Most of us have “bad body days”
They tend to occur after spying another wrinkle, when eating a second helping or while flipping through a fashion magazine — stuff that’s pretty much par for the course for most women.
But when you let yourself feel down about your body, hating one particular feature, or find yourself chatting with gal pals about “how fat” you feel, these are signs of poor body image. All nibble away at your self-esteem, says Shelly Russell-Mayhew, a registered psychologist and assistant professor in the division of applied psychology at the University of Calgary. “The female definition of beauty has narrowed over time, and now it’s an impossible standard,” she says. “Women — and increasingly men — are spending extraordinary amounts of time, energy and money on making themselves look better.”
At some point in our lives, most of us have cycled through the different levels of body acceptance, which Russell-Mayhew defines as the ability to recognize and understand that how one’s body looks is only one part of who we are. Some people end up defining their success in life based solely on outward appearance. Obsession with body image can lead to social isolation, eating disorders and even depression. Is your body image getting in the way of a healthy, happy and successful life?
Take the quiz
For each question, choose the shape that best describes you. Determine which shape you chose most often and find out your body image profile below (you may fall into more than one category).
1. At a restaurant, the waiter asks whether you’d like to see the dessert menu. You are most likely to think:
■ “Should I treat myself? Maybe we’ll share one.”
◆”‘Of course; who doesn’t want chocolate cheesecake?”
● “I’m never going to be thin if I don’t learn how to say no.”
▲ “I’m way too fat to eat any dessert in public.”
2. Your significant other is slowly undressing you. You’re most likely to:
● Tense up as he nears your loathed love handles.
■ Close your eyes and relish every tantalizing moment.
▲ Turn off the lights, and hope he gets on with it.
◆ Show off your belly dancing moves (so what if you jiggle).
3. The clothing store assistant says she thinks you need the next size up. You’re most likely to:
▲ Take a pass and never shop there again.
● Feel frustrated since you know you’ve been exercising quite a bit lately.
◆ Assume the sizes in that store are on the small side.
■ Decide to lose a few pounds — your health is a priority.
4. The office “beauty queen” is promoted. You’re most likely to:
◆ Think, “If looks really matter, I’ll get the next promotion.”
■ Think, “She deserves it, but her looks probably helped her.”
▲ Figure, “I might never get ahead if looks matter.”
● Assume with envy, “It’s her gorgeous skin and perfect posture.”
5. A friend you haven’t seen in months says you are looking thinner. You’re most likely to:
■ Appreciate the comment, but chalk it up to the black outfit you’re wearing.
● Eagerly find out why she thinks so, wanting to believe her every word.
▲ Clam up and feel anxious and self-conscious.
◆ Laugh, and joke about Spanx being your new best friend.
6. Your friend often complains about her large nose, but it’s nothing compared to yours. You:
■ Make a point of talking about what is really bothering her.
◆ Counter her self-criticism by pointing out famous beauties with unique noses.
● Join in, as you want her opinion on cosmetic nose surgery.
▲ Feel hurt that she’s oblivious to your own flaw.
7. Another mom says she’s got her daughter in activities every night for fear her child will be out of shape. You’re likely to:
● Wonder if you can fit another activity into your kid’s day.
◆ Feel sorry for the girl. You and your daughter bond over TV.
▲ Warn your kids about the perils of not enough exercise.
■ Balk at her extreme view.
Mostly ◆: You are body bold
Congratulations — you are among the body-confident minority. The Canadian Women’s Health Network, a national organization that aims to improve our lives and health, estimates that about 90 per cent of women and girls are unhappy with the way they look. As for you, body image is simply not an issue. You have a strong sense of who you are, and it’s not measured by your appearance. You feel confident in your relationships, which are authentic, and you rarely let insecurities hold you back. Just be careful not to be cavalier about your weight.
Ask yourself: How confident am I in my health? How well am I caring for my body? Whether happy or unhappy with your body, you shouldn’t be complacent about your health behaviours. A study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology in 2009 found that an extremely good body image may also be damaging for a woman’s health, and can result in a host of mental and physical health problems. When the 81 women in the study (whose weights varied) were asked to choose ideal body shapes from illustrations, the majority chose normal and overweight. But nearly 20 per cent of obese women chose an overweight or obese silhouette. This suggests that some women may not understand the health risks of being overweight. Talk to your doctor about whether your health — not just your size — is optimal.
Mostly ■: You are body confident
You feel strong, healthy and, for the most part, confident about your body. You know that you are more than your appearance. How you look is important to you, but you spend only small parts of the day thinking about it. You may dislike certain body parts, but you’ve made peace with the aspects you can’t change. The key is to maintain this healthy outlook, especially through big changes, including pregnancy and menopause, say the experts. And be aware of the messages you are sending to others. “Being happy with how you look will be passed on to daughters, nieces and other women in your life,” points out Dr. Valerie Taylor, a psychiatrist and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University.
