When you look at yourself in the mirror, how do you feel? What do you see? Have you ever sent yourself out to face the day, thinking to yourself “oh yeah, I’m looking good”?
Many of us hoped that the obsession with appearance, the self-consciousness and the attempts to change our looks would all go away with adolescence. I was hoping that I would never have another zit after the age of 18.
Yeah. That really did not work out.
I have a tendency to vacillate between thinking that I look awesome, and being really down on myself about my appearance. There are some days when I get distracted by my own reflection, and think, “wow, what a babe!” and other days when all I can see are the bags under my eyes and the way that my nose is just way too big and pointy. And then, of course, there’s preoccupation with weight. I mean… I’ve been trying to lose 10 pounds for the past 5 years. And somehow, even when I do lose 10 pounds, it seems like I should probably get rid of 10 more.
So how much of this can be blamed on modern media, which is always telling me that I need to look a certain way in order to be acceptable? How far should I go to look better, and how much should I just come to terms with the way I look and block out all the naysaying voices?
Have You Ever Heard About Body Dysmorphic Disorder?
This disorder takes self-consciousness to a clinical level. It’s a mental disorder characterized by disproportionate preoccupation with a perceived flaw. This “flaw” might be ridiculously exaggerated in the person’s head, or it might not be present at all. What’s so interesting about learning about body dysmorphic disorder (or BDD) is that so many of the symptoms sound familiar to everyone. The difference between normal self-consciousness and BDD is when the self-consciousness leads to mental and physical health problems, like eating disorders, anxiety disorders like depression or social anxiety, continuous cosmetic surgery, or the like. It can be triggered by puberty, hair loss, or a breakup.
What’s amazing is that BDD affects all ages, and all body types. It even affects men and women about evenly. The best treatment for BDD isn’t pills or changes in appearance. It’s cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches the patient to recognize harmful and mistaken thought patterns and counter them with constructive thinking instead.
Self-Image Doesn’t Have Much to Do with Actual Looks
What always stuns me about self-image and self-perception is that how severe we are on ourselves has nothing to do with how good-looking we actually are (or how attracted others are to us).
I have one friend who is the most beautiful person I know in real life. I secretly hate how good she’s always looked in a swimsuit. And yet, she’s the only person in my close acquaintance who has decided to get breast augmentation. She’s the only one who decided that she’d undergo surgery in order to change her appearance, which I already thought was perfect.
This report on body image states a great point: “Perhaps surprisingly, given that their physique is closest to the stereotype masculine ideal, male body-builders experience greater dissatisfaction with their appearance than almost any other males.” The same report also states that more than half of women see a distorted image of themselves. This is supported when women are asked to look at a chart of silhouettes of the female form, from lowest weight to highest. When asked to point out the ideal, they’re usually pointing at a figure weighing significantly less than what men point out as the ideal. Furthermore, when women are asked to point out where they fall on the chart, they usually choose a figure weighing much more they they do themselves.
These studies (and uncountable anecdotal evidence) teach us an important lesson: how good we feel about ourselves has much less to do with how we look than what’s going on in our heads.
Of Course, You Want to Look Good
What’s your approach to diet-time? I’ve tried a few techniques, including putting reminders on the fridge, envisioning pictures of me weighing less, and even wearing my favorite bathing suit every morning to remind myself of the extra pounds that I wanted to rid myself of. Many of our diets have most to do with punishing ourselves for the way we look.
But check out this study. It changed the way I’m going to diet, forever. It found that feeling good about your body image, or even better, “reducing its importance in one’s personal life” (i.e. just not thinking about it so much!) made it much easier to for women to regulate their eating habits.
How Do You Counter Negative Thinking and Messages?
Having learned all of this about self-perception, I’m curious to hear from you. What techniques have you found the most effective in countering negative self-image? One method that I like to use is remembering all the amazing things that my body can do. Like Regina Spektor’s song says, “I’ve got a perfect body, but sometimes I forget / I’ve got a perfect body, cause my eyelashes catch my sweat.”
Here are a couple other things that help me. How about you?
By Christine Hill