, the women I saw on TV, and even my own mother’s words and actions demonstrated clearly: a “good” body meant thinness. Delicate, small women were the epitome of beauty. Therefore, I believed that to have anything other than a thin body was unacceptable and disgusting. I constantly compared myself to my peers and if I wasn’t thin enough, I wasn’t valuable. My self-worth came solely from how I stacked up to others, by how thin I could be.
During my late 20’s, I have become highly aware of the active process of creating a positive self-image. Unlearning conditioned negative beliefs and actively seeking images and role models of MY ideal body has given me control over my body image. We all have the power to form personal opinions of what a healthy body looks and performs like—and we also have the ability to build a positive body image and self-perception. Critical thinking, physical activity, and healthy habits (self-care!) can all contribute to a healthier body image.
I learned the power of critical thinking during college. My professors taught me to question all information, from all sources. I learned that you don’t have to just accept all the ideas and thought processes you absorbed as a child/teen. They taught me to objectively examine my beliefs and ideas and ask, “WHY?”. Why do I believe this story? Where did I learn this idea? Who has influenced me to believe this way? What do I really think and believe about this information? Did this idea come from a credible source? Is there evidence to back up their opinion? Is there better evidence for a different belief or idea?
Permission to examine why I held my beliefs bubbled over into my personal life. I also began questioning beliefs and ideas I had about myself. Critical thinking was the tool that allowed me to unlearn the ideas I’d built around body image as a child/teen. Questioning my learned body ideals gave me permission to aspire to a different body. I realized my actual opinion of a beautiful body was one that was strong and capable. This shifted the why behind exercise and nutrition and gave me reason to improve these habits because it could lead to an image I valued. I bought into the idea of working out and eating well because I had critically formed an ideal outcome that I valued. Motivation to work hard toward an outcome you value is a lot stronger than external motivation inspired by other's values.
Learning to examine your belief systems and create ideas that serve your ideals is only one step in building a positive body image. Physical activity is absolutely vital to creating self-confidence. Being active supports a positive self-image through several means. Becoming better at a skill inspires confidence in yourself. Learning how to overcome the challenges and difficulties of training, a sport, or an active hobby teaches discipline and commitment. Enthusiastically engaging in an activity boosts your overall mood, can allow you to build new relationships, and improves sleep. All of these mechanisms contribute to a better body image. Physical activity not only functionally builds a healthier body, but also allows one to form admirable character traits within oneself and make new friends. These self-improvements further support a positive self-image.
My preferred physical activity became lifting weights. Quickly I learned that if I wanted to create the strong body I idolized; I better eat to support that growth. In college, I was anorexic, which made sense considering the bodies I thought of as valuable; considering how little self-value I held. Lifting weights easily translated into healthier eating. I needed to properly fuel my body for it to grow and perform well.
The newly formed habit of eating well created another perspective shift. My self-value increased when I learned to believe in eating well as a form of taking care of my body. While not everyone will love lifting weights (that’s okay!), I urge you to begin thinking of the value that nutrition provides for your body to properly function. We only get one body- everything we put into it and expose it to can either support its health or its decline. Choosing healthy foods the majority of the time and practicing other healthy habits like getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and socializing, each support a positive body image. Taking care of yourself feels good and gives yourself an inner feeling of value and worth.
Body image is complicated and influenced by many factors. One key takeaway to understand is the fluidity of the concept. How we perceive our bodies and ourselves is different at 15, 30, and 50. I challenge you to think critically about your beliefs and ideas. Break out of those beliefs that are holding your self-image down. Create new ideas. Be active. If you don’t already have an activity you LOVE, try new ones! Not only is it physically healthier to be moving, it provides psychological benefits too. Finally, think of eating well and other self-care habits as an active show of self-value. If you don’t take care of your body, who else will? You deserve to show yourself what it means to be valued.
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