Body Image Mirrors: What Does Yours Reflect?

“Beauty is not caused. It is.” — Emily Dickinson

If only we all saw it in ourselves…

The first few times I spoke publicly about my eating disorder, I shared photographs of my former emaciated self. Most people gasped at the sunken in cheeks, sharp bones and skin that looked too small for its skeleton. Others, sadly, were impressed.

One day, after speaking at a university in Minnesota, I received an email from a woman who’d attended. “I looked at that picture and all I could think was, I wish I could be that thin. Why don’t I have that discipline?” she wrote. The words threw a brick at my heart and opened my eyes.

Based on the woman’s email, I figured she was A) anorexic and body dysmorphic B) affected by another eating disorder or C) generally healthy physically, but riddled with disordered eating thoughts and behaviors—a state far more common than diagnosable eating disorders, and no less worthy of addressing. I didn’t need to know which; my reaction would’ve been the same regardless.

I wrote back, apologizing, offering support and reiterating some of what I’d shared in my talk. I thanked her for showing me how irresponsible I’d been, and meant it. Even if masses of people were horrified by the photographs, sharing them wasn’t worth it if even one used it as a measure of her self-worth. Needless to say, I’ve been much more cautious about sharing them since.

Whether we realize it or not, we are role models and example-setters. Our attitudes and behaviors regarding food, eating and our bodies can empower or hurt others—even when our intentions are good.

Positive body image reflects empowering light on others.

Remarkable things happen when we accept ourselves and stop trying to whittle ourselves away or morph into people or shapes we’re not. We stop judging others’ shapes and sizes. We see people, not body parts or competition. We see fuel and enjoyment on our plates, rather than numbers or damage. We eat healthfully and exercise because it feels good, not for calorie burn or scale shifts. And photographs of skinny models don’t motivate us or fill us with envy; they simply make us sad.

Study after study has shown that unhealthy attitudes and behaviors regarding food, weight and appearance negatively influences our peers and loved ones. Research published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders in 2011 revealed that peer and parental fixation on appearance and weight control significantly increase teen women’s likelihood of binging and purging. Children of dieting parents often develop poor body image and self esteem, struggle with weight control and hold increased risks for anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, obesity and depression during youth and adulthood.

But fear not. There’s good news. 🙂 Many steps can be taken to improve our own food and body-related attitudes while safeguarding our loved ones from these complications.

8 Ways to Boost Body Image in Others

1. Make self-acceptance a priority. Perhaps it’s obvious, but the best way to inspire positive body image is by example. For more on this topic, and tips on boosting your own body image, feel free to visit my post, Body Image Myths: Exploring Myths & Walking the Walk.

2. If you’e not feeling it, fake it. Reversing poor body image seldom happens simply or quickly. But talking about body parts you loathe can give those thoughts power and negatively influence listening ears. If you have thoughts about your “huge thighs” or “imperfect” skin, keep them private. Why does Coca Cola continue to advertise when we’re well aware of their products? The power of suggestion. It works—sometimes too well.

3. Don’t diet. Dieting, including following rigid lifestyle plans geared toward weight loss, wreaks havoc on our bodies and minds. It also inspires similar problems and complexes in our peers and loved ones. Poor body image, self esteem, eating disorders and obesity run rampant in children of dieting parents. They may be small, but they’re highly absorbent sponges.

4. Make healthy lifestyle habits a family affair. Forcing kids to eat healthy foods seldom works. Even if only one member of your clan has a weight or dietary problem, involve the entire family in physical activity and healthy eating—and make it fun. Enjoyment is a huge factor in developing and maintaining healthy lifestyles longterm.

5. Don’t comment on others’ weight. If a friend has shed excess pounds and looks great, tell her she looks healthy and happy—not thin “and what’s your secret?” Celebrating weight loss places emphasis on body size. What if she lost weight through starving? Would you celebrate that? Our loved ones need to know that we care about who and how they are, not their pant size.

6. Talk positively about food and your body. Rather than discuss your weight or physical “flaws,” talk about the strength of your body, gratitude for your health or how great you feel when you self-nourish with healthy foods. Describe desserts as “decadent,” not ‘damaging.” Viewing foods in terms of calories, carbs and grams can zap pleasure and perpetuate negativity. Save numbers for your accountant, and away from your plates.

