This article discusses eating disorders and body image, including statistics. As of 2021, at least 30 million people in the United States will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. This can range from anorexia or bulimia, to restrictive eating, to disordered eating habits. Eating disorders can affect anyone of any age and any gender. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Obviously, this is a huge and tragic problem, and maintaining a positive body image can help.
What is body image?
Although people affected by eating disorders have their own triggers or reasons the disorder develops, body image plays a large role in these disorders developing. Body image is the way a person feels about their body and the way it looks. It’s essentially the way you see yourself in this world, and how you feel about it. Your body image and sense of self might be totally different than how others actually see you, and most of the time, we are our own worst critics, so we likely judge ourselves more harshly than other people do.
Some bad body image habits could include excessively weighing yourself or obsessing over your weight or body mass index, looking at your body in an extremely critical way and comparing your body to how it “used to look,” or comparing your body to someone else’s body and putting yourself down because of how you look. Excessive dieting or exercise can also be an unhealthy and dangerous way to cope with poor body image. “Punishing” yourself for eating dessert or something unhealthy by working out extra hard the next day is also unhealthy behavior.
Comparisons in social media and advertising
With social media, it has become far too easy for people to compare themselves solely based on looks. Even before social media became so popular, the media contributed to unhealthy body image for many people. Movie stars look perfect on-screen, while models look completely flawless in magazines. Luckily it has since become widely known and talked about that magazines often photoshop their models excessively. And it’s also important to remember that movie stars are literally paid to exercise and look a certain way for roles. It is literally part of their job. In the past several years, a few brands have done awesome work to contribute to positive body image for their consumers by featuring people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities in their ad campaigns.
Aerie is one of my favorite brands that does this. Aerie is owned by American Eagle and sells bras, underwear, swimsuits, and loungewear. Aerie has models of all sizes on their website and in ads in their stores, and they don’t retouch any of the models in their photos. They have models with freckles, birthmarks, piercings, body hair, differently-abled models, and feature models varying in age, size, and race. A lot of Aerie stores also have post-it notes available to place positive affirmations on the dressing room mirror, contributing to feeling good while buying a bra and underwear. Not only do I really enjoy the clothing they sell, I like the experience of scrolling through Aerie’s website and seeing models that look like actual people I know. It’s like seeing your friends modeling awesome clothing for you.
Remember that Instagram isn’t real life
Although positive strides have been made to contribute to positive body image through ad campaigns, social media is, unfortunately, the perfect vehicle for comparing yourself to others. Instagram is literally made up of photos, and because of the nature of social media, people post their best bits and happiest moments. Although we all know intellectually that no one’s life is actually as perfect and curated as it seems online, it still hurts seeing other people look “perfect” if you don’t feel that great about yourself. Additionally, being an Instagram model is now a viable career. No shade to any of these models, but they will highly edit their photos so they look sculpted, smooth, and voluptuous. They are hired to sell products, so similarly to photos in a magazine, these photos are curated to perfection. The only difference here is that we scroll past these models while also scrolling past our friends, so it’s easy to forget that they are hired to model and edit themselves and that they actually don’t look like that.
Your body does not need fixing
Bashing your body is so normalized in our culture, especially for women. So many products are marketed towards us, promising to make our bodies look better as if they need fixing in the first place. Spanx, diet pills, neck exercisers (what the heck?), hair vitamins, products to make our eyelashes grow faster, waist trainers … truly I could go on and on. We are bombarded with products and “fitspiration” to make us think our bodies need all this fixing. That is untrue!! If you are taking care of your body and you are healthy, then there is nothing to “fix,” no matter your size.
When thinking about body image and the way women are socialized to talk and think about our bodies, I often think of a scene from Mean Girls. It’s that scene where Cady first goes to Regina’s house and all of the friends are looking in Regina’s mirror and they go around one by one and say something they don’t like about their bodies. When Cady just stands there saying nothing, all of the girls turn and look at her, waiting for her to complain about her body too. I know Mean Girls is a comedy and it’s supposed to be satirical, but that moment is so true! Women are told we shouldn’t love our bodies the way they are, and we, unfortunately, bond over disliking ourselves. Let’s change that.
Body image extends to mental health too
When we talk about “healthy” bodies, we often just talk about size and weight, and feeling mentally healthy about your body is left out. If you weigh a certain amount, but in order for you to weigh this amount you eat way less than what your body needs, causing you to develop unhealthy eating habits and obsess over your weight, that is not a healthy weight for you! We need to incorporate mental health and positive body image into the conversation of healthy bodies. Negative body image can not only lead to disordered eating, but it can also lead to anxiety or depression.
Body image advice from friends
So what are some things you can do to work on developing a healthier body image and feel good in your body? I asked some of my friends for tips for feeling good in their bodies. Here’s what they said…
One friend said they refrain from diet and body talk around friends and politely redirect the conversation when it comes up.
Several friends said they focus less on actual “weight” and more on how they feel. If they are feeling anxious or sluggish, they’ll go for a walk. They’ll eat more vegetables because it makes them feel good. They pay attention to what they body needs and act accordingly.
So many friends said they remind themselves of all of the amazing things their bodies can do. Running, walking, digesting, existing.
Several friends said they like to wear clothes that make them look good and feel good. One friend said they like to wear things that are bold and out of their comfort zone to prove to themselves they can pull anything off.
Several friends said they unfollow accounts on social media that make them feel bad or over-edit their pictures and follow people that are body positive instead.
One friend said listen to Lizzo. (Great suggestion)
Another friend said they practice “body neutrality,” which is acknowledging a thought about their body without judging it as positive or negative, but simply recognizing that thought then letting it go, kind of like in meditation.
Several friends also said they don’t weigh themselves and tell their doctor not to say their weight out loud when they have a check-up.
I personally recommend going for walks, eating vegetables, and spending more time naked: sleeping naked, looking at yourself naked in the mirror at least once a day, and checking yourself out because by golly you look so good!! I also suggest wearing your body hair however you like it. I also love the idea of health at any size and think this is a great mindset for the body-positive movement. That means being as healthy as you can mentally and physically, no matter your size. This allows for so many people to look good and feel good in their bodies!
Follow some body-positive social media accounts and remind yourself of all of the amazing things your body can do and does each and every day. Compliment yourself the way you would gas up a friend!
If you’re struggling with body image or disordered eating, please ask for help. The National Eating Disorders Association Helpline is 1-800-931-2237 and is available to call Monday-Thursday from 9 a.m.-9 p.m., and Friday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. EST. You deserve to be healthy, care for your body, and love yourself no matter your size.