Body Image: Writing Your Body Story
You may have heard of the term body image, and if that’s the case, what do you think it means? In reality, body image is complex and there’s no single definition. In fact, it can mean different things for different people at different times. As a starting point, we can conceptualize body image as the way we relate to our bodies and its experiences and how that informs our beliefs, perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. You may also think of body image more simply as how you view your body and the ways it fits into the world and your surroundings.
Though many people think of body image solely as it relates to their appearance, there’s actually much more nuance at play. Part of why body image is so complex is that it is shaped by a variety of factors, many of which are out of our control. These factors include societal systems and norms, personal and familial history, trauma, relationships, the varying identities that you hold, and more! Additionally, body image is relational, meaning it changes over time based on your lived experiences. Your body image is both unique to you and fluid over time, existing somewhere on a spectrum rather than simply being “good” or “bad” or “positive” or “negative.”
Now that you have a working definition of body image, we’re going to offer some prompts to help you explore your own body image story. The goal of this reflection activity is to start to understand and develop awareness around the roots of your body image and the story you’ve told yourself about your body. For some, these questions may bring up painful memories, feelings of unhappiness, shame, or other emotions. If that’s the case for you, please take care of yourself and consider coming back to this activity when you feel ready.
Understanding the Origins of Your Body Story
Let’s start from the beginning. You can start to explore the early origins of body image in your life by reflecting on the following:
When did you first become aware that you had a body?
What messages were you given about your body, size, shape, and other physical features growing up?
What body traits did you learn were acceptable or desirable? What body traits did you learn were unacceptable or undesirable?
You may be wondering why we’re asking you to take a trip down memory lane when we’re talking about body image. Well, research suggests that body image and body size attitudes develop by early childhood (1). During preschool years, children typically first experience a sense of their body as “mine.” By early childhood, and sometimes sooner, many children are already socialized to attribute negative characteristics to larger body sizes and positive characteristics to thinner body sizes (2,3). This narrative is impactful for your body image in the past and present day.
Reflecting On The Present
Over time, you’ve probably become increasingly aware of your body, its physical attributes, and how you and others perceive certain aspects of your body. This process of learning is heavily influenced by social constructs and societal systems. It can feel daunting to explore your current relationship with your body. As a starting point, consider reflecting on the following:
What messages do you receive about your body and others’ bodies? Where do you get these messages?
What do you believe about your body? What do you like about it? What do you dislike about it?
How do your beliefs influence the way that you speak about your body and care for your body?
How do societal norms and expectations influence the way that you speak about your body and care for yourself?
Envisioning The Future
How you feel about your body today does not have to dictate how you feel about your body in the future. Importantly, body image healing is a nonlinear process. Even when you come to a more peaceful relationship with your body, you may continue to have “bad” body image days, and that’s normal. A common misconception is that we all need to or should be able to eventually arrive at a place of body positivity and/or body love. This is simply not a reality (or desire) for all people and this misconception can make body image healing work feel inaccessible for some, especially those belonging to marginalized communities. For example, body positive conversations often include suggestions to focus on what the body “can” do for us, which can be a subtle form of ableism and may feel inaccessible for people living with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Whatever your situation, you get to decide what body image healing looks like based on your circumstances. For some people, healing might be coming to a place of body neutrality, body appreciation, or body respect, while for others it may look like body positivity. Bri Campos, LPC, body image coach and educator, likens body image work to an archaeological dig. Rather than journeying toward an end point, Bri explains that we are constantly learning, exploring, and excavating in body image work.
Whatever your goal may be, you may find it helpful to reflect on where you want to be in your relationship with your body in the future. You might start this process by asking yourself the following questions:
What would a peaceful relationship with your body look like?
What would the other areas of your life look like if you had a more peaceful relationship with your body?
How can you work with your body rather than trying to control it or change it?
Ways to Support Body Image Healing
If you’ve made a commitment to healing your relationship with food, movement, or your body, that’s something to celebrate! Body image healing is tough, yet rewarding work and will require gentle curiosity, kindness, and self-compassion. It’s common for us to be our own harshest critic. You may wish for others to experience body acceptance, respect, and trust, but you get stuck when it comes to applying this to your body. We’re here to gently remind you that you are worthy and deserving just as you are right now. If you’re not used to thinking of or speaking to yourself in a kind and loving way, consider how you would talk to a loved one if they were experiencing the same situation as you. You might also consider trying the RAIN acronym from Dr. Tara Brach, Buddhist teacher and author of Radical Acceptance, as a guiding framework (4).
