Positive body image isn’t simply the absence of negative feelings about your body. It’s influenced by appreciation of the function as well as appearance of your body, being aware of your body’s needs and being able to deal with appearance-related messages in a self-protective manner.
Is body image an issue for you during lockdown?
There are so many sources of stress right now that how you feel about your body may be low on your list of priorities. But if your Achilles’ heel is how you feel about your body, the pressures you’re under right now may be intensifying your negative body image.
I recently spotted a research paper* whose title began “I appreciate your body because…”. That gentle, loving title drew me in and I wanted to tell you about the research it relates to, and how this may be useful to you right now, in lockdown.
Needing no more than a pen and paper and three lots of 15 minutes of uninterrupted time (OK so that might be pushing it!), this research could help you feel better about your body.
Body dissatisfaction can be damaging
Body dissatisfaction is common – 20% of over 5,000 people in a YouGov survey in 2019 said they had felt shame because of their body image in the past year. Although feeling unsatisfied with our bodies and appearance is more common among young women, body image concerns are relevant from childhood through to later life and affect both men and women.
This matters, because higher body dissatisfaction is associated with a poorer quality of life, psychological distress and a greater risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders according to the Mental Health Foundation****.
Feeling unhappy with your body image can lead you to try and change how your body looks, perhaps by losing weight. If you choose an unsustainable diet and find it impossible to stick to, you’re likely to be left with not only weight regain and your original body dissatisfaction, but also a feeling of having failed. Not good.
A vicious circle
Body satisfaction is good for our overall wellbeing
Body satisfaction and appreciation has been linked to better overall wellbeing and fewer unhealthy dieting behaviours.
Ella Guest and colleagues*** at University of the West of England have reviewed studies on how we might develop a more positive body image.
A simple exercise can promote a more positive body image
Ella Guest and her colleagues found that the intervention with the best evidence of effectiveness was an online writing task**. In three 15-minute sessions over the course of a week, people were asked to describe their body’s functions and why they are important and meaningful to them. The three writing sessions were on
Session 1: My body’s senses and physical capabilities (for example, the temperature receptors in my skin allow me to feel the sun on my face)
Session 2: The health and creative endeavours my body enables me to do (for example I can cook a tasty meal thanks to my hands and eyes working together)
Session 3: Ways in which my body helps me take care of myself and communicate with others (for example, my voice allows my friend to hear the warmth of my affection for her on the phone)
For each of the three writing assignments, participants described the functions that their body performs and why they are personally important and meaningful to them. The guidelines were that participants should make three separate 15-minute times to write, over the course of a week.
What the study found
This simple exercise totalling 45 minutes of writing led to greater body appreciation, greater satisfaction with body functionality (how your body works) and body esteem, and the benefits were maintained a month later.
In the study with the lovely title I mentioned earlier (“I appreciate your body because…”), Alleva and colleagues looked at whether promoting positive body image to a friend might also affect your own body image. The researchers asked female students to write a letter to a friend, expressing appreciation for the things their friend’s body could do. As a comparison control group, half the group instead wrote a letter to a friend about their shared memories.
They found that both groups in the study experienced improvements in their appreciation of their own bodies. It may be that writing the letters (whether appreciating the friend’s body or writing about shared memories) made them feel more positive generally and that this in turn led to more positive feelings about their bodies.
This study may be particularly interesting to you if you find writing anything positive about yourself difficult.
How to do this simple exercise for yourself
To use this for yourself, find a quiet time to spend 15 minutes writing, and if possible do this three times over the course of a week as they did in the study. In each 15-minute session, write on just one of the three topics above using the following guidelines –
- try to write for at least 15 min
- don’t stop writing once you’ve started
- re-read what you have written once finished writing but there’s no need to edit what you’ve written – just read it back to yourself
Don’t worry about spelling or grammar, and remember that your writing will be unique because everyone’s body is different.
If you prefer to write to a friend, then you can try what the people in Alleva’s study did and write an appreciative letter to a friend. You can write about what you appreciate about how their body works or about your shared memories. You don’t have to send the letter – they people in the study didn’t send theirs. The benefit to them came from writing not from sending a letter.
The psychology of it all
So much of what makes it hard for us to feel comfortable in our bodies, and what gets in the way of us changing how we eat is to do with human psychology. It’s easy to think that the issue is a dietary one – what we eat. Yet so many people know what they “should” be eating, but can’t put what they know into practice. There are sound psychological reasons for this, which is what I love to blog about.
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*Alleva, Medoch, Priestley, Phillipi, Hamaekers, Salvino, Humblet and Custers (2021) “I appreciate your body because…” Does promoting positive body image to a friend affect one’s own positive body image? Body Image, 36: 134-8
**Alleva, Diedrichs, Halliwell, Martijn, Stuijfzand and Treneman-Evans (2018) A randomised-controlled trial investigating potential underlying mechanisms of a functionality-based approach to improving women’s body image. Body Image, 25: 85-96
***Guest, Costa, Williamson, Meyrick, Halliwell and Harcourt (2019) The effectiveness of interventions aiing to promote positive body image in adults: A systematic review. Body Image, 30: 10-25
****Mental Health Foundation (2019) Body Image Report. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/body-image-report/exec-summary
photo from Obesity Canada image bank