Building a healthy body image
Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and everyone is different and unique. Most of this is determined by our individual genetics and the world or situation we live in. Over time the choices we make then influences how healthy we are in our body.
Someone’s body weight and size are the outcome of many things over weeks, months and even years, not just food and exercise. This includes age, hormones, sleep, stress, medications and factors unique to that person. Many of these are not things that we can control, others we have choice about.
Simply judging health or nutrition by body weight alone is not very useful. Although often talked about, the body mass index (BMI) is really a population measure and is not useful for individuals to judge themselves by.
Research tells us that to make good choices for health it is important to have a good relationship with your body, whatever it is like, and with yourself in that body. This can be hard for everyone in a body shape obsessed society, even more so when you live with additional stress in your life.
Body image is defined as someone’s perception of their body and is developed from life experiences, thoughts and feelings about the body; it is not the actual physical body. A positive body image is when someone can accept, appreciate and respect their body - and themselves in that body. We know from research that this is connected to a better self-esteem, less depression and eating disorders. Importantly it leads to the ability to make better choices to look after the body, such as choosing to eat well and enjoy physical activity. It may seem a bit strange to think of it in that context, but rather than developing restrictive eating regimes and diets, making a conscious decision to appreciate your unique body and the great things it can do, can in fact help you to make better choices in caring for yourself.
There are things you and your family can do to build a better relationship with your body and self and to counteract some of the issues that can occur from community attitudes about weight and shape or from having a body that is a bit ‘’different’.
- Show the way. Try to model a healthy body acceptance and respect for yourself. Focus on what the body can do, not the bits you don’t like as much. Try not to make jokes or comments about anyone’s size, shape or weight, even in fun.
- Food and eating are not moral issues. Be aware of the rapidly changing culture and the extremes of the latest dieting ideas such as intermittent fasting, keto, vegan and so on. These do not reflect what works for you, your body and your life and don’t make you a better person.
- Often people hope the latest diet or changing their body is an answer to wanting to feel more confident or improve relationships. Dieting doesn’t make the difference, working on these particular skills is more important.
- Monitor and discuss the use of the internet and media. Be critical of messages that promote ideals or stereotypes of bodies that are not realistic or helpful. Encourage your family members and friends to question these and be aware of the way photos and images are manipulated. For example, as you walk down the street encourage noticing all the different bodies that exist, without looking for the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ones.
- In the home setting avoid dieting, food fads or exercise health kicks that are solely to lose weight and try not to make eating and exercise the whole basis of family relationships and what you talk about together.
- Living a healthy enough lifestyle over time becomes a habit, but of course life can get busy and go off track. Teaching the skills to recognize this and then rebalance, for instance stress, eating, busyness, media use or sleep, is an ongoing and important life skill.
- Involve everyone in the household in decisions about foods, TV and media, based on a positive view of what can we all do together or negotiate, not what is wrong. This helps with owning individual tastes and choices and working together balancing the differences.
- Encourage and model an active lifestyle that is enjoyable for everyone and gives individuals the opportunities to be active in a way they enjoy. Socially based activities are even better. Limit activities that mean sitting for long periods without breaks in front of computers or desks. Young people experiencing their body as being able to be strong or capable even if there are limitations, is part of building good body respect.
- Use helpful language. Try to focus on ability and strengths and avoid comparisons to other people. Talk about what really makes up a person such as their values, relationships, skills, personality – and not being perfect! Perfectionism doesn’t exist so good enough most of the time is a realistic aim.
- Avoid less helpful language. Avoid calling food or the body ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or implying this even in the words healthy and unhealthy. This can be interpreted as I am a good person if I eat the right things or look different. Food, bodies and health are not good and bad moral issues. For instance, there are foods that are an everyday part of our eating and also foods we enjoy sometimes.
Resources that might be helpful:
- Health Direct – Body Image
- Better Health Channel
- Evelyn Tribole and Elise Rech– Intuitive Eating specialists
- National Eating Disorders Collaborative. Information re: body image and eating disorders.