Stop Binge Eating

How to Improve Body Image

Body image is how you think and feel about your body, and how you feel ‘in’ your body. These beliefs are often formed when we are young and are difficult, but not impossible, to change. Our body image beliefs feel very real but are not necessarily ‘true’. Body image is strongly linked to self-esteem and can have a big impact on our mental health.
Many of us sometimes ‘feel fat’. This feeling might not really be to do with our body. Often it is because we are channelling other negative emotions onto our bodies as they can feel more manageable that way.
We have over 60,000 thoughts every day and with a negative body image, many of these thoughts can be negative and end up fuelling this negative self-talk. We can learn to notice these thoughts and then question whether they are true.
We discuss why many of us have a negative body image and where it comes from and discover simple strategies to improve your body image.

What is body image?

Body image is how you think and feel about your body, and how you feel ‘in’ your body.
Body image beliefs are often formed when we are young and are difficult to change. Our body image beliefs feel very real but are not necessarily ‘true’. It can help to take a step back to help get some perspective and be able to think more logically. For example, when you were younger, you perhaps thought that you wanted to lose weight, but when you look back at photos, what do you think? Perhaps your thoughts then about what you liked do not seem ‘true’ now even though they seemed very real at the time.
Why is body image important?

Two-thirds of people are not happy with body image and negative body image is linked to eating disorders, depression and anxiety.
Much of your self-esteem is related to body image and due to our Western culture, we often link success with how our bodies look.
There are a lot of things that can negatively impact body image. It is not a surprise that it is such a common issue.
What causes negative body image?

Lots of past and current experiences can add up to influence body image. The more ‘negative’ experiences you have, the more likely it is that you suffer from negative body image.
Low self-esteem: stable self-esteem is protective of body image. For those of us with unstable self-esteem, it can seem unconsciously attractive to direct our inner critic to focus on our body, with weight loss then temporarily bolstering self-esteem.
Social comparison: if we have a tendency to negatively compare ourselves to others that we perceive as more attractive, including in the media, this can lead to negative body image.
Family values, expectations and competition: if you grew up in a family with strong expectations for body size, then this can lead to pressure and a feeling of failure if we do not match up to these expectations.
Early puberty: when puberty is reached early, there can be a feeling of difference from peers. Anything that makes us feel different can impact body image, due to body changes in puberty, this can be a particularly sensitive time.
Attention: If you received a lot of attention, particularly related to your looks, then there might be pressure to keep this up, or it might lead to feeling embarrassed about your looks.
Sport experience: competitive sports, particularly gymnastics or dance when body size is often criticised can be particularly damaging to body image. Embarrassing port or P.E. experience can also play a role.
Acceptance or rejection: if you have ever been accepted or rejected because of your size or looks, like not being asked out on a date, or not receiving attention.
Changes in body size: if you have gained or lost lots of weight quickly and had comments about it.
Clothing: if you ever felt left out in some way, such as being dressed differently to your friends.
Comments on your weight, including ‘slimness’: comments about your weight, whether well-intentioned or not, can influence body image. When we get a positive comment, we may seek these out and if we don’t get them again then this can harm body image.
Parents’ shape and attitudes: Did your parents have body image issues? If so, these issues may still be influencing how you feel about yourself. This can be relevant whether you felt similar to your family in terms of body shape, or felt very different.
Dieting: Once you have started restricting and have decided that foods are good or bad, it can be very difficult to go back to food being just food. Restricting food and losing weight can become ‘addictive’ as we seek the ‘rush’ of the number on the scales going down.
Teasing: Being teased for any aspect of your appearance or body can be harmful to body image, unless you have very robust self-esteem.
Physical conditions, including changes: Any physical characteristic that makes us feel ‘different’, including disabilities and any changes to our bodies influence body image.
Traumatic events: Experiencing trauma can lead us to feel separated from our bodies in some way, or uncomfortable within them.
Why we ‘feel fat’?