For an extra boost, maintain good posture. Body posture not only gives a better impression to others, it boosts your own self-esteem, according to a study in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2009. “People assume their confidence is coming from their own thoughts. They don’t realize their posture is affecting how much they believe in what they’re thinking,’ says Richard Petty, co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.
Just exercise. The simple act of exercise, irrespective of intensity or outcome, can also boost your self-esteem, according to a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2009. How does this work? “The power of the mind,” says study co-author Heather Hausenblas, an associate professor and director of the Exercise Psychology Laboratory at the University of Florida. “It may be that we are exercising, which we know is good for us, which translates into our perception of increased well-being.”
Get in touch with yourself. Take the time to assess an area of your body — for example, your shoulder or calf. Feel the size of it, and how strong and muscular it feels. “An exercise like this helps you move away from distorted thinking to actually experiencing your body through the sense of touch,” explains Dr. Shari Kirsh, a psychiatrist at the Women’s Mental Health program at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.
Mostly ●: You are body preoccupied
You may underestimate how much you blame your body flaws for failures in your life. You frequently compare yourself to movie stars and svelte friends, and come up short. You often experience “I feel fat” days, feel self-conscious around others you find attractive, and spend a lot of time in front of a mirror. You believe you would be more attractive if you were thinner or more muscular, and beat yourself up for not exercising enough or for having a decadent meal. “It’s hard for these women to recognize they are caught up in a wrong way of thinking,” says Kirsh. She encourages women to reflect on all the ways they derive meaning, satisfaction and joy in life. “Often, you’ll find that changes to your body, say losing weight, really won’t change anything at all.” The reality is that what you really value in life is probably much broader than clear skin or tight abs.
Consider solo workouts. If you don’t like to exercise because of other people being around, cancel your gym classes and try things you can do on your own. Working out next to fit-looking peers may lower your own body satisfaction. Yet working out next to unfit peers does not raise body satisfaction, according to researchers in the department of psychology at the University of California, San Diego.
Avoid “fat talk.” Engaging in dialogues with friends that go something like “I look horrible in everything I try on” is called “fat talk.” While its impact on self-esteem is not fully understood, a study published in Body Image in September 2009 showed that resisting this type of conversation, and engaging in positive body talk instead, makes you more likeable to peers. So don’t worry about conforming or “fitting in” by engaging in fat talk, says Brooke Tompkins, study co-author and clinical research associate at Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C.
Appreciate what your body can do. Kirsh encourages women to try some “body-orientated” exercises based on the practice of mindful awareness. “It’s about moving away from thinking about the body, to living in the body.” For example, next time you are walking down the street, experience how your body moves, feel the muscles contracting. You will find you relate to your body in a whole new way. Look for mindful awareness classes at a local mental health, yoga or meditation centre.
Live for the now! Many women put their lives on hold until they are happy with their body image. “I’ll take that cruise when I shed those last five pounds.” “I’ll apply for a promotion when I know I’ll get it.” Go ahead and live your life no matter how you feel about your body; doing so is an important step toward making positive change, advises Russell-Mayhew.
Mostly ▲: You are body obsessed
You dedicate a lot of time to altering your appearance through diet and exercise (and you’re not opposed to plastic surgery). You’ve avoided dating or applying for a job because you dislike your appearance, though you may not want to admit it. You wonder whether your relationship wouldn’t be better if you looked better. You feel pressure (self-imposed or from others) to change how you look.
At its extreme, body obsession can lead to serious disruptions in your life, and put you at risk for medical conditions, including body dysmorphic disorder (an excessive concern about a perceived defect in physical appearance), depression and eating disorders, says Kirsh. “Some women end relationships, lose a job or get into debt from spending on beauty procedures, all because of a really poor body image,” she explains. If you think you’re body obsessed, talk with your doctor or seek counselling. And don’t be afraid to tell someone you trust about your feelings. An outside perspective can be enlightening, and the support can be emboldening, says Taylor.
Quit ruminating. The more you ponder about the things that “you hate about your body, the more dissatisfied and anxious” you will become, according to a study published in Body Image in January. So check any negative self-talk. “Women tend to blame their bodies for some negative emotion they’re having,” explains Russell-Mayhew. “”‘I feel fat” is not a feeling. Fat is not felt. It’s a teachable moment to ask yourself what you are really feeling.” An emotion, perhaps boredom, loneliness or sadness, is likely what is driving your negative perspective.
Think critically about influences. Examine your belief about what defines beauty. Think of those you consider attractive. Are they grounded, poised, kind, unpredictable? Beauty comes in many different forms. Guard against negative media messages that come from Hollywood and the entertainment media.
Use techniques such as those employed in cognitive behavioural therapy. “This approach emphasizes changing the way you think about something in order to change your behaviour,” explains Taylor. To do this, you need to challenge your views about your appearance. You probably can’t justify your belief that being thin will actually make you happier. The Eating Disorders Program at McMaster University has found that this kind of thought inspection improves women’s self-esteem even when they have not lost the desired weight.