7. Give body image-boosting gifts. Affirmation cards, empowering books and films, massages and even counseling sessions make wonderful, uplifting gifts. Rather than a gym or weight loss center membership, sign you and a friend up for fabulous dance classes or hiking events. Instead of fitness-geared magazines, give MORE, Oprah magazine or others that promote inner/outer beauty. Or give a gift related to a friend’s passion. Happiness breeds inner-beauty, outer-beauty and self-acceptance.

8. Set loved ones straight. If you catch friends or family members dissing their bodies or partaking in harmful weight or diet-related behaviors, call them out. Tell them you won’t allow them to bash or hurt themselves around you, that you love them too much. And ask what you can do to support positive changes. It’s not always easy, but it’s worthwhile.

What do you do to set a positive body image example for others? Any challenges or success stories to share? 

Leave a comment

43 Comments

  1. I had a brief stint with an eating disorder after I was raped. I just wanted to disappear, so it was a little different.

    But.

    I still needed help. I needed someone to notice I was shrinking away and ask what was going on. Was I okay?

    These days I rarely comment on anyone’s weight. Ever. I’ve learned to look at the person behind the body. Everything else seems really high-school to me, and I don’t have time for those kinds of toxic interactions. I think you saw my post a while back about how I always try to raise other people’s consciousness about the words they are using in dressing rooms. Strangers someone feel they can just say anything to people. I try to offer gentle words to someone who is asking for an opinion or even reflect their questions back: “How do I look in this?” gets followed by a “How do you feel in it?” If I LOVE something on someone I tell them in no uncertain terms. I gush. But I’m careful not to say anything negative to strangers. You just don’t know where they are coming from.

    Reply
  2. You pointed out what many eating disorders are truly about—the desire (or belief that one deserves to) disappear. Dieting often derives from similar feelings, subconsciously. Body image problems seldom involve vanity.

    I love the encouragement you offer others, Renee. You have a beautiful ability to empathize and lift us all up.

    Reply
  3. Shannon Esposito

     /  September 28, 2012

    It’s so sad, but I think in this day and age, girls just don’t have any role models outside celebrities, models and those destruction teen reality shows. I was just reading an article about this girl, Balpreet Kaur, and how she was ridiculed for the way she looked. She actually wrote back to the bully online and explained her appearance is due to her Sikh religion, she is not allowed to alter her body because they believe it is a sacred gift from God. Isn’t that the most beautiful belief you’ve ever heard? Just brings me to tears. I wish all women could feel that. Needless to say, her words prompted thousands of responses and apologies. 🙂

    Reply
    • Wow. I believe it says something similar in the Bible—and probably other religious books, too…

      The lack of positive celeb role models for girls is another important reason we should all do our best to present positive examples ourselves. Thanks for bringing such a vital topic into the discussion, Shannon! That beauty deserved those apologies big time. 🙂

      Reply
  4. I don’t really have a positive body image but I know it’s something I should work on. I hate all the face cream advertisements we’re bombarded daily with on TV and magazines. Why is it not okay for a woman to age and have wrinkles? No wonder us women feel so bad about ourselves.

    Reply
    • I hear you there, Emma. “Anti-aging” is one of my least favorite words. Aiming to age happily and well is awesome. But to not age? Sounds a lot like death.

      Reply
  5. Another great post, Miss August! I have been a dancer my whole life…and dealt with many body image issues, especially in ballet where muscular, curvy types are shunned. When I turned 18 my ballet teacher instructed me not to eat my birthday cake because I was too fat. My dad was horrified when I confessed why I wouldn’t eat any of my cake. He told me she was crazy, and we each had a big honkin’ slice together.

    Reply
    • Grrr…. My response to that ballet instructor. 😉 I’m so glad you have such a loving father. It’s saddening how prevalent poor body image is among dancers, whose bodies are strong and beautiful—no matter what the size. When the arts and poor body image combine, it’s catastrophic, and far too common.

      Reply
  6. Thanks for the insight. We usually do focus on thinness, and feel we’re being ‘nice’ when we comment on someone losing weight, etc. This gave me a whole new perspective on it though. I like how you said to focus on our strengths of our body and not our imperfections. My teen daughter is always consumed with looking thinner, and I think she’s beautiful. So I’m going to use these tips to help her feel better about herself and I hope she’ll stop feeling so down on herself because she isn’t TV thin.

