Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: How Your Distorted Body Image Is Harming You

Do you ever have thoughts like these?

My life would be better if I looked better.
I will never look as good as _____________.
My _________ is/are so ugly.
I am so fat.
The scale can’t be right.
I look disgusting; no one could ever love me.

If you do, you’re not alone.

In a seminal study of body image statistics from the 1990s, author and psychology professor Linda Smolek found that 80% of American women were dissatisfied with their appearance. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then. According to this study from 2016, only 24% of American women reported having a high body-esteem.

And women aren’t the only ones with negative body image: numerous recent studies show that men are becoming increasingly afflicted as well: this article states that “38% of men would sacrifice at least a year of their life in exchange for a perfect body.”

This is not merely a problem of being unhappy with our bodies.

Our perception is actually skewed by what we see in the media, which leads to dramatically distorted body image. We have unrealistic expectations of what we should be seeing in the mirror, thanks to the media’s portrayal of “ideal” body types and various physical features. For example, a University of Colorado study showed that the same women who overestimate the size of their waists by 25% were still able to correctly estimate the width of a box.

Body image is like a three-legged stool.

That stool will wobble (and sometimes knocks you right over) when you…

• feel dissatisfied or unhappy about what you look like…

• have a skewed perception of what you actually look like…

• and/or have unrealistic expectations about what you should look like.

The wobblier your “stool” is, the deeper your negative body image issues will be.

Only one of these “legs” has to be out of whack to topple you over. In extreme cases negative body image can lead to eating disorders, depression, substance abuse, and other serious problems. Even when it doesn’t seem to be having an impact on your day-to-day life, if you take a closer look you may find that your body image is an underlying cause of obstacles in virtually every area of your life.

Personal relationships.
When you’re preoccupied with distorted body image, you may sacrifice quality time with friends and loved ones. For example, refusing to go to the beach or pool because you don’t want to be seen in a bathing suit, or declining a party invitation because you can’t find anything flattering to wear.

Romantic relationships.
When you’re feeling bad about the way you look, you might create distance between you and your mate (e.g. you say no to intimacy) or a potential partner (e.g. you don’t talk to new people). On the flip side your shame may cause you to take a more self-destructive route and, if the opportunity for sexual intimacy does come along, you might say, “If you really want to see my disgusting body, by all means, do whatever you want with it.”

Workplace success.
Confidence is attractive in the workplace, as well. Even though your physical appearance has nothing to do with your job performance, your level of self-esteem does. When your attention is so focused on being self-conscious about your body, you are less able to focus on the work tasks at hand. And moreover, if you don’t believe you are worthy of success, how can you expect to achieve it?

Self-care, health, and wellness.
If you have been a chronic dieter (or under-eater) and have allowed “falling off the wagon” to get you down, you may be so tired of trying that you have given up altogether – mentally and physically. If you’re already feeling discouraged about your body, you may not be motivated to take good care of it, thinking “What’s the point? I’ll never measure up, anyway.”

Finances.
How much money are you spending on the pursuit of a better body? Diet programs, cleanses, get-fit clubs, pills, liposuction, fat freezing, slimming wraps… There are so many gimmicks and quick fixes out there, feeding into people’s desperation. The key is to look beyond the surface – if you don’t feel worthy, none of those options will be sustainable. Your money is better spent elsewhere, on things that make you truly happy.

Spiritual.
When you’re focused only on your appearance you will have little time, money, or energy left to cultivate a spiritual life. This is self-perpetuating, because helping others and contributing to the greater good actually makes us feel better about ourselves. One of the best ways to get out of our own negative headspace when we’re feeling down is to do something nice for someone else. (Sidenote: a random act of kindness still counts if it is for yourself!)

Home.
You may reflect your negative body image in your outer environment by letting clutter build up, or by neglecting cleaning duties or household repairs. Negative body image and low self-esteem are closely related to a scarcity mindset. When you are afraid you won’t “have enough,” you surround yourself with household clutter and food… but instead of bringing you comfort, it creates chaos and stress.

5 Ways to Increase Self-Esteem and to Love Yourself Again

1. Spend time every day on your self-care, hobbies, friendships, and spiritual interests. These will fill you up in ways that a “perfect 10” body never could.

2. While looking at yourself in the mirror, shift the mental monologue from negative and judgemental to kind and loving. You can appreciate your body for what it does, and appreciate yourself for the various skills and traits that you possess.

3. Groom and dress yourself lovingly. Do your hair in a way that makes you feel happy and confident – never mind what others think or what’s in style. Choose clothing that fits well and feels comfortable, in colors and styles that you enjoy. If this doesn’t come naturally for you, ask a trusted friend or family member for help.

4. Aim for a body size that is healthy for your height, shape, and age. We can appreciate our 20-something weight, but when we’re no longer 20-something it can set us back to hold such an expectation for ourselves.

5. Focus on creating a healthy body, and let your weight take care of itself. Try limiting the frequency with which you step on the scale, and pay more attention to how you feel and how your clothing fits.

Refocus your lens.

Pay close attention to the images fed to you by the media. Notice how unrealistic they tend to be. Find ways to appreciate and care for yourself as you are. And acknowledge the impact of your body image on the rest of your life. Then you can refocus your lens for a clear and healthy view of what you see in that mirror on the wall.

Where do you notice your negative body image being reflected in your life?

What’s the first step that you’re going to take to improve your body image?

Please share in the comments below.

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