But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
1 Samuel 16:7
When working with those diagnosed with disordered eating or eating disorders, body image is often a topic of discussion. I hear the concern that my clients have with their body changing. I hear the challenges and heartbreak they face existing in a body that our fatphobic society ridicules. I hear their negative thoughts about specific body parts. I hear the negative narrative they have told themselves for years about their body. In summary, I hear the judgment that is often feared.
I believe it’s important to give these thoughts space. We can grieve the body we desired. We can explore the fantasy of what one more diet might change. We can get angry at what our world tells us about bodies. This is a valuable place to start.
But what do we do to help with our body image? How can I change how I see myself?
First, let’s discuss what body image actually is.
I like the definition from the National Eating Disorder Coalition.
“Body image is the perception that a person has of their physical self, but more importantly the thoughts and feelings the person experiences as a result of that perception.”
They share that there are 4 aspects of body image that come together to create the whole experience, which are:
o Your perception of your body
o How you feel about the way you look
o The thoughts and beliefs you feel about your body
o The things you do in relation to the way you look
To understand these 4 aspects of body image. Consider the following scenario.
Sally has been diagnosed with an eating disorder which includes body dysmorphia as part of the eating disorder, meaning she doesn’t see herself accurately. When she looks in the mirror, she perceives that her stomach and legs are larger than what she would like them to be. This leads her to feel self-conscious. Based on messaging she heard when she was younger, she believes that her body should change and she decides to change her eating and exercising behavior to try to change her body.
This is an example of someone having negative body image. And unfortunately, this scenario is all too common.
So how do we change negative body image…
Most people think that if they change their body then they will be happy. There are a couple problems with this method:
1. Our bodies have a set point where they function optimally – this is different for each person
2. We don’t have an evidence-based method for sustainable weight loss (read more about that here)
3. Dieting and intentional weight loss is associated with increased body and food preoccupation, which can intensify the negative body image feelings
4. Dieting often doesn’t have the desired impact for weight loss and can lead to engaging in high risk/disordered eating behaviors.
Luckily, there are 4 aspects to body image and some of those are more changeable. With my clients, I focus on changing the thoughts and beliefs we have about bodies, including their own beliefs. I also focus on specific behaviors that we can do to treat our body with respect.
Here are 5 actionable steps you can take today.
Educate yourself on body diversity and Health At Every Size ® Principles - When meeting with my clients, I will often share my thoughts that God is a Creative Creator and that I feel there’s no way that He can create thousands of types of trees, animals, flowers, etc. and yet have one idea of how a human should look. This often flows into an education on the Health at Every Size framework and a further discussion on body diversity. When we start to appreciate that bodies are made to be different, we can start to view our own body’s uniqueness.
Focus on function – God made your body with unique qualities and abilities. Reflect on your body’s ability to perform certain functions and express gratitude for the function while acknowledging how you feel about that specific body part. For instance, in Sally’s example she may say: I don’t like my legs and I am grateful for the opportunity to walk.
Focus on values – As the conversation between God and Samuel tells us, God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). While God gave us bodies for this earth, one major role of the bodies he gave us is to carry our souls. What is in your heart? Are you compassionate? Kind? Funny? Intelligent? Ambitious? Spend some time identifying your values and how you can live a life based on those values in the body you have here and now.
Don’t body bash yourself (or others) – Our church leader tells us often in his sermons that “you are the beloved and they are too.” One way we can honor ourselves and others is stopping the negative talk about ourselves and others. One way to work on how we talk to ourselves is to ask: “would I say this to a person I love?” If the answer is no, then stop and say (maybe even out loud) what you would say to a person you love.
Be mindful of who you follow – Do a 24 hour media recall. Without judgment, think of the amount of time you spent on the Internet, social media, and/or watching something on TV/Streaming? Try to think of content that you saw. Chances are there was significant messaging about food and body. This can vary from blatant dieting ads or fitness influencers talking about losing weight or their “wellness kick” to more subliminal messaging (that still speaks loud and clear) such as casting a villainous or a sad character in a larger body. You are in control of some of the media that you follow, subscribe, or watch. Take the time to tailor who you follow or what you watch.
Let's check back in with our friend, Sally, and how it may sound as she works from negative body image to more neutral/positive body image.
Sally has been diagnosed with an eating disorder which includes body dysmorphia as part of the eating disorder, meaning she doesn’t see herself accurately. When she looks in the mirror, she perceives that her stomach and legs are larger than what she would like them to be. This leads her to feel self-conscious. She has learned about Health At Every Size ® Principles and that diets don't work. Instead of trying to change her body size, she reminds herself that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. She fights back her negative body thoughts by reminding herself that while she doesn't like her legs they allow her to walk her kids to the school bus and this is something she loves to do. She acknowledges that dieting took her further away from her values of loving and caring for those around her, including herself and acknowledges that while she doesn't love the way she looks she does like not being at war with herself and living out her values based life.
Body image is a complex concept that is impacted by 4 main aspects. We can work towards improving our body image by changing the beliefs we have about bodies, the way we think about our own body, and the behavior that we use towards our body and others’ bodies.
Heavenly Father, thank you for giving us this body. Please forgive any negative comments or disrespectful behavior that was directed towards this body you have given me. While I may struggle with what I perceive, help me to make peace with my body to live a values-based life that you have called me to. Help me to remember that you don’t look on the stature of a person but rather you look to the heart. LORD align my heart to yours. Amen.