What To Do If Negative Body Image Is Taking A Toll On Your Mental Health

Victoria Stokes examines the line between being body-conscious and body-obsessed.

I’m 13, on my bedroom floor in what is supposed to be a plank position, with a draconian exercise routine scribbled in pen on a sheet of paper below my nose. If I can just complete each item on the list, for the next 30 days, I’ll work off that little pouch of belly fat and have skinny thighs, just like my friends, I tell myself.

Fast forward 16 years and I’m sitting at my desk, a newly formed stomach roll sitting snugly against the waistband of my skirt, and I know why it’s there. It’s the culmination of a months-long stretch of wild nights out, indulgent trips away, and cheeky takeaways; the result of living life to its fullest, and honestly, up until this moment I’d simply called the extra weight ‘happy pounds’, vowing that eventually I’d get my arse in gear. But right now I’m feeling anything but happy. I’m feeling fugly, and it’s bringing me down.

I’d love to say my experience is atypical, but according to a recent study carried out by Reach Out Ireland and The Irish Examiner, 72% of Irish teens say body image affects their mental health, and I have no doubt that for most of us, those insecurities are carried through into our adult lives. It’s not just a matter of wanting to be thin either; all of us, size independent, have our hang ups, and I only need to talk to some of my friends to understand how universal and ingrained the issue is.

“I have days when I feel really shit about being at chested, and I’ve toyed with the idea of getting a boob job,” one tells me. “For years I avoided going on sun holidays because I felt so self conscious about how non-existent my boobs looked in a bikini.” Another friend explains to me:

I don’t think I’ll ever make peace with my thighs. I’ve spent half my life working out to try and make them look smaller, but nothing changes and it really knocks my confidence. It’s the exact reason I never wear dresses above the knee.

For one friend, Caitlin, 31, trying to change her body became an obsession. “I’d refuse invitations to things because I knew it would just derail me and set me back in terms of my health and fitness goals,” she explains. “I was seeing my friends less and less and the gym was my everything. I’d train hard six days a week, and feel guilty for taking a rest day. Every single morsel of food that went into my mouth was accounted for and tracked, and treats were few and far between. I honestly thought if I was just strict enough on myself I could finally love my body but that’s not the way it works. It’s backward. You have to love your body first.”

UN•RETOUCHED•WILD WOMAN 📸 : @rachell_photo #SelfLoveBringsBeauty

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But doing so is hard isn’t it? There’s a narrow ideal of what makes the perfect figure and when you feel like you don’t match up, in rolls a steady stream of negative self talk and critical comments. That’s why I spoke to anti-diet coach and body confidence expert Anne-Sophie Reindhardt. All of us have body hang ups, sure, but I ask Anne-Sophie how to tell if you have an unhealthy obsession with the way you look. She reckons that if you’re constantly comparing yourself to others, avoiding taking pictures, often talking negatively about your body and avoiding making plans with your friends and family, it’s a definite cause for concern.

The thing is that in today’s society, it is quite normal, expected even, to struggle with your body image. Most women out there, as well as more kids and men, are obsessively worried about their body, or shape, or size, or weight. It’s part of our cultural communal identity and it’s quite troubling.

Where does Anne-Sophie think these body image issues stem from? “It’s certainly a phenomenon that is heightened by social media,” she surmises. “But it goes beyond that. Women have been reduced to their physical features for a long, long time and this emphasis of placing value on female looks sits deep in our psyche. It’s a thought pattern that has been transferred into our DNA from our mothers and their mothers’ mothers.”

So what should you do in a moment of body critique, whether you’re staring at a mirror wishing your bum could be Kardashian-level or peering down at a number on a scale feeling worthless?

“One coping skill I teach my clients is to stop everything you do, put your hand on your heart and feel your heartbeat. Breathe deeply and simply feel your heart beating in your chest,” says Anne-Sophie. “This may seem too simple to work, but it is such a powerful way of reconnecting with your body on a physical plane that goes beyond your weight and the shape of your thighs,” she explains.

“It’s a way of connecting with your life force, of realising that you are a miracle, a whole being that is so much bigger and so much more worthy than the value you place on your cellulite or the size of your clothes.”

While that might seem a bit airy-fairy to some, I definitely think Anne-Sophie is on to something. “This moment of pause allows you to refocus your thoughts and realign with your true nature,” she clarifies.

As for moving from a place of body hate to loving, embracing and accepting the skin that you’re in, not just in a moment of body crisis but on a daily basis, here’s what Anne- Sophie recommends.

First, it’s important to investigate your limiting beliefs and begin to differentiate between your own voice and the lies you’ve been fed by the diet industry. Another step is to stop dieting altogether. Dieting and healing your body image are based on opposite ideologies. If you pursue dieting, you will not be able to heal your body image issues as dieting goes against trusting your body and learning to love the skin you’re in right here and right now.

It’s about nourishing your body and exercising because it feels good, not so you can squeeze back into a pair of jeans.

A shortcut to being more comfortable with yourself, says Anne-Sophie, is to look outside of your body for things to be grateful for. “The more content and happy you are in general, the less important your exact body shape and weight is,” she points out. “Make it a point to stop and consciously look for the many blessings you have in life – blessings that are not related to the shape of your body or the weight you see on the scale.”

Anne-Sophie’s last piece of advice is perhaps one of the most impactful. “Join other women who are focused on body positivity,” she instructs, and a friend of mine concurs with this little nugget of wisdom. “One of the best things I ever did for my body image was unfollowing all the accounts on my feed that only promote one tiny, narrow definition of beauty and instead choosing to interact with women who look more like me,” she tells me.

Anne-Sophie has the last word on the matter. “Most of all,” she concludes, “it’s important to allow yourself and your body to be imperfect and to realise that your worthiness as a human being does not correlate with the shape of your body.” Words to live by, I reckon.

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