    Reply
    • I hope so, too, Char! Providing a positive role model and engaging in open discussion can really help. Thanks for being such a thoughtful, loving mother.

      If she hasn’t seen it, I recommend the film “Real Women Have Curves.” Very empowering coming of age story that resonates with many teens.

      Reply
      • I hadn’t heard of that movie (not that I see many movies). Thanks for the suggestion.

  7. Such good and important advice. I liked what you wrote about being careful how we praise other people for their weight loss success or how we describe our own bodies or those of others. Words matter and we should choose them carefully.

    By the way, I wanted to tell you that you do a wonderful job visually with your posts. You’ve really got the art of posting down, what with your numbered lists and the use of different font sizes, colors, and bolding. Very easy to read. 🙂

    Reply
  8. A beautiful post, August, as always. My weight has always been a problem for me–trying to lose it, inevitably gaining it back and more, despairing over ever losing it again… And I think I’ve damaged myself in a lot of ways over the years. I know my body image is skewed, but changing it is so difficult. Sometimes it seems easier to bash myself with nasty names instead of trying to shift my mindset–it conforms with the dominant narrative that we’re inundated with these days. :/

    These tips are great, and I am going to be much more mindful about integrating them into my day-to-day life. Thank you, thank you, for sharing them.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your openness, Lena. I’m so sorry you’ve struggled with your weight and body image, and understand what carrying that weight (speaking of the latter) involves.

      The more we release those negative feelings and attitudes—or at least stop listening to them, and stop fighting pounds, the more likely we are to feel and be healthier and fitter. It seems like a catch 22, especially to people who’ve dieted off and on. But it truly works. I hope you find more peace in your weight and wellness journey. It’s an empowering state you deserve.

      Reply
  9. August, I admire you for being so open about your own journey with eating disorders and so willing to share what you learned to help others. No. 5 on your list really hit home – I am very guilty about this. And you are right, commenting on weight loss celebrates our society’s obsession with thinness. In fact, I’ve been quite bothered by the media’s harping on Lady Gaga’s recent weight gain and plan on penning a post about my own struggles with weight and self image.

    Reply
    • Most of us have been guilty of that at some point. From awareness comes growth. 🙂 It sounds like you have your attitude in the right place already. Thanks for the support!

      Reply
  10. I’m right there with Lena. Sometimes it’s hard to have a good body image. And then you factor in what other people say when you’re not a Sandra Bullock or Kate Hudson (sorry, can’t bring to mind any younger, more popular names right now). Anyway…great advice. I think everyone would benefit by being more accepting of themselves…and others. Unfortunately in a Photoshopped world, it’s not likely to happen.

    Reply
    • It’s definitely a complicated battle, Kristy. One thing that helps me is knowing that while it’s natural to feel critical about how we look, we don’t have to let those thoughts get us down or determine our value. I barely ever look in the mirror anymore. Looks just aren’t that important.

      Reply
  11. “We see fuel and enjoyment on our plates, rather than numbers or damage. We eat healthfully and exercise because it feels good, not for calorie burn or scale shifts.”

    What a great perspective to have. Because I generally want to eat what’s not good for me, but I force myself to eat what I should eat, I’m going to look for the beauty on my plate!

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    Reply
  12. August, I’ve never had an eating disorder but this post hit home because I have always had a fairly negative body image. Once I actually had health challenges and began to struggle with my weight in earnest, it was very eye-opening to look back at those pictures where I looked stunning and healthy and realize that I couldn’t see it at the time.

    As I raise a daughter, I’m having to unlearn these negative messages so I don’t pass them on to her.

    Reply
    • In some ways I’m lucky to have had an ED. It nearly forced me to overcome long-held beliefs and issues I might never have addressed otherwise. I wish I could give the same healing to everyone with disordered body or food-related thoughts—you included.

      I’ve been practicing the opposite of what you mentioned with photos (which many of us do, by the way. :)) I’ve been picturing myself with white hair and loads of wrinkles and sparkling eyes and vibrancy. It ain’t always easy, but we can choose to feel and see beauty in ourselves.

      Reply
  13. Wise words, August, that many of us (including me) should heed. I’ve enjoyed exercising the last few years, but lately I notice myself wishing I could “lose a few more pounds” rather than enjoying the workouts for the many other health benefits they bring.

    Thanks for the reminder to focus on the healthy and not the “cultural expectations.”

