Understanding Food and Body Image Struggles

What does it mean to struggle with body image? According to the American Psychological Association, body image is defined as both the mental picture you form of your own body and the attitude you have towards its characteristics. Many of us internalize messages from a young age that can lead to either a positive or negative body image.

  • If you have a positive body image, you have a clear, realistic perception of your body. You see and accept your body as it truly is and you’re aware that your physical appearance doesn’t determine your value as a person.
  • Having a negative body image means you’re likely to have a distorted perception of your body. You may have trouble accepting how your body looks and how much it affects your self-worth. If you struggle with body image, you may feel deep shame, anxiety, and self-consciousness related to your physical appearance.

For those who suffer from eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, emotions and sense of self-worth are directly, and disproportionately linked to weight, and therefore, food intake. National surveys estimate that in the US, 20 million women and 10 million men will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, eating disorders are most common in teens or young adults — specifically young women. But eating disorders can also affect people of all ages, backgrounds, body weights, and ethnicities.

The Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Body Image

Anorexia is an eating disorder that’s directly linked to body image. People who suffer from anorexia have body dysmorphia: a body image that’s overwhelmingly negative and often distorted. They see themselves as overweight, even when they’re dangerously thin. They may refuse to eat, causing them to lose large, unhealthy, and sometimes even lethal amounts of weight.

People who suffer from bulimia nervosa also tend to have a negative and distorted body image; they eat excessive quantities, then purge their bodies of the food — and calories — they fear.

It’s difficult to untangle body image from food because a negative body image generally entails an intense focus on body weight and shape, as opposed to strength and capability. Because of this, people with a negative body image are at risk of developing an unhealthy relationship to food; a relationship that prioritizes weight loss over health and wellness.

Why can this be hard to manage?

There are a number of reasons people might struggle with body image and eating disorders. Many people struggle with an eating disorder without any family or friends noticing, because eating disorders often entail shame and secrecy. Additionally, negative body image and eating disorders tend to be rooted in deeper psychological struggles, such as low self-esteem and feelings of helplessness. Anorexia nervosa tends to be linked with perfectionism, while bulimia nervosa is linked with impulsiveness. Once people start engaging in abnormal eating patterns, these habits become more deeply ingrained and harder to shake.

How to know if you struggle with body image issues that you manage through food?

It’s common that people who struggle with body image issues tie their emotions and sense of self-worth to their weight, as well as to eating. People with eating disorders tend to associate food and fullness with shame or guilt, and they often associate purging, restricting, and hunger with self-control or virtue. This mindset can lead to excessive dieting, restriction, and/or bingeing: behaviors that often precede or cause an eating disorder.

Body image issues are all too common. By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape, and 40-60% of girls ages 6-12 are worried about gaining weight. Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.

Risk Factors of Body Image Struggles

There are several external factors that can increase someone’s risk of developing a negative body image. Family, friends, acquaintances, media, and most prominently now, social media, can have an impact on how we perceive and feel about our body. Additionally, people in environments that are focused on appearance (such as modeling, sports, entertainment, dance) or those who receive negative (and unsolicited) feedback about their appearance are also at an increased risk. And, as we mentioned, people with body image struggles may also struggle with food.

How to tell if you or a loved one has a healthy body image?

Here are a few things to look out for to assess if you or someone you know has an unhealthy relationship with food:

  • That relationship with food becomes obsessive
  • Your eating patterns begin to have a destructive impact on your self-image
  • Your eating patterns get in the way of you functioning
  • You hide your eating behavior
  • You withdraw from social contact in order to avoid situations involving food
  • No matter how much you weigh, how your clothes fit or what your body looks like, you perceive yourself as overweight

There’s no checklist to diagnose an eating disorder, but some common warning signs include dramatic weight fluctuation, preoccupation with calories and dieting, food rituals, skipping meals, withdrawal from friends and activities, extreme concern with body size or shape, and evidence of bingeing or purging behaviors such as overeating, vomiting, and laxative use. The National Eating Disorder Association has an online screening tool with some simple questions you can answer to assess your risk and get the help you need.

How to Create a Healthier Relationship with Food and Body Image

Experts find that it’s helpful to introduce and practice new thought patterns related to your body and your self-image. These could include:

  • Appreciate all of the activities your body can do, and celebrate the amazingness of what your body does for you
  • Practice seeing yourself as a whole person by keeping a list of things that you like about yourself that don’t relate to your weight or body shape
  • Remind yourself that confidence, self-acceptance, and openness make you beautiful
  • Surround yourself with positive people who value you, and others, for personality and not appearance
  • Look for, become critical of, and protest social media messages that make you feel bad about your body

How to Get Help or Support Someone Who’s Struggling

When it comes to our mental health, people who struggle with negative body image feel that their bodies are inferior to others, and are more likely to suffer from feelings of depression, isolation, and low self-esteem. Beyond just mental and physical health, having an intensely negative body image can lead to lack of participation in and withdrawal from social plans, as well as shying away from intimacy, potentially eroding communication and trust in friendships and relationships.

It’s extremely important to encourage loved ones who may be struggling with these issues to seek professional help or get help yourself. In most cases, eating disorders can be treated successfully by appropriately trained health and mental health care professionals. As always, if you feel out of control and need help immediately, text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Additionally, our article Tips for Body Positivity: Ways to Feel Better About Our Bodies, offers resources and information to help you or someone you know get help and feel better about themselves.

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