R - Recognize what is happening
A - Allow the experience to be there, just as it is
I - Investigate with interest and care
N - Nurture self compassion
Another good starting point for body image healing is to work on divesting from diet culture in order to begin reconnecting with ourselves. Diet culture includes the language, beliefs, thought patterns, practices, and systems that create and uphold the notion that thinness equates to good health. Diet culture is steeped into nearly all aspects of our society. In Reclaiming Body Trust: A Path to Healing & Liberation, authors Hilary Kinavey, MS, LPC and Dana Sturtevant, MS, RD offer us the following (and more!) practical tips to start the process of divesting from diet culture:
Reduce body checking behaviors. This includes weighing yourself, measuring various parts of your body, pinching/poking/prodding certain areas that you view as “problematic,” excessively looking at yourself in the mirror, trying on clothes to see if they still fit, etc. By reducing body checking, we can create a more subjective experience for ourselves guided by internal feelings rather than an objective experience guided by external factors and pressures.
Get rid of the scale. Unless it’s medically necessary, stop weighing yourself. If this feels too daunting, consider first reducing the frequency of weighing yourself, then progress from there. Did you know that you can request not to be weighed when you go to the doctor? Or, if a weight measurement is absolutely necessary, it can be done “blind” so that you remain unaware of the number on the scale.
Curate your social media feed(s). Seek out fat-positive accounts and follow others who hold different identities than you. Check out some of our recommendations on our Resources page. If someone’s messages or photos consistently make you feel bad about yourself and your body, unfollow them, unsubscribe, hide their content, or do whatever feels most protective for you. You might consider doing a social media feed “clean up” every so often where you check in with yourself and unfollow individuals/accounts whose messages are no longer serving you.
Box up clothes that no longer fit. You’re more likely to have a “bad” body image day if you have a closet or dresser full of clothes that no longer fit and you can’t find something comfortable to wear. If this is the case, consider boxing up, donating, or selling the clothes that no longer fit you. In this process, you may also need to get some new clothes to make sure that you have at least a few items that comfortably fit your body just as it is today. There’s no need to buy a full new wardrobe unless you want to and have the resources available. If cost is prohibitive, you might consider checking out local thrift stores and consignment shops or trying something like a button extender for pants and other items that you already own. Having clothes that comfortably fit you will be both mentally and physically supportive.
Remove yourself from conversations centered around weight, dieting, and negative body talk. When you first begin the process of divesting from diet culture and body image healing, it may be helpful to establish some protective boundaries for yourself. This might include taking a pause from spending time with certain people or disengaging from conversations that feel counterproductive and harmful to you. We recognize that these strategies may not be realistic for everyone. We recommend that you assess your energy level and relationships with others, then set boundaries accordingly. Other forms of protective boundaries include letting others know that you prefer not to be involved in diet talk or simply changing the conversation topic as needed. Setting boundaries can feel particularly tough for some, so be sure to give yourself grace and remind yourself that reducing your exposure to diet talk and diet culture will help support your mental health in the long-term (5).
With time and effort, you can develop a more trusting and supportive relationship with your body. If you’re curious to learn more or want individualized support in healing your relationship with food, movement, and your body, reach out to us at Woven Nutrition to schedule an appointment. We’d love to hear from you!
Reclaiming Body Trust: A Path to Healing & Liberation by Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant
Center for Body Trust Community Courses & Retreats
The Body Grievers Club and other resources from Bri Campos
Damiano SR, Gregg KJ, Spiel EC, McLean SA, Wertheim EH, Paxton SJ. Relationships between body size attitudes and body image of 4-year-old boys and girls, and attitudes of their fathers and Mothers. Journal of Eating Disorders. 2015;3(1). doi:10.1186/s40337-015-0048-0
Harriger JA, Calogero RM, Witherington DavidC, Smith JE. Body Size Stereotyping and Internalization of the Thin Ideal in Preschool Girls. Sex Roles. 2010;63(9-10):609-620. doi.org/10.1007/s11199-010-9868-1
Spiel EC, Paxton SJ, Yager Z. Weight attitudes in 3- to 5-year-old children: Age differences and cross-sectional predictors. Body Image. 2012;9(4):524-527. doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2012.07.006
Brach T. RAIN: A practice of radical compassion. Tara Brach. Published January 1, 2020. https://www.tarabrach.com/rain-practice-radical-compassion/
Kinavey H, Sturtevant D. Reclaiming Body Trust. Penguin; 2022.
** We owe credit to Marci Evans, MS, CEDS-S, LDN and Fiona Sutherland, APD for the questions/reflective prompts used throughout this blog post, which were adapted from Embody by Connie Sobczak. We offer gratitude to Marci and Fiona for their “Body Image Training 2.0: The Missing Piece of Whole Body Healing” and other training offerings, which have enhanced our body image learning as clinicians.