Hey! Before reading, head to our website to download our mini body image workbook. Feel free to use that in session with your RD or therapist.
Conversations about body image are some of the toughest I have with clients. Breaking food rules makes your eating disorder feel extremely uncomfortable and triggers negative body image thoughts. Part of recovery is building tolerance to certain feelings in the body (like anxiety associated with fullness) while learning to reframe ideas of self worth. Aka your worth is not based on how your look, despite what our culture says.
Improving body image takes thoughtful practice.
Yes, nourishing yourself and challenging negative food thoughts can help with improving body image, but that’s only half the battle. Especially because our culture teaches us our worth, is heavily based on how we look. We see this in movies and advertisements and even from our families. How many little girls are called “pretty” before they’re called smart or brave?
Although body image work is an uphill battle for all of us, it can be entirely more difficult for men and women who live in larger bodies who are constantly shamed for their size. Whether it’s at the doctor’s office or bullied at school or public transportation for seats being too small. This adds a whole new dynamic to discussing body image. Unfortunately, I do not have the power to change our society’s structure, but as a clinician who lives in a thinner body, it’s important for me to acknowledge my privilege in order to have these tough conversations with my clients.
Please note: This does not make your body image journey invalid if you live in a smaller body. We all feel pressure from society’s standards and your feelings about your body are valid and need to be heard.
So, what can we do to improve body image?
Here’s the thing. Body image actually has little to do with how you look. Or even how you perceive you look. Think about it, whether or not you like how you look can change within a second. Have you ever been having a “good body image day” and then all of a sudden you don’t like the way you look. And that “good body image day” turns into a “bad body image day.” When logically, you know your body hasn’t changed from one moment to the next.
Body image has more to do with knowing you have worth and your body has worth regardless of how you look.
If you can learn to trust, respect and appreciate your body, how you look won’t matter as much. Think about it, do you choose your friends based on their appearance? I would imagine most of you don’t. You choose your friends because they are kind or loyal or caring or funny or adventurous.
PS: Some of you may be thinking, “but beauty is one of my values.” No judgment here. I would challenge you, though, to think about what beauty brings you. Is it love, belonging, acceptance, attention? What may you actually be craving that you feel beauty may be giving you? Could that be what you’re actually valuing?
So, let’s talk about some tips to improve body image, while keeping in mind it has little to do with how you look.
Appreciating what your body can do for you
When you really think about, our bodies do such amazing things to keep us alive and functioning. We breathe and blink without even thinking about it. We experience such a wide range of emotions. Our hearts pump blood throughout our bodies. Each of us have this in common. Hundreds (maybe thousands) of little processes that happen every single second without us needing to do anything to make it happen! Not to mention, our bodies allow us to experience life.
Try writing a letter to your body. Perhaps include an apology for treating it poorly throughout the eating disorder. I’d encourage you to explain how you might treat your body with more respect. And also consider writing to specific body parts you can appreciate. Not for what they look like, but for what they do for you. For example, your belly helps you to experience butterflies and laughter.
Engage in your life
What are you avoiding to do until you change your body? Perhaps traveling. Maybe it’s dating. Perhaps going clothes shopping. Why wait?
Prove to your eating disorder that you do not have to put your life on hold until you like the way you look. Because in reality, no matter how much you are able to physically change your body to better fit society’s norms, it will never be “good enough.” And you’ll always be reaching for something more, which can be incredibly exhausting and often ends in despair.
So, when your friends invite you out to dinner, go. If you’re thinking about planning a trip to the beach, do it. Maybe you’re thinking of applying to a job, take the risk. In session with your dietitian, you can certainly come up with a plan because I recognize much of this is easier said. It can be a challenge to jump into engaging in your life. But you can start with smaller steps and build from there.
Aiming for body respect
You don’t have to love your body in order to respect it. There are many different ways you can practice body respect:
- Nourishing your body with an appropriate amount of food
- Getting enough sleep
- Engaging in movement that feels comfortable and enjoyable to you, even if is means not moving
- Self hygiene (showering, brushing your teeth)
- Taking medications
- Practicing self care/stress management
- Spending time with people you love
Showing your body respect, even if you hate how your body looks, is a huge and important step in body image work. And your body deserves to be cared for regardless of its size.
Look at yourself as a whole person
We get objectified enough in the media, we don’t need to do it to ourselves. Think about how many times you may look in the mirror and focus in on just one body part. Instead, zoom out and look at yourself as a whole person. Remind yourself that your worth isn’t based on a single body part. As you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, think of 1 thing you like about yourself, unrelated to your body or how you look.
Limit body checking
How long do you spend checking yourself out in the mirror? Catching a glimpse in a window when you walk by? To see how big or small certain body parts are.
While it’s totally normal to spend time in the mirror to see what you look like, body checking is a more obsessive and rigid. In the moment, body checking may relieve some anxiety because you can “prove” to your eating disorder that your body hasn’t changed. But, body checking actually increases anxiety overtime. The act ties your worth with how you perceive your body to look, which is the exact thing we need to move away from.
Decreasing body checking can be extremely difficult. If you find yourself body checking, call it out and see if you can distract yourself with something else, like a phone call to a friend or removing yourself from the line of sight of the mirror. You may also want to consider donating clothes you use to body check.
Call out comparisons and judgments
Many of my clients tell me they find themselves constantly compare their bodies to other people’s. Totally understandable. Our brains are wired to compare. When you find yourself comparing your body to someone else’s, call it out, gently. And, if you find yourself judging other people’s bodies. Call that out as well. You can reframe those thoughts and say something like, “I notice I am comparing myself again. I know that comparisons hurt me. I don’t compare my friends to other people and I don’t judge my friends. I will try to let the judgment go.”
Click that “unfollow” button
I am a firm believer social media can be a super useful tool in recovery when it’s used appropriately. If you’re following celebrities, models, influencers or food bloggers that make you feel inadequate, you have permission to unfollow them. Instead follow pro-recovery, body positive accounts. Head to my Instagram account @couragetonourish for some ideas on who to follow.
If you’re looking to improve your body image and have an overall more peaceful relationship with food, head to my website for more information. You can schedule a 15 minute discovery call with myself or my lovely colleague, Bobbi Boteler. We’re here to help you. And we believe in your recovery. We have office locations in College Park and Columbia, MD as well as working with clients virtually.
is an eating disorder dietitian in private practice in College Park and Columbia, MD. Alex specializes in treating individuals struggling with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. She practices from an intuitive eating model and enjoys working with individuals to improve body image. She is a passionate Health at Every Size © advocate and anti-diet dietitian. Alex provides eating disorder nutrition counseling in College Park and Columbia, MD. Alex's College Park office is walking distance from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Instagram: @courage.to.nourish