The relationship an average woman in a Western country has with her body goes something like this: weight and appearance concerns arise somewhere between potty training and kindergarten, and by ages 8-10, she’s already tried at least one diet. By her pre-teen years, she is deeply dissatisfied with how she looks, and she’s convinced she’s too fat. When she hits puberty, her concerns become more focused, and she hates her hips, her thighs, her stomach. By the time she turns 18, she’s in good company, because 80% of her friends feel this way too. As a young adult, she feels overwhelming pressure look a certain way and restrict her diet, and throughout adulthood, she continues to long for “perfection” that she hopes is just a fad diet or new beauty product away.
At some point, many of these women will suffer from an eating disorder – which includes not only anorexia and bulimia, but also binge-eating disorder, diet and exercise obsession (orthorexia), and an unlimited number of eating disorders “not otherwise specified.” Others will develop body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a dangerous obsession with and misperception of a certain body part or parts.
But more commonly, rather than developing full-blown eating disorders, women (and men too, especially middle-aged men) in Western countries simply live everyday with some level of body image anxiety and preoccupation with food and eating. This is called disordered eating, and experts believe that about half the U.S. population engages in it.
Why Are We So Anxious About Weight?
For one, we are relentlessly exposed to images of near-impossible perfection, in advertisements, magazines, movies and TV. Studies have shown that those who are exposed to more of this kind of media (especially reality television) are more prone to eating disorders and body and weight-related anxiety.
The issue of unrealistic beauty standards in the media has received a lot of (though certainly not enough!) attention in recent years. This is a great step forward, as we should strive to create a world where our daughters and sons feel good about themselves and understand how to view media with a critical eye. However, there’s been so much blame placed on mainstream media as the primary – or even only – cause of eating disorders and negative body image, that huge contributors like anxiety disorders and depression are overlooked.
Anxiety, Body Image, and Eating Disorders
Research has shown that eating disorder and BDD patients are very likely to have had an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives – in fact, many of these patients developed anxiety before the ED.
In one study, two-thirds of eating-disordered patients also suffered from an anxiety disorder – most commonly, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Anxiety and body image problems go hand-in-hand, and one typically fuels the other. Disordered behaviors, such as restricting food, over-exercising, or binge eating, become unhealthy coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety. These harmful behaviors in turn cause shame and additional stress and anxiety.
It’s easy to see how anxious people are more susceptible to body image concerns. Self-esteem issues and disordered eating issues often stem from fear of judgment, ridicule, and embarrassment. Sound familiar? These are the same concerns that characterize many anxiety disorders as well.
Standing Up to Body Image Anxiety
As a woman who has struggled with body image and anxiety my whole life, I’m still trying to figure out how to feel comfortable in my own skin, but I’ve made tremendous progress recently. These may not be a cure-all for body and appearance anxiety, but I want to share what’s been working for me. Hopefully this can help some of you as well!
- Throw out your scale! This was a huge step for me, but I haven’t had a scale in almost a year now, and it’s been incredibly freeing. A number does not determine your worth. And even if you need to lose weight for health reasons, it’s 100% possible to do so without letting the scale dictate every morning whether or not it’ll be a good day.
- Get rid of the diet mentality. Whenever I’ve been “on a diet,” I feel deprived and very anxious about whether I’ll really be able to stick to it. What I’m doing now isn’t dieting. I’m just living and eating, and mostly I try to make healthy choices, but sometimes I don’t. When that happens, it’s not a slip-up, and I didn’t just do something “bad.” Instead, if I have a few slices of pizza for lunch one day, I’ll just be sure to eat a nourishing dinner, such as salmon with roasted vegetables or a chicken-and-broccoli stir-fry.
- Give yourself a compliment every time you criticize yourself. Negative self-talk is inevitable for me, as it is for most people suffering from anxiety. Much of my negative self-talk is centered around my appearance and my body. For the last several months, when I catch myself saying something like “You look fat today” to my reflection in the mirror, I quickly respond with something like “Actually, your hair looks really great today!” This might sounds a little ridiculous, but it really helps to deflect some of the negativity.
Do you have any helpful tips for learning to love yourself and accept who you are inside and out? I’d love to hear them in the comments section below!