When body image is biased
As we move around in the world, we develop mental representations of different states, events, or items. For example, we develop representations of past events and people (through memories or photographs), and of our appearance (through body image). Whilst developing representations provides us an evolutionary advantage, a way to organise a large amount of information in a short and easily accessible form, our brains can cut corners. Our brains can sometimes misrepresent whatever it is they are trying to represent or develop representations which are unduly influenced by our environment or emotions. This is what we see with body image – through negative messaging during development (from parents, friends, or the media), some people can develop a negativity bias through which their body image is represented in an overly negative, overly important way, which can lead to mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and in its extreme form, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).
With so many accessible cosmetic treatments, you may be wondering why someone with negative body image doesn’t just change their appearance. Well, it’s not that simple. Research shows that people who suffer BDD remain unsatisfied and preoccupied with their body despite numerous cosmetic procedures. In other circumstances, what people want to change about their appearance (their body shape and weight), is largely determined by genetics and out of their control. In both these instances what hasn’t been treated is the underlying, overly negative, and overly important mental representation of their body.
Starting to develop a more neutral body image can be tricky. It is often the case that that the person suffering negative body image doesn’t notice the biased representation, but rather sees their body as something that is flawed and needs to be changed. Learning to accept that their body is not flawed and does not need to be changed can be one of the hardest, but most rewarding steps in treatment. Once they’ve accepted this, they can test out some more practical strategies to un-do the years of messaging and biases around their body image. If someone has lived for 25-years believing a certain thought which was reinforced by their environment, you can imagine it would take some time to develop new, more helpful thoughts. Changing someone’s body image is no different. It can take time, but with practice, research shows it does work.
If you’re seeking treatment for negative body image you will learn some cognitive and some behavioural strategies, both designed to break reinforcing patterns that feed your body image. On the cognitive side, your psychologist will guide you through a process of uncovering your biases and core beliefs to develop a more realistic understanding of your body image. On the behavioural side, you will identify if there is anything that your body image prevents you from doing, such as wearing certain clothes or going certain places, and slowly start doing them (a process called exposure). Your psychologist may help you identify any ritualistic behaviours, such as looking in mirrors or reflective surfaces, weighing, or avoiding your body, and start challenging them. You will also be asked to change the way you interact with your body, using only objective language to describe your body, accepting compliments from others, and doing mindfulness body scans (click here for an example). I know that life gets incredibly busy, and you are so much more than your body image, but if you can find a way to practice these strategies every day, your body image will improve.