    Reply
  14. I too suffered from eating disorders through most of my teens. Age twelve after going to boarding school, I piled on 56 lbs over a six month period. Blissfully unaware of it, I merely thought it was an extension of growing up and needing clothes in a bigger size.
    Then one fateful day, an adult female relative came to visit and exclaimed “What happened to Mary? She used to be so pretty but now she’s fat and covered in spots.”
    WAH!.. I fled to the bathroom to view this grotesque monster I’d apparently turned into; the zits suddenly appeared like angry volcanoes, while my double muffin top suggested the family car would never run short of spare tyres.Whatever self esteem I’d previously had, got flushed down the toilet.
    Six months later, after existing on an 800 calorie a day diet I was skinnier than I’d ever been. Maths had never been my forte but when it came to food, I could quickly tot up the calories and estimate the weight of any food placed in front of me. I saw food as an enemy and dreamt about eating obscure things like bars of soap or lumps of coal. My self esteem depended on how far out my hip bones jutted.
    The intensity of dieting gradually wore itself out, helped by hanging out with friends who loved food and were more accepting of their bodies. I was lucky to have such good role models.
    I’ve worked as a fashion stylist and once had to turn a model away for looking emaciated, but equally I’ve heard photographers describe a model (with as little as 4 extra lbs over her usual weight) as frumpy and difficult to photograph.
    Girls, it all starts with us and as you rightly say August, it begins with self acceptance. Remember we are role models for our daughters and need to be careful how we talk about ourselves and other women.
    Our mantra needs to be ‘I am perfect just as I am.’ Let’s mirror that to each other with a smile and a large dollop of kindness.
    Mary E. Coen at goddessmeca

    Reply
    • No wonder you related to my story, Mary. Thank you for your openness—a heart-wrenching story we can all learn from. I’m so sorry you’ve had to endure so much hardship, and am even more impressed by the goddess you’ve become. (And likely were all along!)

      Reply
  15. Kourtney Heintz

     /  September 28, 2012

    Terrific tips here for promoting positive body image. 🙂 With respect to #8, the hardest thing was trying to explain to relatives that commenting on my weight even in a positive manner makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to just be a physical body with all my self-worth attributed to how I look. And when they ignore all my accomplishments and focus on what I eat or weigh they undermine me as a human being.

    Reply
  16. Raani York

     /  September 28, 2012

    No success stories… unfortunately… except that I remember when I turned from a girl into a woman my time came, like with every girl, to stand in front of the mirror, trying to find out whether or not I’m pretty… I tried Makeup, looked like an “Indian” on war path, removed it, tried curles and got caught by my Mom.
    She told me, that I’m not pretty and trying something to turn it around isn’t going to help – and neither is wasting my time in front of the mirror.
    If you hear this ever so often starting at 13 – by the time you’re 18, you believe her.
    To this day I still think I’m downright plain and un-pretty… 😦

    Reply
  17. I do my best not to worry about it. You shared plenty of points to think about, especially your photos in your presentation. I was saddened to read about the feedback you received. I’m glad you removed the photos.

    Reply
  18. My eating disorder has always been on the other side of the coin – overeating. 30+ years ago, I found a solution and have lived it since then. I too was trying to disappear – behind a wall of fat. Nobody saw ‘me’, they saw the fat lady I showed to the world.
    Recovery doesn’t mean my weight is always normal. In fact right now i”m heavier than I should be. But with some of the weird autoimmune stuff going on, I simply continue to eat and live and manage. People see what they want to see and I’ve learned it’s not usually the same as me.

    Reply
  19. Spot on August. Any advice for a man who has found a grey hair in his beard!

    Reply
  20. Fantastic post, August! It is resonating with me as it has with the others. I grew up as a dancer and put on weight in my twenties once I’d stopped. I never had body image issues when normal size or after growing a jean size every few months. I knew why I’d gained weight—stress eating—so I hunkered down in my safe cocoon and lived life. It bothered me that no one ever asked if I was okay or checked in to see why the drastic change occurred. I figure they didn’t know what to say and didn’t want to make me feel bad.

    Fast forward to 2010 when I committed to a food and exercise lifestyle change and lost about 42 pounds. Then all the world seemed be paying attention and I received comments about my clothes becoming baggy, how great my face looked with the fat gone, how I was shrinking away, how disciplined I now must be and that I’d be fighting off more guys now that I was presentable. People felt okay to watch what I was eating and make comments on how good or bad it was for me. Some of the accolades were a positive reinforcement to how hard I’d worked, but many were invasive and impersonal. Not about me as an individual. More me as a specimen to be studied and tracked. I’d become healthy for me to ;physically feel better, yet the outside world praised only one part of that.

