When you think about your body, are your thoughts positive, negative, or a mix of both? Do you feel pride, shame, or something in between? Do you feel in tune with your body, like you can sense what it needs? All of these questions tap into different aspects of body image, an umbrella term for all of our thoughts, emotions, and attitudes about our bodies. Body image encompasses our beliefs and feelings about our bodies, as well as our ability to sense and care for our bodies' needs.
When we talk about body image, we often focus on the negative. Most body image research has been conducted with the goal of understanding and developing treatments for those with disordered eating, who often have very negative body image. However, negative thoughts and feelings about one's body are neither rare nor unique to individuals with eating disorders. Body dissatisfaction is so common that it has been called a "normative discontent" (Rodin, Striegelmoore, & Silberstein, 1986; Tantleff-Dunn, Barnes, & Larose, 2011). In other words, feeling badly about one’s body is the norm. But just because negative body image is common doesn’t mean that we should shrug our shoulders and live the rest of our lives unhappy with our bodies! This blog post will explore the many facets of positive body image and how we can foster it in ourselves and others. As you read, you will likely come across some ideas that you had not thought of as being related to body image. The takeaway? There are so many ways to feel good about our bodies!
Why is it important to study positive body image?
How we feel about our bodies is an important part of how we feel about ourselves. Because individuals with eating disorders often experience poor body image, body image research has historically focused on negative feelings about one’s body. In recent years, researchers have begun to realize that it is just as important – maybe even more important – to study positive body image (Webb, Wood-Barcalow, & Tylka, 2015; Wood-Barcalow, Tylka, & Augustus-Horvath, 2010). Since most people have at least some positive thoughts, emotions, and attitudes about their bodies, only assessing negative body image does not provide a holistic understanding of a person’s relationship with their body.
Body image is a multidimensional construct, meaning that it is made up of multiple features. Just as you could not fully describe someone’s personality using a single scale from “good” to “bad”, body image is too complex to be rated as simply “positive” or “negative”. Below, we describe several aspects of positive body image. You will notice that although many features of body image are closely related to one another, they can also vary independently. For instance, an individual may dislike their appearance but take pride in their athletic abilities. Conceptualizing body image as multidimensional allows researchers to capture this complexity, enhancing our understanding of body image and its relationships with physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
Features of positive body image
In the paragraphs below, we describe several features of positive body image. Before reading on, take this quiz constructed from items drawn from surveys that researchers use to assess positive body image (Abbott & Barber, 2010; Avalos, Tylka, & Wood-Barcalow, 2005; Castonguay, Sabiston, Crocker, & Mack, 2014; Daubenmier, 2005; Mahoney et al., 2005; Tylka & Iannantuono, 2016). Throughout this post we will use these questions as gateways to exploring the many facets of positive body image.
Body Image Quiz
Instructions: Below is a list of statements related to body image. Please indicate the extent to which you agree with each statement using the scale below. Write down your answers so that you can follow along.
|Strongly disagree||Disagree||Slightly disagree||Neither agree nor disagree||Slightly agree||Agree||Strongly agree|
- I feel good about my body.
- Despite its flaws, I accept my body for what it is.
- I am proud of my physical appearance.
- I am proud of my efforts to meet my appearance goals.
- I appreciate a wide range of different looks as beautiful.
- I feel really good about what I can do physically.
- I always try to physically challenge myself during physical activities.
- I believe my body is sacred.
- I 'listen' to my body to advise me about what to do.
- I am confident that my body will let me know what is good for me.
How did you respond to #1 and #2 on the Body Image Quiz? These two statements come from a measure of body appreciation, the experience of having positive feelings towards one’s body, accepting one’s body despite its imperfections, and protecting one’s body from unrealistic societal beauty standards (Avalos, Tylka, & Wood-Barcalow, 2005). Higher scores (i.e., answers of 5, 6, or 7) on these items are indicative of higher levels of body appreciation. Body appreciation is linked to mental and emotional health, including positive affect (i.e., good mood), life satisfaction, and self-compassion (Swami, Stieger, Haubner, & Voracek, 2008; Tylka & Kroon Van Diest, 2013; Wasylkiw, MacKinnon, & MacLellan, 2012). Additionally, studies have found body appreciation to be associated with intuitive eating (Tylka & Kroon Van Diest, 2013). Research also suggests that individuals high in body appreciation are less likely to engage in body checking behaviors and self-comparison (Andrew, Tiggemann, & Clark, 2014).
