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Body image: ‘We can have a full, meaningful life in the bodies we have.’

Body image is a key part of well-being, yet many of us have a conflicted relationship with our bodies. A Stanford Medicine psychologist offers guidance.

Think about your body for a second. Few of us, I suspect, find our minds flooded by comfortable, self-assuring thoughts and feelings.

Yet cultivating a healthy body image is a key part of a living a happy, fulfilled life. To learn more, we talked to Stanford Medicine psychologist Kristine Luce, PhD. 

Body image exists on a continuum

Although body image is commonly understood as having to do with weight and shape, the term encompasses all aspects of physical appearance  -- including age, facial attributes and gender. 

Luce said she thinks of body image on a continuum, although most people have varying degrees of appreciation and criticism for their bodies. For example, when speaking about body image, a person may speak about parts of their bodies they like, and parts that they don't like. Others might describe feeling positive about their bodies overall, but still want to change certain aspects.

Body image is dynamic and ever-changing. People tend to move along a continuum of how they perceive themselves at various stages of life, such as when they age or gain or lose weight.

Many factors contribute to body image

We are constantly inundated with messages from many different sources, including our friends, family, media and other influences.

Luce describes a series of studies conducted in Fiji before western television was brought to the island. At that time, there were no known cases of eating disorders in Fiji. The studies revealed that the first cases of eating and body image disorders emerged after western TV was brought to their culture.

"Culture has long influenced body image by defining and dictating what is attractive. The media is a strong force that can shape and influence culture, for better or for worse," Luce said. 

Luce mentions that a higher body weight used to be a sign of fertility and wealth when resources were more scarce, but as resources have become more accessible, thinness or fitness is seen as a symbol of wealth because it indicates more time for self-care. For some religious groups, a thinner appearance could indicate a greater ability for fasting, which is associated with the virtue of self-control. 

With the constant onslaught of information, Luce assures us it is understandable if we feel pressure to look a certain way. 

Negative body images widespread demographically

Research conducted in the 1980s showed it was rare for people to feel positive in their bodies, which is a finding that still persists, according to a 2018 poll.

In the past, more women than men had a negative body image. White women were also more likely to have a negative body image, but that is now shifting, Luce said.

"In the past 20 to 30 years, there has been a proliferation of body image marketing to every ethnic group and gender. Now you can find body image advertising that targets everybody, thus increasing body image concerns and eating disorders across all types of people," Luce said.

How to cultivate a healthier body image

  • Act according to your values rather than your negative self-beliefs.

For example, if you like to go to the beach, go, even if you feel uncomfortable in a bathing suit. This is a cognitive dissonance intervention thought to work by increasing the tension between a person's thoughts and actions, eventually creating a new belief.

"Sometimes the discomfort gets better at first, and sometimes it takes a while. But feeling the warmth of the sun or the coolness of the water can make the volume of those negative thoughts turn down, or at least fade them into the background," Luce said.

  • Embrace counter-attitudinal media.

Counter-attitudinal marketing features people of various body sizes, shapes and ethnicities in advertisements.

"I used to have a lot of optimism around counter-advertising and counter-marketing as a strategy for improving body image across culture. I still believe it can work for people who are open to it," Luce said.  

But, the vast majority of media displays are not representative of the average body type: many are altered by image editing applications, and some even represent an unhealthy body image.

  • Rethink how you speak about your body -- and the bodies of others.

"We can all refuse to engage in conversations about other people's bodies. By choosing to not engage in appearance-based conversations, we can influence the world by modeling our values," Luce said.

  • Consider your appearance-based decisions as a message to the world.

Make choices about your appearance based on your values and consider the effect your choices may have on others.

"I am a psychologist in academia, so looking 'old and wise' is still valued. I recognize there are many people who feel they have to look a certain way to keep their jobs," Luce said.

Change is hard but possible

"Negative body image beliefs are deeply entrenched for some people and changing these thoughts, for some, can be very challenging," Luce said.  

But change is possible.

"Body image is not static," Luce said. "Throughout life we move along a continuum of how we perceive ourselves. Regardless of how we feel about it at any given moment, we can have a full and meaningful life in the bodies we have."

This article, in a slightly altered form, originally appeared on BeWell Stanford. 

Photo by Imani Bahati

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