How do you see yourself, your physical self? Are you happy with what you see when you look in the mirror? Do you think others see what you see or do you frequently feel that others are overestimating what they see when they look at you? For some these questions may seem somewhat silly, but for others they are emotionally loaded and may even induce a feeling a dread.
Now that spring is finally here, we will have the opportunity to shed our coats and sweaters for the first time in months. For those of us with conflicted relationships with our bodies, this isn’t always a welcome opportunity. Coats and sweaters can act as more than just barriers against the cold. For some, they are barriers against shame and embarrassment that so many of us feel about our physical appearance. At some point it was decided it was easier to stay covered up than deal with the issues that cause us embarrassment with our bodies. In contemporary Western culture, that list of issues is long and appears to be constantly growing – weight, height, skin complexion, baldness or too much hair on other parts of the body, hair color, lip size, breast and buttocks size, and even the length and complexion of genitals (yes, anal bleaching does exist.)
Many cultural factors have led to people having negative feelings about their body. Some of these factors are religious in nature. Others stem from a popular culture that values youth and thinness and exaggerated physical gender characteristics in both males and females. One could also make the case that modern advertising and marketing have made us permanently insecure about our body and appearance in order to sell products.
Over the years I worked with several individuals who had negative and distorted self-perceptions of their body. I have found that it is helpful to think about where the negative notions of your body are coming from. Who do you get your cues from? Is the 19-year-old woman, who feels she’s too heavy, comparing herself to her friends, who might be around her exact weight, or to the models on covers of fashion magazines? Is the 30-year-old man, who feels he doesn’t have the 6-pack abs he wants despite being well developed, comparing himself to others of his age and build, or to male actors who can spend endless hours in the gym because their livelihood depends on it?
Poor body image can seem a quite reasonable response to the constant marketing and advertising with which we are bombarded. We are taught and trained to loath our bodies. For centuries it was considered desirable for men to have hair on their faces and chests. Now, for reasons I’m sure no one can explain, most people, including men, consider it unappealing. Something like body hair is quite concrete – if the style is to be hairless then, for better or for worse, one could remove their hair. But what about when poor body image relates to an issue of perception and something not as concrete as body hair? The issue of weight often comes down to one of perception. Who determines when or if one should feel they are fat or normal or skinny? Perhaps doctors and mental health professionals should be more involved in the lives of people dealing with this issue. After all, there is a weight that a doctor could determine to be healthy for a particular individual. Likewise, there is a point at which striving to develop muscles in the gym or having the popular hair style moves from making us feel good about ourselves into making us feel unwell. A mental health professional can help with finding that healthy balance.