Building Healthy Body Image in Light of Pride
If you were asked to name the things you like about your personality or your appearance, what would you say?
If you were then asked to name the things you dislike about the way you look or the way you are, what would you say?
Most people would struggle to respond to the first question but would have no trouble answering the second. Unfortunately, the society that we live in gives a lot of importance to a person’s physical appearance. As a result, many of us feel the pressure to meet societal standards of beauty, and end up feeling bad about ourselves if we fail to attain the ideal.
Body image is the term used to refer to the way in which a person perceives their own appearance and attractiveness in comparison to others or to some standard of beauty. Typically, this standard is based on images we see in the media and ideas that are valued in our culture. Early experiences with parents and friends also affect the standards we compare ourselves against and the way we end up seeing our own selves.
Those who have a healthy body image may feel relaxed about their body and may like and appreciate their appearance. Those with a healthy body image also see themselves as a whole and value who they are beyond their physical appearance.
On the other hand, those who have a negative body image view their body in a negative light and may perceive themselves as unattractive. They may be preoccupied with thoughts about their body and may constantly compare their bodies to others. They may worry about their weight or their flaws, and may also engage in unhealthy behaviours to change their appearance.
Body image concerns in the queer community
No one is exempt from, or immune to, body image concerns. Within the LGBTQIA+ community in particular, appearance is often considered to be a way to express one’s sexuality. This, combined with unique stressors that this community faces, puts members at risk of experiencing body image concerns.
Men who are attracted to other men face pressure from within the queer community to have a slim and athletic appearance, as this is believed to help homosexual men find partners. Butch lesbians may experience harassment and discrimination for not appearing feminine in society while femme lesbians may be unable to openly express their true sexual orientation. These opposing appearances are meant to help partners find each other, but can often cause confusion and dissatisfaction, especially for those who don’t fit into either category.
The struggles faced by trans people are different and often very difficult to comprehend for cis-people. Trans people are forced to live in bodies that do not match their gender identity. As a result, any activity that involves becoming aware of the body - including bathing, looking into a mirror, or purchasing clothes - can intensify unease and dissatisfaction.
People who are genderfluid, agender or gender non-binary may also experience body image concerns. As they do not identify with either gender, they may find it difficult to come to terms with their gendered appearance and may try to appear more androgynous. This can cause them to face greater stigma and discrimination from society.
The need for Body Positivity
Understandably, people with a negative view of their body are more at risk of developing eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. They may also engage in unhelpful and often dangerous behaviours such as fasting, restricting meals, overexercising and using laxatives or diet pills to control their weight. In extreme cases, one may try to undergo procedures to change their appearance. When people experience a high level of body dissatisfaction, they may also experience low self-esteem, depression and anxiety - and may engage in self-harm behaviours too.
In light of the severe harmful effects of having a negative body image, a new social movement has emerged in recent years: that of body positivity. The movement stands for accepting all body types and expressing positivity for all people irrespective of their appearance. The focus of body positivity is on changing the way we see our bodies, becoming aware of unrealistic ideals that we might be comparing ourselves to, and embracing ourselves for who we are.
The LGBTQIA+ community has been one of the biggest advocates of the body positivity movement. Members who identify with the community focus on inclusivity, respect for all, and celebrating one’s uniqueness. All of these principles contribute positively to the idea of body positivity.
Since June is celebrated as Pride month all over the world, let’s take a look at how each of us might be able to build a healthier image of our body.
Building a positive body image
Given that body image is a function of the way you perceive yourself, the good news is that it can be changed. At an individual level, by changing the way you view your body, you can develop a more positive perception of yourself. Here are some some strategies that can help you in the process:
Appreciate yourself: Make a conscious effort to identify the things that you like about your body. You could get specific and think of your smile, your eyes, your hair, or your hands. If this is hard, you could think back to the times that you have received compliments from others about your appearance. Make a note of the things that they said in order to consciously recognise your positive physical qualities.
Focus on function over form: What is even better than identifying things you like about your appearance is to think about your body as a whole. Focussing on the functioning of the body, rather than comparing your appearance or the form of your body with others, can help cultivate a positive body image. This means to think of all the things that you are able to do because of your body - even things like walking, working, or playing an instrument.
Reassess the ideal body type: Think about what your ideal body type is. You may notice that your ideal body is actually very different from what you look like. But remember that every individual has unique qualities about their appearance. It is important to rethink what beauty is- to broaden our definition and to make it more diverse and inclusive. Think about it: Snowflakes, stars and flowers are all varied in appearance - yet, they are all beautiful in their own way. Similarly, no matter what your shape, size, skin colour or form is, you can recognise that you are attractive and beautiful.
Prioritise your health: Focus on developing healthy habits and taking care of your body as it is. Treat your body and mind with love and care. On the physical front, ensure that you are meeting your nutritional requirements, getting adequate sleep, drinking plenty of water and developing some form of fitness routine that you enjoy. When it comes to your emotional health, make time for self-care by engaging in activities to unwind and relax.
Find social support: It can be helpful to form friendships with people who are not overly focussed on their looks. Friends who hold body-positive views can provide reinforcement and encouragement to you. Identify people in your life who you can rely on. Spend time with them and let them know that they matter to you. When things get difficult, reach out to someone you can trust - life is always better when you have someone to lean on.
Cultivate acceptance: Nobody is perfect - this is a fact of life. Even people who we think are beautiful or flawless might dislike certain aspects of their appearance. So the next time you find yourself focussing on the parts about yourself that you don’t like, take a moment to pause. Tell yourself that it’s okay to not like certain things about yourself. Everyone experiences self-doubt; this is a part of being human.
Be kind to yourself: An important part of developing a positive body image is expressing kindness, not just to others but also to yourself. If you find yourself having negative and self-critical thoughts, it is essential to find ways to challenge these thoughts and reframe them in a healthier manner. Be gentle with yourself and talk to yourself the way you would talk to a loved one. Remind yourself of your positive qualities and tell yourself that you are doing the best you can.
How you perceive yourself is a complicated idea that is impossible to change overnight. However, a healthy body image is worth the effort, as a positive image of yourself can have far-reaching mental health implications and can help you live a happier and healthier life. Think of the strategies from the list that might work for you and take your first step today towards feeling good about your body.
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If you or anyone you know is struggling with body image concerns, please reach out to an InnerHour therapist today.
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