    Zip to now where I’ve gained the weight back plus two pounds after being in a few accidents and letting go of my training for the demands of doctor visits and other stresses. Silence greets me as the knowing eyes take in my change. My body image is skewed as I feel invisible against all the praise I had received. Do they think I’m a failure for being fat in their eyes again? Am I now undisciplined and less presentable? I’m going to channel your tips one and two as I work to not take on the view of others.

    Reply
    • It’s amazing how warped people’s sense of supporting and “complimenting” others has become. More than a few people have expressed envy when they hear I had anorexia. And when I restored healthy weight then binged during recovery — gaining quite a bit more — one friend asked if I’d had a boob job. Another suggested liposuction.

      We are not our body size, and scales can’t assess our worth. Thanks for your poignant thoughts, Barbara. You’re a true beauty!

      Reply
  21. Very beautiful post August. I feel that I’m too flabby around my midsection, and I have hideous cellulite on my legs. But I see no reason to seek surgical techniques to fix these problems. My midsection my improve if I can get my posture back under control, cellulite on the other hand, unless there’s a non-surgical miracle out there, it’ll have to stay where it is. I have no desire to look like the busty, thin actresses in Hollywood. I wish there were more like Kate Winslet, Melissa McCarthy and singers like Adelle who don’t rely on choreographed dances, lip syncing, crazy costumes and special effects to make a show worth watching.
    I remember seeing Adelle on the cover of Vogue and thought “finally the editor at Vogue is letting full figured women to post in the magazine.” but not the case, because all the photographs of her were of her face, not her neck, not her shoulders or anything below that. The editor still doesn’t like full-figured women posing in her magazine. Such a pity. I think Adelle is beautiful all over her.

    Reply
  22. When I was in my twenties my boyfriend would point out girls I was skinnier than…. It was no a compliment. Unfortunately, I did not appreciate my body back then… Funny, how we are never happy hmmm? Fast forward a couple miscarriages and two babies later and then add a couple decades onto that and I found myself on the other side of the fence wondering if I was fatter than the women I chose to compare myself with…
    Recently, I lost fifty pounds last year after going through a little blip in my life. It was like heaven being able to shop in juniors if I wanted to! Who would have thought that I would ever be ecstatic having to buy a smaller bra! 34 C rather than 38 D >>>? But…. by blip has burst and I am trying to recover as I see the pounds creeping up again… I remember stepping into a pair of size 8 jeans and thinking Thin is better than anything I could ever possibly taste again! Yeah right… I am glad I found your words of wisdom before I completely found my way back up to where I left off!!!!

    Reply
  23. Beautiful post, August. I’m so sorry to hear of your eating disorder. I’ve read Wasted by Marya Hornbacher, and recently read Hungry by a man with Binge Eating Disorder (I forget his name), so it was a huge eye-opener to see two different sides of the same coin. It’s sad that we as a society have so many issues with our bodies and food, but it’s also wonderful that we have people like you empowering others from an “I’ve been there” perspective.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  24. Running from Hell with El

     /  October 1, 2012

    Great, hugely important article–sharing on FB. As far as things I’ve done/do: I include my children in my exercise regimen (all of my kids have run races with my husband and I) and I discuss weight and nutrition issue in very scientific ways. I *never* compliment my kids on how thin they are (two of my three are big-boned like I am) but I do compliment them when they make healthy eating and exercise choices.

    Reply
  25. Wonderful post I to was both Bulimic and Anorexic through my 20’s. Was in a documentary about gay men and eating disorders Do I Look Fat and I understand the mindfulness you speak of when speaking public. I no longer tell old stories or show pictures or when I do talk about the past when I lecture I request that all in attendance imagine this part of my life as I speak that all the words images and experiences are being held in a bubble outside of me. They may have been a huge part of my past but they are coping skills I no longer embody today nor do they define me. As a psychotherapist and holistic practitioner working with clients on self acceptance~self esteem~self wellness this practice helps me live a more quality life every day from the inside out. Much gratitude August to you for the work your doing. Heartsmiles, Mark

    Reply
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