Understanding Body Image and Eating Disorders
In a world saturated with images of false ideals, the pressure to look a certain way can be overwhelming. Images of perceived ‘perfection’ flood our screens, subtly shaping our notions of self-worth and beauty. We are often led to believe that our value is tied to our physical appearance and our weight, which can cause body image issues, complicate our relationships with our bodies, and exacerbate eating disorders.
First, it’s important to understand that body image isn’t just about how we see ourselves in the mirror. It’s the relationship we have with our bodies, influenced by our perceptions, histories, emotions, and physical sensations. It’s about how we believe others see us, how we feel in our bodies, and how much control we believe we have over our appearance.
The Body Image Spectrum
Body image is a spectrum, with body negativity, body positivity, and body neutrality acting as points along this continuum. Moving along this spectrum is part of the human experience, and it’s completely normal to fluctuate between these stages.
Body negativity is often characterized by a critical, negative perception of one’s body. It’s a state where we might obsess over perceived flaws and struggle to see the value and beauty in our physical form.
Body positivity, on the other end, is a movement that advocates for the acceptance and appreciation of all body types. It encourages individuals to love and celebrate their bodies, in all their unique shapes and sizes.
Body neutrality, a somewhat recent concept, takes a slightly different approach. It proposes that we should aim to see our bodies as neutral entities, tools that allow us to experience the world. It’s about recognizing the functionality of our bodies and detaching our self-worth from our physical appearance.
While body neutrality might seem like an ideal goal, it’s important to remember that it’s not always achievable. And that’s perfectly okay! It’s natural for our relationship with our body to shift, depending on the day, the situation, or even our emotional states.
What’s key is to not judge ourselves when we are in a state of negativity. Instead, try to approach these feelings with curiosity. Ask yourself, “Why might I be feeling this way about my body today?” This gentle question can lead to a deeper understanding and more compassion for ourselves.
Remember, it’s about progress, not perfection. Practice expanding your idea of what your relationship with your body can be—complex, multifaceted, and ever-evolving.
Seeing Oneself: Perceptions, Struggles, and Healing
The mirror should be a simple object, an impartial reflector of what is. Yet, for many of us, it is fraught with judgment, pain, and a distorted sense of self. In some cases, negative body image can have a serious impact on one’s mental health and can potentially lead to disordered eating.
People who suffer from eating disorders might be overly preoccupied about their appearance and body image, often for many hours a day, and may develop habits and behaviours aimed at ‘fixing’ or hiding what they perceive as flaws. This fixation can be so intense that it interferes with the individual’s daily life, and can sometimes lead to harmful behaviours,which can include eating disorders.
Eating disorders, which are a range of health conditions that affect both physical and mental health (such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder, among others), can stem from various reasons, and not all are connected to body image. Remember, issues connected to the body can derive from various traumas, circumstances and experiences and often require professional support in order to be addressed and to help with recovery.
Eating disorders are not specific to a single habit, a specific physical appearance, or a set of issues. The root causes of eating disorders are multifaceted, often combining genetic, psychological, and socio-cultural factors. They are not simply about food, but about how individuals cope with feelings, stressors, and control issues.
Individuals living with these disorders can hyper-focus on their weight and shape, the kind of food they eat, and how much or how little they consume. They can engage in patterns linked to over-exercising, food overconsumption, or restrictive eating. These disorders can be serious and potentially life-threatening and will often require professional interventions.
There is a demonstrated need within BIPOC communities for support with eating disorders, an issue that has historically been unaddressed. In some of our communities, the desire for weight-loss fueled by colonial standards of beauty can lead some to praise weight-loss and overlook deeper physical and mental health concerns.
If you’re struggling with body image or eating concerns, it’s crucial to seek help. Mental health professionals are trained to help manage these disorders. For those supporting a loved one with an eating disorder, it’s essential to approach the situation with sensitivity. Listen to their experiences without judgment, encourage professional help, and avoid focusing on their appearance or eating habits.
The journey to positive or neutral body image is a personal one and it can be a difficult road to travel. Remember, it’s okay to ask for help and seek professional guidance. You are more than your body, and your worth is not determined by your appearance. Your body is the vessel that allows you to experience life, and for that, it deserves your respect and care.
Until next time.
Zainib Abdullah is the founder, executive director, and a psychotherapist at WellNest Psychotherapy Services. Her approach to healing incorporates various therapeutic modalities. She works from a client-centred, anti-racist/oppressive/colonial & trauma-informed framework. As a yoga teacher and student in the lineage of Classical Yoga, she further incorporates mindfulness based therapies to support clients in accessing greater connectedness to their inner wisdom and peace.