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How negative body image develops
by Harriet Frew on October 2nd, 2019

Your body image! It develops from birth and from so early on in life, you absorb many unconscious and conscious messages, which get woven into your psyche, then influencing your beliefs and perceptions. Below I talk about some of the key influences.

1) The culture

In Western culture, as we know well, there is a definite preference towards a thinner physique (can be termed thin idealisation). These messages have become particularly amplified since the 1960's with slender models such as Twiggy, celebrated widely. This affect has accelerated through the 1980's with women's magazines, the promotion of diets and the increased focus on body shape and manipulating it. It could be argued that it reached its peak (pre-social media) in the 1990's, in the era of waif super-models, such as Kate Moss.

Since the 2000's, with many more TV channels and the advent of social media, the availability of idealised images has taken over to such a degree that we can be overwhelmed 24/7. Men are increasingly targeted and impacted too. The latest incarnation of this movement has been towards clean eating and being lean/fit - #fitspo. On the surface, it might appear to be a healthier version of the old thin ideal, but the underlying conditionality of the message prevails. In the media, we still do not see a true cross section and representation of human bodies. Thankfully, there is some backlash against this, with people promoting body positivity and health at every size (HAES). There is still a long way to go.

2) Self-esteem

Having a healthy self-esteem is arguably the most preventative buffer against having a negative body image. With a healthy self-esteem, you have a thicker skin to deal with the external messages; you will buy-in less and have more objectivity. You will feel less need to conform and get thin to feel better.

Having a healthy self-esteem involves acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses; accepting yourself as a person, without having to meet external conditions; having supportive and healthy relationships and genuinely feeling worthwhile and ‘good enough’ deep down. If you have this from early in life, consider yourself extremely fortunate.

3) Family values and attitudes

If you had a mother who constantly dieted or was unhappy with her shape, she will have inadvertently passed on many messages to you. If your parents often commented about the weight and shape of others or were fat phobic, you will have internalised these messages also. Sibling rivalry can sometimes fuel negative body image. If someone is particularly blessed genetically and then overtly praised for this, this can impact the self-esteem of the other siblings. If self-esteem is low within the family and you have been criticised or judged regularly (not just about appearance but other things), you will be more vulnerable to being harsh on yourself about weight and shape too.

4) Abuse/trauma

If you have experienced trauma, assault or abuse then unsurprisingly, this can have a momentous impact on your body image. Early trauma can be held in the body and can lead to feelings of badness or unacceptability. Focusing on changing your body, can be a way to dissociate or numb from the painful underlying feelings. Specialist help is often needed to overcome this.

5) Puberty

Particularly in women, puberty can be a negative body image trigger. If you develop earlier than your peer group or received early, unwanted attention in relation to your appearance, this can create difficult feelings. If you experience a noticeable change in height or weight at puberty, which is not uncommon for many people, this can heighten feelings of discomfort or self-consciousness.

6) Physical activity

Playing sports and being active is often beneficial for body image. If there is pressure to conform to a certain body shape eg: fitness modelling, ballet or horse-racing as examples, this can increase body preoccupation though. Sadly, it is not uncommon that the experience of Physical Education at school, was not the best. This has often led to feelings of self-consciousness or inadequacy, or feeling not good enough physically in relation to peers.

7) Acceptance/rejection in relation to your body

If you have been endlessly praised for how you look, interestingly this can often lead to greater body dissatisfaction and feelings of pressure to maintain looks. You focus more on your body and feel preoccupied.

If you have been criticised or rejected for how you look, this also has a profound impact. Bullying of all kinds is incredibly harmful. If you have been bullied in relation to your appearance, this can lead to longstanding emotional wounds and self-consciousness.

8 ) Physical conditions

Having an accident or experiencing an event that changes your body eg: burns or loss of a limb, can understandably impact body image to a significant degree.

Understanding how your body image has developed can be valuable. Raising awareness and beginning to question or challenge it, can be the first point of change.

Which ones do you relate to? Do let me know.

Posted in Body image, Confidence, Exercise, Feeling fat, Identity, Roots of behaviour, Self-esteem    Tagged with body image, negative body image, Eating Disorder, how body image develops, understanding self, how low self esteem develops


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