Body Image, Perception, and Peace
This week, an interesting conversation came up in my private Facebook group, Habits First (you can join here, for free!).
One user posted:
“Weird question. I sometimes feel that I don’t have an accurate perception of my body. For example, people at work have called me slim, but I don’t think that’s true. I’m at the top of the healthy BMI range for my height. Am I being too hard on my body, or do they not know what they’re talking about? Maybe I should be nicer to myself! That said, I’m trying to focus on inputs (healthy eating, exercise) rather than outputs (weight), so maybe I should just not focus on this at all. Thoughts?”
Here was my answer:
“It is absolutely possible to lose perspective on your own appearance, and to some degree I think it’s normal. We live in our bodies and see (and feel) them from a unique perspective. We literally don’t see ourselves the way other people see us. Also, we all carry interpretations and stories about weight and appearance, and our own interpretations and stories can be different from another person’s. This can affect someone seeing you as slim whereas you may not feel that way, or vice versa.
“Anecdotally, I have found overall that people (both men and women) often start experiencing MORE body dissatisfaction when their body type and weight approach what we would culturally think of as “ideal.” When I try to psychoanalyze this (because I experience this myself, as well!), I think it’s easy, when you are closer to one end of the bell curve, to compare yourself to the even more extreme end of the bell curve. If you’re 20% body fat, it’s easy to feel heavy next to someone who’s 15% body fat.
“I have had clients who are statistically overweight pat ample bellies contentedly and say, ‘I could probably lose 10 pounds or so.’ I’ve also had clients who could be on the cover of SELF magazine squeeze at a millimeter of (invisible) fat on their midsection and complain about their stubborn belly fat that they can’t get rid of.
“This is why there are two concepts that I talk about with clients that have nothing to do with exercise physiology:
“1. Comparison is the thief of joy. Be very aware of what influences you’re absorbing and what you’re putting into your mind. Being exposed to lots of “ideal” body imagery can make healthy and fit feel like not enough. Suddenly a flat stomach isn’t as good as a ripped stomach.
“2. The finish line can move. Sometimes, the closer you get to what you want to accomplish, the end point moves itself further away. This is a matter of perception. The more exceptional you become, more exceptional exceptional becomes.
“This is where your emphasis on inputs over outputs is very important! I firmly believe that everyone is entitled to have, own, and achieve the body and physique goals that they want to in a healthy way, and I support my clients in achieving a range of goals. But something that I work to educate my clients on, in the process, is EXACTLY what you’re talking about. Awareness of perception is important, because it helps to manage expectations and self-judgment.”
Later in the discussion, the concept of acceptance vs. growth came up. There, I added:
“You can love where you are, and also strive toward new goals. I know they sound contradictory, but I really don’t think they are. I think as long as you don’t have it internalized that accomplishing your goals makes you more worthy of love or acceptance, but is simply something that you want to accomplish to be good to yourself (or just for the heck of it), both things can exist in the same headspace.”
That being said, I want to make it clear that “garden variety” body image dissatisfaction (i.e. not feeling like you’re rocking your swimsuit) is different from body dysmorphic disorder. This clinical disorder makes it difficult to function in everyday life, because of the overwhelming preoccupation with appearance (which is typically unnoticeable to other people).
Similar to eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder has a strong correlation with anxiety disorders and OCD, because it involves many of the same thinking patterns. If you think you may have body dysmorphic disorder because your feelings about your appearance are affecting your quality of life and peace of mind, I urge you to reach out to a qualified counselor in your area.