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Body image: changing our mindset

This article was written by Eleanor Burns who is the first intake on our Internship Programme. She took on the emotive topic of body image, which is the theme for this year's Mental Health Awarenss Week. 

Body Image: Changing Our Mindset

 ‘…there are no roots more intimate than those between a mind and body that have decided to be whole.’  (Rupi Kaur)

There has never been a more important time to think about the impact of body image, defined as the physical perception that we have of ourselves, when we look in the mirror or picture our bodies in our minds.. With social media being so deeply embedded in our lives, we are constantly bombarded with images and opinions of what a ‘perfect’ body is supposed to look like, shaping how comfortable we feel in our own skin. In fact, 50% of women use unhealthy behaviours to control their weight and 43% of men are dissatisfied with their bodies, according to The Body Image Therapy Center.

Sometimes the feelings that are associated with our body image can be positive, but more often than not, negative thoughts creep to the surface. A quick glance at our reflections or a comparison to someone else, can generate self-depreciating questions about our bodies that weigh on our minds, such as ‘why can’t my figure look like theirs?’ and ‘I wish I could change how I looked’.

However, what if in these moments of self-doubt, we paused to consider just how amazing our bodies actually are? What if, when we catch a glimpse of our reflections, we choose to counter our perceived weaknesses with strengths?

When you pause to think about it, our bodies do incredible things. Our bodies fight illness, they heal us when we hurt ourselves, they shift, grow and evolve, and they are able to create other human beings.

I have often been asked, why do we not show ourselves the same kindness, that we would show to those around us? If our friend or family member was feeling down about the way that they looked, we would be uplifting and reassuring, not discouraging, yet we often fail to offer ourselves the same compassion.

The ability to shift negative perceptions of ourselves that have been moulded by our environment is by no means easy, but it is achievable. If we can train our bodies to run marathons, then we can train our minds too.

Why are we so hard on ourselves?

Psychologists often call humans ‘cognitive misers’, which basically means that we have a tendency to process information as easily as possible, making us susceptible to cognitive biases. While this can be adaptive at times, allowing us to reach decisions quickly, it can also distort our thinking.

We tend to favour information that conforms to our existing beliefs, and discount evidence that does not conform. For example, if we are unhappy with our figures, we will focus on an aspect of our bodies that reinforces this belief, rather than focusing on an aspect that we like. This is more formally known as a confirmation bias.

It is important to acknowledge that confirmation biases are not inherently negative however. As human beings, we are hard-wired to be biased and we will naturally encounter negative thoughts and feelings. Typically, we are told to push these feelings away, but avoidance is a temporary solution, rather than a permanent one. Instead, if we accept that biases are a part of human nature, it is thought that we can move towards a higher state of objectivity.

In other words, a simple shift in the way that we approach our instincts, might just help us evolve the way we think about our bodies.

How can we think more positively?

  • Firstly, counter perceived weaknesses with strengths:
    • When self-depreciating thoughts and feelings surface, try and appreciate the attributes, skills and traits that you like about yourself. Consider writing these down or speaking them aloud as this tends to affirm our thoughts better.
  • Secondly, train the mind like we would train the body:
    • Given that we are prone to biases, train your mind to think differently. Take some time to practice approaching your thoughts with curiosity, almost as though you are an outsider observing your feelings. When you catch your reflection in the mirror, try not to focus on body parts but see yourself how others see you – a whole person. A willingness to face undesirable emotions will give you more clarity, enabling you to understand your mind more objectively.
  • Finally, we can all be kinder to ourselves:
    • Listen to your body and pause to think about how powerful it is. It protects you, fights for you, adapts and evolves. We are all built differently and will experience different things, but it is this individuality that makes us so interesting. If we can learn to be kind to ourselves in the way that we are to our friends and family, the mind and the body can shift from being separate entities, to being a united team instead.

Some Helpful Resources:

The Mental Health Foundation (Mental Health Awareness Week Information and Resources Page)

Mind (Mental Health Awareness Week Information and Resources Page)

BEAT (UK’s leading Eating Disorder Charity)

National Eating Disorder Charity (articles, tips and resources about how to have more body positivity)