Health Agenda

Mental Health

How to overcome negative body image

Negative body image can affect our mental health. Learn how to build a better body image, for a healthier mindset.

When was the last time you paid someone a compliment? How often do you gush over a friend’s new haircut, or tell a partner how beautiful or handsome they look?

And when was the last time you did that for yourself? Have you ever said anything nice about your body or noticed all the amazing stuff it can do?

Our body image – the way in which we see ourselves and our bodies – comes in part from the thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves. Body image has almost nothing to do with what we look like, but everything to do with how we feel. And the way we see our bodies can be very different from the reality.

There are ways we can improve negative body image and learn how to talk to ourselves with as much compassion and kindness as we do others.

Focus on function, not form

One of the ways we can have a more positive body image is to pay attention to all of the incredible things our body is capable of, says clinical psychologist Ranjani Utpala, Clinical Director at Butterfly Foundation, the national charity for Australians experiencing body-image issues and eating disorders.

“Appreciating what your body can do, rather than focusing on what it looks like, is a good way to improve the way you perceive your body,” says Ranjani. “I do this myself when I go for a walk and get out into nature. I literally say, ‘Thank you, body, for bringing me here to see and appreciate all of this.’”

Daily practice: Once a day, write down something your body did, or enabled you to do, that made you feel good. It doesn’t have to be something extreme – we aren’t all marathon runners. Think about things like going for a walk with a friend, doing the gardening, playing with your children or taking part in a sport you enjoy. Read the list back to yourself as it grows as a reminder of all the things your body allows you to do.

Monitor your media messaging

It’s hard to avoid the flood of images of bodies we’re exposed to every day through the media – both traditional and social. Diet culture and so-called “healthy” products can trick us into thinking that we can all look like a Kardashian if we just buy into whatever it is they’re selling.

When trying to improve our body image, Ranjani recommends getting media savvy and thinking about the whole picture – not just the picture of the model. “First, how much has this image been modified and edited? Second, is the person in the image trying to sell something? What are we being asked to buy into so that we too can look like that? Also, consider who the person is. Maybe they’re a trainer who works out five hours a day and is literally paid to look like that.”

Daily practice: Curate your social-media exposure. If you use Instagram or Facebook, try limiting your exposure to unhelpful or unrealistic images that can negatively impact your body image. The more images we see of unattainable bodies, the more we’re likely to compare ourselves to them and feel worse about our body.

Lift your mood

Low mood or anxiety has been linked to negative body image, and the worse you feel about yourself, the lower your mood may become. Research shows that things like getting good-quality sleep, eating a balanced meal, doing regular exercise, and avoiding drugs and alcohol can all improve our overall mood and how we feel.

“Getting a good night’s sleep or going for a walk isn’t going to change your body image,” says Ranjani. “But nurturing your whole self and practising body kindness, acceptance, and care, is a way of telling your body that you accept and appreciate it.”

Daily practice: Take some time every day to do something that makes your body and mind feel good. If you only have 10 minutes, try a mindfulness meditation exercise. If you have 30 minutes, lie down and have a doze. If you have an hour, go for a walk somewhere with a nice view. By dedicating this time to rejuvenating your body and mind, you’re sending a message to yourself that your whole self is worth looking after and caring for.

Take control of your inner voice

Think about how you talk to your best friend, versus how your inner voice talks to you. We regularly use tone and language on ourselves that we would never dream of using with a friend. If your inner voice is badmouthing you and your body, your body image will be affected.

“If you notice that your self-talk is negative, try and change that,” says Ranjani. “Stand up to the bully within you and say, ‘Stop it. My body doesn’t need that’. Changing your mindset in how you talk to, and judge, yourself can help improve body image.”

Daily practice: Every morning take a few seconds to look in the mirror and say something nice to yourself. Some people prefer mantras or affirmations, like “I am enough”. Or choose something about your body that you are grateful for and vocalise it. Saying “I’m grateful for my legs because they help me go for a run” or “I am proud of my body because it grew my babies” will help you start your day with a positive view of your body.

Stop trying to fix something that isn’t broken

“I encourage people to remember that their bodies are not a problem to fix,” says Ranjani. “Appreciating, respecting and accepting our bodies for what they can do, and focusing on skills, talents, qualities and values, can all help improve body image.”

Daily practice: Try keeping a gratitude journal and writing down the things in life that you value and that bring you joy, such as spending time with friends or family, taking a pet for a walk, reading a great book, watching a funny movie, etc. Being able to see in print all of the good things in your life can help improve your mood and counter negative thoughts.

Getting help with body image

While all of the exercises above are a good place to start, sometimes we need more help than we can give ourselves.

“Often people wait until a problem gets really bad before they reach out for professional help,” says Ranjani. “But we know that early intervention leads to better outcomes and I would encourage anyone struggling with these issues to ask for help early.”

While a GP is a great first step, there are other services available.

We're trying to make it as easy and fast as possible for you to access the mental wellbeing support you need. PSYCH2U mental wellbeing and navigation services are unique to HCF, giving eligible HCF members* access to video consultations with psychologists, psychiatrists and other allied health professionals.

Where to find more mental health help:

To speak to someone about problems with body image, call the Butterfly National Helpline on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673).

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Kerry McCarthy
June 2021

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