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The psychological impact of your body image

By September 11, 2017March 17th, 201952 Thoughts for the Chronic Dieter

With all the work I do in weight management I feel body image may be the biggest issue people face today.  Almost ALL of my clients struggle with their relationship with their body in some way; the biggest people, the smallest, and everyone in between.  Body image concerns are now so pervasive psychologists talk about a “normative discontent” – meaning it is normal to be unhappy with your appearance – no matter your weight, shape, or size.  Seeing the commonness and cost of body issues, it has become a mission of mine to help people towards body-positivity and I must say it’s the most rewarding work for me.

While many of us may seem okay on the outside, as a therapist I get a unique view into the inner worlds of people struggling to feel comfortable in their own skin.  I see the psychological cost of having a negative body image, and let me tell you, it’s real.  Here are just some examples I’ve seen in my practice this week:

  • A middle-aged woman in tears as she’s lonely but “can’t” see her friends at her current weight.
  • A man having trouble sleeping before his school reunion and avoiding dating as he worries what other people will think of him.
  • A lady telling me she has hated looking in the mirror and thought about dieting every day for 20 years.

The struggle is beautifully personified in one of my clients Sarah’s story.*

Research tells us that being dissatisfied or preoccupied with your appearance is linked with:

  • Depression & Anxiety**
  • Low self-esteem***
  • Reduced quality of life****
  • Harmful dieting and Eating Disorders

So if you’re looking to feel better about your weight, end relentless self-criticism, and stop putting life off until you reach a magic number, it may be worthwhile looking at your body image as much as your body weight.  You may end up finding your mindset is even more important than your waistline. My clients often tell me that the most powerful weight loss they experience is the weight off their mind!

Body image is so important to me I’m going to write a series of emails over the next few weeks to help you begin your journey towards greater body-positivity.  The first thing to know is that seeing your body differently is possible so I want to leave you with another client Robin’s Poem***** – if you take a leaf out of her book you’re already one step closer to loving your body healthy.


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“Sarah’s Story”

(note “Sarah” is a name made up to protect client confidentiality)

Since I can remember, I’ve always felt uncomfortable in my body and unhappy with my appearance. It‘s never been about my features, but always with my size: particularly my legs, arms, hips, and stomach. When I look at myself in the mirror, or when I ‘check’ my body by pinching the fat on my waist I feel hopeless.  I‘m fit and healthy, and even though I have lost around 25kg, I can never seem to get to a size that I am happy with. 

Well, that‘s not entirely true. A couple of months ago I was at my lowest weight ever; I wasn‘t eating very well (having maybe one coffee and one smoothie a day), and I was also on a new contraceptive pill (which, contrary to most women‘s experiences, seemed to help me lose weight). I weighed 64.5kg, and I remember seeing that number on the scales and seeing my body and for the first time in my entire life, I actually felt content and happy. I‘ve also struggled with restrictive eating, but at this weight, not eating enough didn‘t really bother me: it meant that I was light and I felt good and people complimented me on my weight loss. However, I went off the pill because it was making me too emotional, and now my weight is back up at around 66-67kg with eating according to my hunger cues. 

Being at a higher weight than my perceived ‘optimal‘ is frustrating. On one hand, I know that I‘m healthy and fit and that my weight seems to like to sit at this point. On the other hand, although it takes a lot of stress and a lack of food to maintain, being at that lower weight feels fantastic.  I felt so good, but also unhealthy and unsustainable. Last week, I went through a lot of stress and decided to forgo meals so that I could get drunk and forget about the stress (something that I have never done before). But I went back down to that size that I was happy at; my jeans were loose and my stomach was flat, the rolls of my stomach when I sat down weren’t so big. I was unhappy because of the stress, but at the same time I was incredibly happy with my size. Now, I‘m eating normally and my size has gone back up, and I feel healthier, but I also feel big and bulky and that I take up too much space, and that I‘m not very nice to look at. Sometimes I feel like it‘s a choice between being unhealthy and happy with my weight, and healthy and unhappy with my weight. It‘s really frustrating, and I don’t know what to do about it. I think I know, realistically, that size doesn‘t really even matter that much. I know that healthy and happiness are the most important things. But for me, it‘s different. I feel happy when I‘m slim, so is it a trade-off between health and happiness? 

My body image is at its worst when I‘m in public. Sometimes I have good days, but as soon as I go out and see other people, I feel uncomfortable again. I don‘t know if it‘s me comparing myself to them, or if they just remind me of what I don‘t look like. And I feel so confused, because I don‘t think size makes you a good or bad person, but when I see girls who are slim I feel so inadequate. Likewise for when I catch my reflection in windows; I can be feeling great, but as soon as I see my reflection that good feeling comes crashing down and I want to disappear.  It seems so illogical, for my happiness to be based on my appearance, but it is, and I can‘t seem to help it.

I often feel confused with my body image because of what other people say about my appearance. My boyfriend and friends tell me that I look slim and fit, but most of the time I don‘t feel it. Sometimes I wonder if I‘m actually seeing the right reflection in the mirror, if my body actually looks how I see it, or if I‘m seeing something that my brain is making me see. Like, I don‘t know if I actually look like this. 






(note Robin is a real name – Robin has given permission for her poem to be read by anyone)

Our bodies were designed to stretch and bend
Shake and move, arch and extend
They come in every shape and size
But only one each and it’s yours for life

They may not be what we’d pre-order
If we drew a design and sketched a border
We might use the eraser to fix a mistake
And redo the outline to suit our own taste

And even if we had what we defined
It’s likely we’d wish we could still refine
Cos others had better, either more or less
So we’re always dissatisfied, wanting the best

It’s fortunate then that we have the ability
To make a change to increase suitability
A bit of sculpting and some better fuel
Can improve the model with the right tools

If we can conjure up some motivation
And match with our own inspiration
Add support and encouragement that we need
And then healthy exercise can be our new creed

Our bodies were built to last the distance
We have only to demonstrate our insistence
That we need them to operate at maximum efficiency
To live a full life without deficiency

We don’t have to feel alone in our quest
We have Glenn and team to give us their best
Always there guiding us in our endeavours
And reminding us we are all in this together

Our bodies were designed to stretch and bend
Shake and move, arch and extend
They come in every shape and size
But only one each and it’s yours for life

by Robin Ellwood


**Darby, A., Hay, P., Mond, J., Rodgers, B., & Owen, C. (2007) Disordered eating behaviours and cognitions in young women with obesity: Relationship with psychological status. International Journal of Obesity, 31, 876-882.

***Paxton, S.J., Nuemark,-Sztainer, D., Hannan, P.J., & Einsberg, M.E. (2006) Body dissatisfaction prospectively predicts depressive mood and low self-esteem in adolescent girls and boys. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 35(4), 539-549.

****Cash, T., F., & Fleming, E.C. (2002) The impact of body image experiences: Development of the Body Image Quality of Life Inventory. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 31, 455-460.

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