I’m writing this blog post for two reasons. The first is that I have just started a specialist service in Disordered Eating and Body Confidence, and I wanted to start talking about these issues to a larger audience, rather than just bending the ear of my nearest and dearest. The second reason I’m writing a blog post, is that body confidence is a subject very close to my heart, as I experienced problems with it for some years. Today I don’t experience those issues with the same intensity and with the same behavioural results. I have to be honest and say I have occassional pangs of sadness about grey hairs and I’m aware of my tummy flap, but I think in general I’m kind of okay with things. Having some distance and objectivity means I can write about this without distortion and hopefully offer some advice:
What is Body Confidence?
The simplest place to start with this question, is by asking a search engine. If you ask for a definition of body confidence, the results throw back terms such as self-esteem, body image and weight issues. It might be useful at this point to look at some of these definitions:
‘Body confidence: The belief that you are your most beautiful when you are healthy–both in body and mind. A feeling that results when you give up the mission to mold and shape yourself and make a commitment to take care of yourself. Body confidence breeds positive body image–it enables us to see ourselves through a meaningful lens, not a superficial one.’ From: Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby
‘Healthy body image is about feeling comfortable in your own skin:
- Feeling happy most of the time with the way you look.
- Feeling good about yourself.
- Valuing yourself by who you are, not by what you look like.’
What is Body Image – Reachout.com
This is interesting because these quotations suggest body confidence as something a little more complicated than just being happy with the way you look. They emphasise the notion of internal worth, and of individuals placing more value in themselves than just the superficial notion of ‘I am my body’. It seems that body confidence is not just a case of ‘I’m happy with my body therefore I am happy inside’. It is the ability to move away from a superficial notion of worth and reverse things, so that it becomes ‘I am happy inside, therefore I am happy with my body’.
What are the ‘symptoms’ of poor body confidence and when does it become a problem?
This is something which really interests me. For some people, when they feel a sense of disatisfaction with the way that they look, they will make a change, for example getting their nails done or changing a hairstyle. And they will be happy with that, until another change is made further down the line. But for others, behaviours can become a reflection of distorted thinking, of a lack of self-worth and even of self-hatred. Behaviours such as food manipulation can start to creep in. So a lack of body confidence can present as a spectrum, with harmless activities such as hair dyeing at one end and more harmful issues such as bulimia at the other. So what are the symptoms of disordered or distorted thinking with body image?
- Eating issues. Poor body confidence and distorted perception of self can often lead to attempts to alter the way you look by losing weight. This can lead to issues such as (conversely) overeating, swing dieting and restricting food groups. This type of disordered eating can then develop into eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia etc.
‘Over 1.6 million people in the UK are estimated to be directly affected by eating disorders.’
‘….it is estimated by the Dept of health that the true figure for those affected is more like 4 million as so many who struggle do not seek help and therefore do not enter the figures.’
- Body dysmorphia. This is when the way you see your body becomes distorted. People can focus on a specific area of their body, or perceive their whole body as ugly, and spend time trying to correct or alter the perceived flaw. In extremis, people can develop Body Dysmorphic Disorder which can cause extreme anxiety, distress and interfere with daily life.
- Over-exercise. I don’t mean athletes or people keeping fit. I’m talking about too much exercise as part of a dieting, guilt, compulsive cycle. A means of staying in control and of feeling good when exercise is completed, but a source of shame and self-loathing if it isn’t done. Again, I’m talking about something which has dysfunctional thinking attached to it and becomes a controlling factor in life.
- Low self-esteem. I’ve added this, though I’m not sure whether poor body confidence is a cause or effect of this. Probably a viscious circle. One where the individual’s self worth is dependent upon the way they look and vice versa.
- Negative coping strategies. Having poor body-confidence often involves dealing with negative feelings, intrusive and incorrect thinking. People experiencing this often cope by taking drugs, drinking too much, self-harming, smoking etc. This is done either to numb the emotional pain or as a source of feeling good. However, the negative coping strategy often becomes a source of negative emotion in itself eg shame.
- Promiscuity. Simply put, if you have poor self-esteem or low body confidence, then it can follow in your thinking that if someone desires you, then you must be ‘worthy’ as an individual, so it makes you feel good about yourself. Obviously, this can get out of hand and put people at risk of harm for example with sexually transmitted diseases.
- Low mood and anxiety. Generally speaking, if someone has poor body confidence, and they’ve started to have negative thoughts about their body and behaviours start to reflect this with disordered eating, excessive exercising etc, then it is often the case that problems such as depression and anxiety will be present.
Poor body confidence can become an issue or problem requiring help when any of these factors become pervasive, obsessive or controlling.
Who is affected by low body confidence?
Simply put – anyone. However, the eating disorders charity Beat suggest that there are more adults with eating disorders than children and young people in the UK. Statistics suggest that more women than men are affected. However, a growing concern is the number of men who are being affected by body confidence issues, an issue not highlighted in a recent programme on anorexia by Louis Theroux:
‘One group not highlighted….. are males, who, according to some studies, account for up to 25% of all people with an eating disorder.’ From Beat.
What causes it?
Ok, so I did another search for the answer in an attempt to narrow down a myriad possibilities!
