Think about the last time you looked, or peeked, at yourself naked in the mirror. (Don't pretend you've never done this.) Maybe you were deliberately checking yourself out, or maybe you just caught a glimpse of yourself as you got out of the shower.
Perhaps, in this moment of stark exposure, you wondered, "Whose butt is that?" Followed by, "Ugh, why can't it be just a little bit smaller?" Or maybe you wished that your biceps were a little less flimsy and a little more defined and that your belly was more flat than round.
Have you ever wondered where this voice comes from and why you desire these physical qualities? Maybe a romantic partner once said to you, "Gee, I wish your butt/arms/tummy was smaller." (If so, I hope this is an ex–romantic partner!) But, more likely, no one has ever explicitly told you how you are supposed to look to be deemed attractive. That is, no one except you.
So, what is body image? "Body image" is the term that is used to describe our thoughts and feelings about our bodies. If you are happy with your body, then you have what researchers refer to as "body satisfaction." It is a rare person who is truly satisfied with his or her body. Instead, most of us experience some level of body dissatisfaction. We wish we were thinner, taller, more muscular, less muscular, had longer legs—you get the idea. Among girls and women, body dissatisfaction is so common that it has long been referred to as a "normative discontent."
In other words, body dissatisfaction among girls and women is described as "the new normal." This isn't to say that it is okay that so many of us are not happy with our bodies, just that it is, sadly, the norm. Increasingly, boys and men are also experiencing body dissatisfaction. In my research, I've found that up to 90 percent of girls and women report experiencing body dissatisfaction and up to 75 percent of boys and men report experiencing body dissatisfaction.
Manage Your Image
One of the keys to long-term weight loss and management is to first achieve a certain degree of body satisfaction, a certain amount of acceptance of your body. We all need to come to terms with the fact that weight loss does not change some aspects of our bodies. If you have short legs, you will still have short legs, no matter how much weight you lose.
It probably isn't too surprising to learn that individuals who are dissatisfied with their bodies tend to be concerned about their own weight and these concerns often lead to dieting behaviors. I know what you are thinking—no duh! No one has "accidentally" found themselves on a diet if they were not first concerned about their weight. However, this is where things get a little more complex. Individuals who have high levels of weight concerns tend to approach weight management in a maladaptive way, resorting to drastic approaches to weight loss that are not healthy and not likely to be sustainable over the long term.
They are prone to skipping meals, eliminating food groups from their diet, binging, and even sometimes purging. In the short run, these strategies might pay off in the sense that a person may lose some weight. The problem (you knew there was going to be one, right?) is that eventually people get hungry (it is tough to skip breakfast every day) or they miss the food they vowed to give up (think chips, cookies, and ice cream) and they find themselves with a cookie (or ten) in their mouth. Weight gain often follows and so do additional concerns about their weight.
Decades of research shows a reciprocal relationships between body image and weight. The reality is that individuals with lower levels of body satisfaction are less successful at losing weight than those with higher levels of body satisfaction. Similar research has found that improvements in body image lead to healthier eating and exercise behaviors. Quite simply, when people feel good about themselves, they are more apt to take good care of themselves, eat well, and exercise. Getting in the right frame of mind for weight loss and management— and not being down on yourself—is an important part of my advice, whether you want to lose five pounds or twenty-five.
Reprinted with permission from Smart People Don't Diet: How the Latest Science Can Help You Lose Weight Permanently by Charlotte N Markey, PH.D. (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2015)