How to Find Peace from Body Image Anxiety In An Appearance Obsessed World
Updated: Aug 23
Post by Daneille Callow
It can often feel like our bodies are on display. Messages from weight loss companies, social media, friends, and even our families' beliefs of what a good and bad body looks like can leave us feeling anxious about how we are perceived in this world.
But what if there are ways to manage those thoughts before they become overwhelming and out of control? About six months ago, I sat in on a presentation where they discussed Hillary Mcbride's new book, "The Wisdom of Your Body." As I learned more about the complexities of contentedly living within our bodies, I began to ask the question: how does a person's body image impact their experience of anxiety in a world that sees our bodies through a narrow and often cruel lens? As I have explored this topic more in-depth, I have learned that taking steps toward peacefulness and contentment with our bodies is possible.
What is body image anxiety?
Body image encompasses more than just the way you look on the outside. It is your foundational relationship with your body, how you interact with it, and how you believe it deserves to be treated. Anxious thoughts arise about our bodies throughout our lives. For women, these thoughts often start as young teenagers, as people begin to comment on how our bodies look. And at each stage of our lives, our bodies are picked apart both online and in real life.
People make judgments and comment on the imperfections they see in our outward appearance. These messages become the foundational roots that begin to give way to anxious thoughts.
Society has a narrow view of what a good body should look like. When people feel like they don't fit into those standards, many start to experience body image dissatisfaction. One study showed that between 50-80% of adolescents report body image dissatisfaction. When we feel that our bodies are on display through Instagram, Tiktok, Facebook, etc., we may feel anxious about how others perceive us. These thoughts creep in as we scroll through the perfectly modified photos on our feeds, and we begin to ask the question: are we good enough? The good news is that the research shows effective ways to learn how to manage anxious and unhelpful thoughts we may experience.
Can body image Therapy Help?
Yes! Reaching out to a therapist for body image issues is a great first step if you feel you are experiencing significant anxiety about your body or appearance. Working with a body image therapist can help uncover the beliefs you are carrying about yourself that may contribute to your body image anxiety.
Counseling for body image issues can also give you tools and strategies to help you know what to do when those thoughts arise.
Studies show the effectiveness of therapeutic approaches including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, in helping clients reduce negative beliefs surrounding their body image. Think back to the last time you read a "self-help" book or saw a TikTok or Youtube video that gave you the "answer" to dealing with a negative thought you have. You finish reading or watching whatever media it is and begin practicing what they preach. You tell yourself to "stay positive" or try to usher the thoughts away in hopes of finding peace. The issue is that avoiding our anxious thoughts does not lead to lasting peace.
Body image therapy can help give you ways to deal with these anxious thoughts when they arise.
Learning how to cope with anxiety can feel daunting if done alone. The good news is that you don't have to! Reach out to a body image therapist and give yourself the grace to know that you don't need to walk this process without support.
Social Media Hygiene:
Do you notice your anxiety worsening after scrolling through social media for an hour? Is your Instagram page full of photoshopped images that leave you feeling discontent? One study showed that people experience more appearance anxiety after being shown images of "idealized bodies" than if they had not seen them. This study showcases the importance of practicing good media hygiene to help combat your anxious thoughts.
One way to practice good social media hygiene is to limit your exposure on days when you are experiencing higher anxiety levels.
Another way is by unfollowing accounts or limiting the number of accounts that show "idealized bodies."
These filtered and photoshopped images affect how you view and evaluate yourself. By creating awareness about the impact the media you consume is having on your anxiety, you will be able to take steps toward managing your consumption of it.
Consider Body Neutrality:
It may feel helpful to consider a body-neutral approach when addressing anxiety about your body.
Body neutrality is the idea that we can appreciate what our bodies do for us and accept what our bodies look like without loving or hating them.
Body neutrality points out that our outer appearance does not paint the full picture of what it means to live within our bodies. This approach sits between body negativity and body positivity. It is so easy to engage in body negativity through conversations with others which perpetuates the cycle of anxiety and body image dissatisfaction.
On the other hand, while the body positivity movement has done a wonderful job celebrating all bodies, it can feel like an unrealistic ideal to go from body negativity to unconditional love and positive feelings towards the body.
When we acknowledge that our bodies are working hard behind the scenes, we begin to see ourselves from a more neutral lens. Every day our bodies do so much for us. Recognizing the effort it takes our bodies to keep our hearts beating, our lungs full of breath, and our brains functioning can remind us of all the ways we are more than just what is on the outside.
Although body image is not a new construct, it is critical to remember that we live in a time when our brains are constantly bombarded with messages about our bodies. Movies, TV shows, and social media all play a key role in the development of body image anxiety. However, practicing good social media hygiene, speaking with a trained body image therapist, and considering a body-neutral approach may begin to change the way we view our bodies.
So in those moments when our anxiety feels high and we begin to critique ourselves, let's step into mindful reflection and ask ourselves what we need at that moment.
Maybe it looks like practicing a skill learned in therapy or putting down our phones and going outside on a walk. Whatever we do, let's remember that we are more than just an appearance. Let us celebrate the deep complexities of living in our bodies and recognize the strength it takes to step out of our cycles of shame to begin living in contentment.
Dion, J., Blackburn, M.-E., Auclair, J., Laberge, L., Veillette, S., Gaudreault, M., & Touchette, É. (2015). Development and etiology of body dissatisfaction in adolescent boys and girls. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 20(2), 151–166.
McBride, H. L. (2021). The wisdom of your body. Baker Publishing Group. Monro, F., & Huon, G. (2005). Media-portrayed idealized images, body shame, and appearance anxiety. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 38(1), 85–90.
Shirazipour, M. M. (2022). The effectiveness of treatment based on acceptance and commitment to reduce rumination and worry about body image of the elderly with depression. Journal of Fundamentals of Mental Health, 21–28.
Vannucci, A., & Ohannessian, C. M. (2018). Body image dissatisfaction and anxiety trajectories during adolescence. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 47(5), 785–795.
Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., Rudolph, J., Webb, H. J., Henderson, L., & Hawes, T. (2021). Face-to-face and cyber-victimization: a longitudinal study of offline appearance anxiety and online appearance preoccupation. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 50(12), 2311–2323.