The excerpt below is one of the best explanations I found. It suggests that for whatever reason, the individual starts to think negatively and those negative thoughts are then aimed at their body. The suggestion is that the negative thoughts have their origin in several factors. Certainly for me, my body confidence issues manifest themselves in me feeling different, and then looking to external influences to see how I could make myself fit in. Somewhere along the line, there was a thought process for me which said something along the lines of ‘If I look pretty and thin, then I will be accepted – I will be like everyone else, I will be worthy and I will belong’. There are of course other thoughts and emotions tied into this such as wanting to be in control, excessive anxiety, self-punishment etc. Every individual will have their own reasons and distorted thinking. But as the quote suggests, the relationship between the individual and the ‘outside’ world is a major contributory factor.
‘When a person has negative thoughts and feelings about his or her own body, body dissatisfaction can develop. Body dissatisfaction is an internal process but can be influenced by several external factors. For example, family, friends, acquaintances, teachers and the media all have an impact on how a person sees and feels about themselves and their appearance. Individuals in appearance oriented environments or those who receive negative feedback about their appearance are at an increased risk of body dissatisfaction.
One of the most common external contributors to body dissatisfaction is the media. People of all ages are bombarded with images through TV, magazines, internet and advertising. These images often promote unrealistic, unobtainable and highly stylised appearance ideals which have been fabricated by stylists, art teams and digital manipulation and cannot be achieved in real life. Those who feel they don’t measure up in comparison to these images, can experience intense body dissatisfaction which is damaging to their psychological and physical wellbeing.’ From National Eating Disorders Collaboration.
What can you do if you want to improve poor body confidence?
- Understand what is going on. Learn how you perceive yourself and how that perception takes form and impacts on your body. Look at the relationship between how you see yourself and how others perceive you. Explore how your self-image impacts on your life, how it is affecting you on a daily basis. Understand how faulty and distorted thinking is impacting on your behaviours and emotions. Separate your emotions from yourself and identify where they are coming from. In short – get to know yourself.
- Get support. If you are feeling bad or low or anxious about your body, and you feel that you can’t deal with it on your own, talk to someone you trust. Keeping a secret about body confidence issues fuels the problem and heightens the element of self-control. Alternatively, if you feel you can’t disclose any issues to someone you know and there is an element of shame involved, then look to outside agencies for support. Here are some great sources:
- Eating Disorders Support Resources
- Mind Self Esteem Information Support
- Develop strategies. If you feel you don’t need professional help and support, but feel you would still like to improve your body confidence, then there are literally loads of tools that you can use. You could research things like mindfulness, or look into some CBT techniques. Self-help books might give you some ideas or even workshops and online courses. The point is, that you can create your own toolkit of techniques which work for you and would help imporove self-esteem.
- Take a reality check and accept what is going on – change cannot occur until acceptance takes place. On a larger scale this means accepting that you are unhappy with constantly striving to be something or someone different from who you really. Acceptance can be on a larger scale like this or you can also apply it to smaller everyday occurences eg I’m having a crappy day. Yep. There it is. Or, I ate a bun. Yep. A bun. There it is. Acceptance allows you to be a human and enables you to move forwards again.
- Strengthen your authenticity. Listen to your true self. Learn to promote this and learn to minimise the negative inner dialogue which says you aren’t enough.
- Be brave. It can be nerve-wracking making changes. Sometimes it goes against every sinew in your body. I recently stopped attempting to exercise for 3 months. I will go back to it, but I decided a break and a rest from trying to cram everything in my life was more important. But I still get urges to go back on what I told myself, just because I hear someone saying how hard it was at the gym. It is ok. You can do what you need to do. You don’t need to do what everyone else is doing.
- Focus on being healthy. This probably links in with number 6. Everything I’ve been talking about with body confidence is about you managing to be yourself, to be kind to yourself and to listen to what you really need. By this I don’t mean sitting on your backside and wallowing in misery eating junk. That isn’t good either, and can also be a facet of body confidence issues. I mean listening to yourself and striking a balance. Exercise for example is important, we need to keep moving. But, it doesn’t have to be torture, it can be gentle and it can suit you. Also, keep it in perspective – if you have been doing really hard exercise for 3 months, then nothing for 6 and swinging, it’s better to find a balance whereby you do some gentle exercise, but keep this up indefinately and it becomes a part of your routine.
- Stop comparing. You aren’t like that perfect person sitting across from you. And there are so many things wrong with thinking like that. Firstly, nobody is perfect. Secondly, I bet they’re comparing themselves to someone else. Thirdly it isn’t a competition. Fourthly, you are enough. Fifthly, stop beating yourself up. Sixthly, you will never be anyone else but yourself, and that is a glorious thing in itself – the unique variety of life.
So, hopefully within this post I’ve managed to answer some questions about body confidence. Before I go, I’ll just leave you with these quotations, which I think provide some hope and comfort:
“You are not a mistake. You are not a problem to be solved. But you won’t discover this until you are willing to stop banging your head against the wall of shaming and caging and fearing yourself.” (p. 84)
― Geneen Roth: Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything
‘“That’s sad. How plastic and artificial life has become. It gets harder and harder to find something…real.” Nin interlocked his fingers, and stretched out his arms. “Real love, real friends, real body parts…”’
― Jess C. Scott: The Other Side of Life