Items #3 and #4 on the Body Image Quiz tap into feelings of body pride (Castonguay, Sabiston, Crocker, & Mack, 2014). Pride is a strong, positive self-conscious emotion that we feel when we possess valued traits or engage in valued behaviors. Body pride, more specifically, results from having valued physical traits or engaging in valued behaviors related to health and beauty. For example, someone might feel body pride for being fast, a valued athletic trait, or for running, a valued health behavior. Body pride is most associated with wellbeing when it is based on specific, controllable behaviors, such as going to an exercise class or eating a nutritious meal – as opposed to outcome-focused behaviors such as how fast someone ran (Castonguay, Sabiston, Crocker, & Mack, 2014). Body pride is also less beneficial when it is based on less controllable, more global aspects of the self, such as one’s weight. However, feeling pride for uncontrollable physical characteristics is not always a bad thing. For example, research suggests that this type of body pride may be especially adaptive for members of ethnic minorities, who often lack positive body image representation in the media (McHugh, Coppola, & Sabiston, 2014; Schooler & Daniels, 2014). For members of ethnic minorities, feeling pride in appearance traits (e.g., skin tone) that defy Eurocentric beauty standards may be an important protective factor for one’s physical and mental health (Cummins, Ireland, Resnick, & Blum, 1999).
Broad conceptualization of beauty
How do you define beauty? Some people hold a very narrow definition of beauty constrained by societally-prescribed beauty ideals. Others have a more open and flexible definition of beauty. How a person conceptualizes beauty can impact their body image, as they are less likely to consider themselves beautiful if they subscribe to the strict, unrealistic appearance expectations perpetuated in the media. Item #5 of the Body Image Quiz comes from a measure created by Tylka and Iannantuono (2016) which was designed to assess one’s conceptualization of beauty. In addition to considering a diverse range of physical traits beautiful, having a broad conceptualization of beauty can also mean recognizing personality traits like confidence and kindness as part of an individual’s inner beauty.
We often think of body image as focused on how our bodies look. Body image also relates to what our bodies can do. Items #6 and #7 come from a measure of body functionality, the degree to which a person views their body’s capabilities as part of their positive body image (Abbott & Barber, 2010). Body functionality involves having positive beliefs and feelings about one’s body’s capabilities and also considering those capabilities important to one’s self-esteem. The survey items included in the Body Image Quiz pertain to physical fitness; however, it is important to remember that the body is capable of far more than physical activity. Appreciating our bodies’ cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and reproductive functions can also contribute to positive body image (Webb, Wood-Barcalow, & Tylka, 2015).
Many people believe that the body is sacred (Mahoney et al., 2005), as suggested by quiz item #8. This belief may be part of one’s religious identity or personal spiritual beliefs. Believing that one’s body has spiritual significance and is therefore deserving of respect is called body sanctification (Mahoney et al., 2005). In order to study the relationship between body sanctification and health behaviors, Mahoney et al. (2005) constructed a survey that asked participants to indicate whether they would use words such as sacred, holy, miraculous, spiritual, and divine to describe their bodies. Their findings suggest that young adults who consider their bodies sacred are more likely to eat a nutritious diet, less likely to engage in unhealthy dieting practices, and less likely to binge eat (Mahoney et al., 2005). In addition to being associated with healthy eating behaviors, body sanctification was linked to lower levels of illicit drug use and alcohol consumption among young adults in this study.
Another aspect of body image is one’s ability to sense and care for the body’s needs (Cook-Cottone, 2006). This ability, known as body attunement, is assessed using quiz items #9 and #10 (Daubenmier, 2005). Two important aspects of body attunement are body awareness, one’s ability to perceive and interpret the meaning of body sensations, and body responsiveness, one’s tendency to respond to body signals to meet the body's needs (Cook-Cottone, 2006). Being able to “listen” to, understand, and respond to one’s body cues is a key component of having a positive relationship with one’s body.
