Negative Body Image is Bad for Your Health

Sad face picLots of people have negative feelings about their bodies. It’s hard to find people (at least in the US) who are happy with their bodies the way they are. Specifically, many people are worried about being too fat and dislike their bodies because they are not thin enough.

Aside from the obvious consequence of not liking an aspect of yourself, negative body image has other significant consequences as well.

  • Eating disorders. In an effort to change their appearance, people starve themselves (anorexia) or binge and purge (bulimia). In addition, being overly focused on appearance can lead people to lose their natural abilities to regulate their eating, as hunger and pleasure are denied attention in favor of “willpower” and “self-control.” Compulsive dieting can thus lead to compulsive eating.
  • Unhealthy methods of staying thin. I have heard people say that they would like to quit smoking but won’t do so because they are afraid of weight gain. I wonder also about how negative body image is a factor in other addictions, such as crystal meth use.
  • Reluctance to seek medical care. People who worry they are too fat don’t want to go to doctors and hear doctors tell them that they are too fat. It is not easy to talk back to medical providers about weight issues even when you feel OK about your body. It’s easier to just avoid the doctor’s office altogether. When you don’t feel like you can go to the doctor, you don’t get screened regularly for high blood pressure, diabetes or cancer. You don’t investigate your health problems until they become bad enough to outweigh the discomfort of being negatively judged by your doctor.
  • Avoidance of exercise. We all need exercise to be healthy. Some people who dislike their bodies feel too self-conscious to exercise at a gym or in front of any other people. It’s hard enough to get yourself to exercise without the worry that you are going to be judged by other people because of how you look. So people with negative body image can miss out on the positive feelings that come from different kinds of exercise.
  • Depression and other medical problems. Feeling bad about your body is depressing. Also, many people decide to not take antidepressants because they are concerned about the side effect of weight gain. Some psychiatrists I have encountered are reluctant to prescribe certain antidepressants for this reason as well — even when clients are very depressed. It seems clear to me that choosing to stay depressed to avoid weight gain is unhealthy. There are many valid reasons that people decide to not take medication, but this should not be one of them. Similarly, some people with diabetes avoid treating their diabetes because it sometimes results in weight gain (which they are then judged for by their doctors).
  • Avoidance of other significant problems. Instead of addressing the cause of their anxiety or stress, people “take charge” of their lives by going on a diet. The diet requires their attention for a while, they get a temporary boost in self-esteem when they feel like they have accomplished something, and then they gain all the weight back plus more and are back where they started — no closer to figuring out what is really making them unhappy.

Ironically, the solution that many people (including many therapists) would offer for these problems are for you to lose weight, thereby reinforcing the negative body image you have in the first place. So you keep dieting and gaining weight and feeling bad about yourself and dieting some more and gaining weight and feeling bad about yourself and on and on.

Get yourself out of this negative body image cycle. Try pondering these questions instead:

  • What would help you to feel better about your body exactly the way it is?
  • What would help you love yourself and your body enough to take good care of it?
  • What would help you feel more alive and happy in the long term even if your body stays the same?
  • What could you add into your life that would make it more fulfilling and meaningful?

And, if you are looking for a psychotherapist, find one who will accept you and your body exactly the way it is.

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