Many of us sometimes ‘feel fat’. This feeling might not be anything to do with our body. Often it is because we are channelling negative emotions, like a self-loathing judgement of yourself. There can be loads of underlying reasons for ‘feeling fat’ and some of them are described below.
Life feels out of control
Do you feel overwhelmed, stressed and have endless to-do lists? It can be easy to displace all of this onto your body. Your body may feel like it is something that you can change, such as with a diet.
We make comparisons
We naturally make comparisons to confirm what we already think, this means if we have low body image, we may look at others who we perceive as more attractive so that we feel worse about ourselves.
Eating ‘forbidden’ foods
Sometimes just eating a food that we think is ‘forbidden’ can make us feel like we have put on weight, when it technically is not possible to put on weight that quickly.
Anger, shame and other strong emotions
Often, we don’t want to feel strong emotions as it can feel uncomfortable. We can displace this discomfort into the way we look as it can feel more tangible and manageable than experiencing these strong emotions.
Not feeling good enough
When we feel inadequate or feel like we haven’t done well at something, it becomes easy to blame our bodies. If we are feeling bad about something, we see our physical selves as part of the problem, even when the issues were not originally related to the body.
How to improve body image
The first step is to realise that you may have negative body image. Without realising it, it is very difficult to shift your thinking to build a more positive relationship with yourself.
We can be angry and impatient with ourselves about many things. It can be helpful to accept that you feel a certain way. When we accept something, it becomes easier to change as you are being clear about your starting point.
Thinking about where negative body image comes from can be helpful as then we can use it as a springboard to decide to move on. You can acknowledge the past but then decide that you want to make some changes and build a more positive body image for the present and future.
Challenging thoughts
We have over 60,000 thoughts every day and with a negative body image, many of these thoughts can be negative and end up fuelling this negative self-talk. We can learn to notice these thoughts and then question whether they are true, or whether we are still being influenced by our past experiences.
  • You could try this exercise to challenge body image thoughts
    • Is the thought really true?
    • Where is the evidence?
    • What would I say to a friend?
    • If this thought is from the past, am I willing to let it go?
Body neutrality
The idea of loving our bodies can be daunting when we have spent years feeling negative about them. Sometimes aiming for feeling ok or neutral about ourselves can seem more manageable.
Being kind to ourselves can feel like an alien concept when we are often so focused on other people’s needs. However, being kind is key to improving body image. Starting small, with baby steps, can really help as this can take practice. You could try viewing yourself as you would a good friend and try to listen to your own advice.
Try not to compare
When we compare ourselves to others, either to those that we think look ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than us, we are isolating ourselves. Instead, it can help to reduce the number of physical comparisons that we make.
Reduce weighing
The number on the scales often has a big impact on how we feel. By weighing ourselves less often, we can reduce the seductive power of the chase of weight loss and the high it gives us when we lose weight. This chase fuels negative body image as we can’t always lose weight.
Reduce body checking
It can be helpful to look in the mirror to see if you look acceptable when going out, but try not to spend to much time scrutinising yourself. It is unlikely to make yourself feel good and you are not going to change what you look like by constantly looking at yourself.
Consider reducing social media
On social media, we are comparing our ‘everyday’ to other people’s ‘best day’. That is not going to make you feel good. Can you reduce some of the things you look at which don’t make you feel good?

What is really important to you?
When you are looking back at your life at the end, what will you care about? Will you be glad about all the time you spent worrying about what you looked like?
Try something brave
Often our body image issues are in our mind. It can help to do some experiments to build confidence and evidence that our negative body image can change. When you feel ready, you could try something that you wouldn’t normally do, like wearing shorts or a sleeveless top in public (or something that is relevant for you). Have a go at doing it and see what happens. It is likely that it is absolutely fine. Then do some other things so that you can gain confidence and start to dispel some of your own negative body image myths.
Here are some books related to body image if you would like to read more:
  • Cash, T. The Body Image Workbook
  • Given, F. Women Don’t Owe You Pretty
  • Harman, A. Perfectly Imperfect
  • Orbach, S. Bodies
  • Pastiloff, J. On Being Human
Binge Eating Therapy

I specialise in eating disorders and have 17 years’ experience as a behaviour change and obesity prevention scientist at Cambridge University. I’ve been there and I get it, and now support people with binge eating, emotional eating, weight loss struggles, and bulimia.
I help clients discover and take charge of their hidden eating triggers and transform their relationship with food. Sessions often focus on getting freedom from constant thoughts about food and weight and escaping the cycle of yo-yo dieting and weight gain. Gain understanding about what has prevented you from recovery in the past so you can overcome that, and live life without restriction or bingeing.
I combine counselling, to understand and overcome emotional barriers, with the strategies and tools of health coaching. The combination of counselling and coaching is powerful for making lasting change.

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Dr Kirsten Keighley

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The information in this website is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr Kirsten Keighley on behalf of Dr Kirsten Keighley Ltd. We recommend you make your own health decisions based on your own research and consultation with a qualified health professional. We recommend that you consult your and your child’s doctor and/or dietician before beginning a new diet or exercise programme.