Promoting positive body image
One helpful aspect of focusing on positive (rather than negative) body image is that it gives you an image of something to work towards. Related to this, the first core principle in working to improve your body image is to focus on controllable factors: what you try to do.
In order to undertake the steps below, it is helpful to adapt a stance of willingness. By willing, what we mean is that you are open and curious when you are trying a new experience related to yourself and living in your body. This is in contrast to doing something nurturing, but then judging the outcome of what happens next. Willingness = openness.
Related to this, you should be "process-focused" – noticing what these changes feel like in the moment, rather than just waiting for some positive feelings of self-acceptance to drop down and scoop you up in a heavenly cloud. Your focus is on being curious towards the experience in the moment in which you initiate a change. That is all we ask.
We try to summarize this in a few simple steps.
1. Try regarding your body as a vulnerable child or helpless animal.
Imagine that you have just adopted an animal from an animal shelter. You do not know much about this animal's history other than that he was mistreated. While you recognize that you cannot do anything to change that horrible history, what you try to do is make each moment from here on out safe and nurturing for this poor creature. In doing so, what you hope is that you can help this animal to heal and to flourish. We invite you to try this frame towards yourself.
If you have read this far along into this blog, chances are you have your own history of mistreatment towards yourself in this area. We all have complicated histories. We are all doing the very best we can at any given moment, and have been doing the best we can in the past. While we need to acknowledge where we have been, we do not want to stay stuck there. Just like your treatment of a vulnerable animal, we need to think about what you would truly need to heal and how you would like to be treated, and to begin living that way in your body. Once you have given this some thought and perhaps jotted some things down, go to step number two.
2. Don't worry about thinking. Focus on doing.
We do not need to wait for positive thoughts about our body to pass through our mind before we start doing things that are nurturing. Thought patterns are hard to break. The less that these thought patterns are linked to behaviors, the weaker these thoughts become. Yet, do not act with the intention of quieting these thoughts. Just act because you are trying to be more nurturing towards yourself and then just be curious about what happens next.
3. When building a more accepting and attuned body relationship, be curious – not outcome focused.
Do not focus on an endgame that you may not have control over. When you are outcome focused, it is easy to fall into the trap of evaluating where you are relative to where you wish you were – and then to become frustrated and helpless. Instead, our goal is to improve moments. Life is about instances – memorable moments in which we feel vital and connected. Focus on collecting these isolated experiences. Notice the direction in which you are traveling. Perform a nurturing action towards yourself: listen to what your body is telling you. Try to label it. Respond to what you notice in a sensitive way. See what that experience feels like. Collect that moment. Begin again.
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Cook-Cottone, C. (2006). The attuned representation model for the primary prevention of eating disorders: An overview for school psychologists. Psychology in the Schools, 43(2), 223-230.
Cummins, J. C., Ireland, M., Resnick, M. D, & Blum, R. W. (1999). Correlates of physical and emotional health among Native American adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 24(1), 38-44.
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McHugh, T. F., Coppola, A. M., & Sabiston, C. M. (2014). “I’m thankful for being Native and my body is part of that”: The body pride experiences of young Aboriginal women in Canada.” Body Image, 11(3), 318-327.
Rodin, J., Silberstein, L., & Striegelmoore, R. (1985). Women and weight: A normative discontent. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 32, 267-307.
Schooler, D., & Daniels, E. A. (2014). “I am not a skinny toothpick and proud of it”: Latina adolescents’ ethnic identity and responses to mainstream media images. Body Image, 11(1), 11-18.
Swami, V., Stieger, S., Haubner, T., & Voracek, M. (2008). German translation and psychometric evaluation of the Body Appreciation Scale. Body Image, 5(1), 122-127.
Tantleff-Dunn, S., Barnes, R. D., & Larose, J. G. (2011). It’s not just a “woman thing”: The current state of normative discontent. Eating Disorders, 19(5), 392-402.
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Webb, J. B., Wood-Barcalow, N., & Tylka, T. L. (2015). Assessing positive body image: Contemporary approaches and future directions. Body Image, 14, 130-145.
Wood-Barcalow, N., Tylka, T. L., & Augustus-Horvath, C. “But I like my body”: Positive body image characteristics and a holistic model for young-adult women. Body Image, 7(2), 106-116.