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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Lott

Negative body image

We all have a body-image. Beginning at birth, body image develops as we experience life, incorporating the messages of our personal experiences and of the culture, (through adverts, movies, the internet) into the picture that forms in our mind’s eye.

Ideally, this inner self-image is going to be mostly positive; I say 'mostly' because I've yet to come across someone with a 100% positive body image, as everyone seems to find some fault with the way they look, but the ideal would clearly be a good balance of seeing the good and accepting the not-so-good. 

Body image isn’t a unidimensional construct. It’s actually made up of four aspects:

Perceptual body image: how you see your body

Affective body image: how you feel about your body

Cognitive body image: how you think about your body

Behavioural body image: the way you behave as a result of your perceptual, affective, and cognitive body image

(NEDC, 2017)

Body image concerns are beginning at an increasingly young age and often endure throughout life. By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape, and 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat.(1) . Furthermore, over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviours such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives (2).


Researchers are increasingly finding a biological basis for negative and distorted body image within eating disorders. A team led by Henrik Ehrsson, a neuroscientist at University College London, identified that the parietal cortex generates the body image. Disruption of this region's normal functioning could play an important role in conditions such as anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder.

Other research has found that different sub-types of eating disorders, with their cognitive differences, may be related to the activation of different parts of the brain; with the amygdala being significantly activated in AN-R (restrictive anorexia) patients, AN-BP (anorexia binge-purge) patients, and healthy women, and The prefrontal cortex (PFC) was significantly activated in AN-BP patients and healthy women, but not in AN-R and BN (bulimia nervosa) patients. Brain activation pattern differences between the various EDs may underlie cognitive differences with respect to distorted body image, and therefore might reflect a general failure to represent and evaluate one's own body in a realistic fashion (3)


The biological explanations for the existence of this dysfunctional scheme for self-evaluation within so many people with eating disorders, doesn't mean the issues can't be addressed. We can tackle poor body image at several levels, not least the constant flow of self-critical thinking that ensures negative self-image becomes entrenched enough to be central to our actions, relationships and approach to life and cause everything we say, do and think to become distorted by the lens of this belief about ourselves.

People with eating disorders, as well as survivors of trauma, tend to fix their attention on these distorted perceptions of themselves. In an attempt to avoid these ' felt' connections they may numb feelings and sensations to stifle overwhelming emotions, and engage in punitive and negative thoughts and self talk regarding their perceptions of themselves (4)

Because of the deep interconnectness of our body with our thoughts, attitudes and feelings, the body and mind cannot be treated independently of one another (5)


Developing or increasing our capacity to resolve damaging body-image issues must include examining what underlies the negative perceptions and feelings. Exploring the impact of your self-perception has to include an emphasis on living “in” rather then controlling the body.

All too commonly those of us with EDs see ourselves as failures, disappointments and burdens to their families and loved ones. There is, more often than not, a voice stuck on a continual loop repeating that we're worthless and possibly even telling us that nobody would care if we weren't around.These emotions are felt and experienced in the body, (with me it was always like a cold weight in my chest) ; it can be a knot in the stomach that can make you feel heavy, weighed down and hopeless that things will ever feel different. Nothing ever feels quite real, and no accomplishment (getting the 'right' job, or the 'best' qualifications or whatever) will feel quite enough.


In order to begin working on poor body image psycho-education , experiential therapy and therapy informed by psychodynamic counselling can help work on enhancing your strengths (we do all have them!) and begin to re-balance our body image so that negative thoughts are no longer dominant. We can learn to identify how our self-perception takes form and exists in our body, and how we express this through our body language. This sort of therapy involves helping understand how we see ourselves, and, importantly, how we believe or perceive that others see us. In order to properly understand and challenge how our body- image impacts our lives we must explore and develop strategies to resolve these damaging body-image issues.

When you feel you are turning towards disordered patterns as a response to stress, anxiety or other feelings of being overwhelmed, therapy can help you learn to use these feelings or distortions as a warning that you are having a conflict; this can be an important way to identify what feels wrong, so you can choose to take positive, healthy action and avoid lapses in your eating disorder recovery.

The use of Dance/Movement Therapy (DMT) as one of several types of expressive therapy can help address poor body-image.Using carefully monitored movements and breathing techniques, DMT can help you to develop body awareness and tolerance. Expressive movement techniques are developed by the therapist to embody understanding of emerging issues and this movement work is processed on a body level as well as a cognitive level.

Using journals or worksheets to externalise insights on body image can create a useful resource to establish 'mini-goals': from this you can create action plans on body image issues. Feedback from your therapist or coach provides further direction and support, along with a framework for guidelines for further exploration of body image issues

We may use an eating disorder (once it has been triggered and become established) to make us feel less anxious and more in control . It can quite successfully move the focus away from the things that we don't want to address or feel, like the effects of our poor body-image. Self-compassion work, and therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help us find ways to acknowledge, accept and learn how to express our feelings. A 2011 Harvard study found that mindfulness techniques, especially meditation, helped create measurable differences on sense of self.



Always question what you're being sold by adverts on TV, magazines, the internet. The diet industry is massive, generating approx $68.2 billion a year globally, and continues to grow by exploiting and manipulating poor body-image and low self-esteem. These messages are constant and unrelenting, telling us we have to buy their products and their programmes to get 'bikini ready' or banish that cellulite' , " bounce back after baby" or "fight for those six back abs"; we're always being told we should regard some foods as 'bad' or 'naughty' , trying to convince us that there's one version of beauty, an acceptable template we should spend our lives trying to fit. This, of course, is bullshit.

It constantly reinforces the nonsense that thin=good and larger bodied=bad. Our worth is not defined by our weight, the size of our jeans or the shape of our body. We cannot tell the health of a person by the way that they look. The goal has to be to know your value and worth and nurture yourself so you have the energy and vitality to enjoy your life to its fullest.


Take time to dig down and explore your own thought patterns and beliefs. It might help to keep a thought log during your day and find a therapist, coach or trusted friend you can explore these with. Where did your beliefs come from? What purpose have they served for you? Is there validity and truth to them or are they beliefs that you are able to challenge and unpack? 


Begin unfollowing accounts that make you feel bad about yourself, like you need to change who you are or like you’re not doing enough . Social media can be a great thing and it can also be dangerous, for example, higher levels of Instagram use has been linked to significantly increased symptoms of orthorexia. Setting firm boundaries for yourself such as who you follow and how much time you spend on it can help keep it a positive tool (there are some great apps that can help with this)


Self-love may seem a long way off, but you can practise respecting it and taking care of it. Respecting your body means appreciating it for all of the great things it does for you. Respecting it also looks like listening to and trusting your body's messages and needs. Focusing on what your body can DO over how your body looks can help begin this process.


In the simplest terms, be kind. Begin noticing the negative things you are thinking to yourself and substitute it with something kind and compassionate. A great exercise to practice is 'the criticiser, the criticised and the compassionate observer'. When you have a negative thought say it out loud. This is the criticiser. Next follow it up with the person being criticised. Begin to challenge those negative beliefs out loud. Lastly, practice speaking from a place of compassion. Saying it out loud can begin to put things into perspective and offer you a chance to really challenge your thoughts.

Negative body image will never heal by changing what our body looks like. It needs to be really tackled where it starts, on the inside. The process is challenging and can take a long-time, but it can be transformational.


(1) Smolak, 2011

(2) Neumark- Sztainer, 2005

(3) Brain activation during the perception of distorted body images in eating disorders.

(4) Kleinman, 2009

(5) Ressler & Kleinman, 2012

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