We are constantly bombarded with images of unattainable, unrealistic, and unhealthy beauty. It is no secret that, these days, your average model has a BMI of 16.5, plus her photos undergo a lot of editing with computer software. What is the final image? You end up with distorted imaginary, arguably a non-human view of what purports to be a “normal” and beautiful body.
To give you some perspective, at my height of 5’4″ (162.5 cm), I would have to weigh 95lb to have a BMI of 16.5. Since my normal weight is about 120 lb, I would have to lose all my body fat plus nearly 10 pounds of lean body tissue. Then airbrush me into oblivion (To get an idea what is possible with digital enhancement, take a look at a this video on You Tube ) and you might have something that looks like an image in a magazine.
But here’s the paradox. Bizarrely, impossibly thin images are all around us. Yet more people are overweight and obese than ever before. This seems odd, don’t you think? You’d think that being surrounded by such images of "perfection" would motivate people to lose weight, but the opposite is happening instead. Why?
Surely it is the case that, weight loss is simply:energy in (food) versus energy out (movement). Well, it looks like us geeks might have been a bit too simplistic...
In this week’s blog, we will talk about the idea that for people struggling with their weight, how they see their body is just as important as — if not more important than — the biology of their body.
What is Body image?
We all went through an awkward stage as teenagers, I know I did. You may still be in an awkward stage 30 years later. How often do you look in the mirror or obsess over a photo of yourself – “ OMG! Is that what I really look like?! If I could just lose/gain x pounds, lift this, and tuck that, THEN I would be happy.” You know the drill.
Body image is how we perceive our physical appearance. This can be either good or bad. But it is also affected by important those body perceptions are to you.
So there are 2 parts to Body Image:
1. Evaluative body image:
This is: a) How you think and feel you look and b) How happy you are with your body.
In geek terms, this is your cognitive appraisal and associated emotions (aka what you think and feel). However, what you think and feel about your body isn’t necessarily the actual reality. If this is the case, you are what is known as "body dysmorphic".
2. Body image investment:
This is: a) How important body image is to you and b) How much body image affects your daily life. If you are preoccupied with the way your body looks (body concern), this is a hallmark of a dysfunctional body image investment. If this is the case then you will also probably experience social physique anxiety. This is when you feel anxious in social settings and during interactions with others because you think that others are judging your body.
You will probably find that the majority of people have one of the following 3 attitudes when it comes to their Body Image. Which one are you?
You might not like your body much (evaluation) but not really care an awful lot (investment). This might mean you treat your body like an ugly but necessary inconvenience, like having to clean out the cat’s litter box. Gross, but what are ya gonna do?!
Or, you might think you look great (evaluation) and find that greatness really, really important as well (investment), which might mean that you spend a lot of time being afraid of losing your hot bod.
Of course, many of us have the worst of both worlds. We don’t like our bodies, and because we’re so invested in body image, our perceived-grotesque physiques make us want to hide under a rock.
Whether evaluation and/or investment, we tend to think of “body image” as something that happens inside our head. But could it affect our actual bodies?
How do you measure body image?
You might be wondering how you measure body image and the different parts that make it up. There are a series of questionnaires and scales to indicate someone’s body image.
For evaluative body image, one of the more interesting and easy scales to use and understand is the figure rating scale (Figure 1). This provides a series of body outlines numbered 1 (very thin) to 9 (very heavy).
Participants pick the number they think fits their actual body size, and then they pick the number that represents their ideal body size. The bigger the difference (self-ideal discrepancy) the more body image issues a participant has.
Keep in mind this is perceived body size, not real body size. People may actually be their ideal body size but not think so. If you think you’re a 9 on the scale but you’re really a 1, you’ve definitely got a problem.
Body image investment is assessed using questionnaires that ask things like:
- How often do you feel fat when taking a shower?
- How often has your body shape/size kept you from concentrating?
- How nervous do you feel about your body in social settings?
A recent study by the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health looks at whether improving body image may help women lose weight over a year-long behavior change program. (You can read the full article here: Body image change and improved eating self-regulation in a weight management intervention in women.)
The study followed a group of obese women went through a year-long weight loss program that focused on behavior changes. Now, you may be thinking, "Well aren’t all weight loss programs behavior changes?" Yes, but this one focused on self-regulation of eating (with an approach known as self-determination theory) rather than calorie counting or specific meal plans.
Our own Food Program at My Coaching Hotline focuses on eating self-regulation. This may bother some people who may be expecting an auto-pilot type of approach. What — I don’t get a list of meals? Or a meal plan to follow? You mean I have to pay attention to how my body feels and I have to make decisions!? - I hear you cry.
Well, I get that it’s often easier to let other people make decisions for you. However, the advantage of self-regulated eating is that mindful, voluntary and self-directed eating is more sustainable long-term, while fostering independence. You learn the skills you need to eat better… for life… without someone else constantly checking up on you. Yes, this can be scary at first, but a lot more sustainable and useful. (Trust us. We’ve helped lots of clients.)
What is Self - Regulation?
Several factors guide the self-regulation of eating:
- confidence that you can do it (eating self-efficacy);
- consciously controlled eating that isn’t too rigid (highly flexible cognitive restraint );
- less emotional eating; less eating triggered by specific situations; and less eating because of habits (reduced dis-inhibition including emotional, situational and habitual cues); and
- less perceived hunger.
Body image sessions
Half the women also went to body image enhancement sessions to improve their body acceptance and satisfaction (evaluative body image) and decrease their over-preoccupation with appearance (investment in body image).
Exercises to improve body acceptance and evaluation included:
- looking at a mirror and systematically looking at body parts;
- making realistic goals and expectations for their bodies; and
- creating a realistic ideal body based on their parents’ weight history and their body type.
Exercises to improve investment in appearance included:
- understanding what body image is;
- finding the cause of the disorder (what situations — social and personal — triggered the dysfunction?);
- keeping a diary to record negative self-talk and the feelings it causes;
- helping the women to cope with prejudice;
- helping the women let go of the belief they need to look different in order to be happy.
Improved body image
The body image sessions worked. The women in these sessions improved both evaluative body image and body image investment.
Improved eating self-regulation & weight loss
Improving body image also improved eating self-regulation. With better eating, there was better weight loss.
The body image group lost 7.3% of their body weight, while the control group lost only 1.7% of their body weight.
It makes sense that better eating means more weight loss, but seems odd that a better body image would help weight loss. Wouldn’t you think that people should lose weight first… and then feel better about their bodies?
It appears that this is not the case. The group that got care, counseling, and compassion kicked ass. This goes against the drill sergeant/tough love approach, doesn’t it?
Using a mathematical model (partial least squares) the researchers found that changes in body image investment was more important for weight loss than body image evaluation. In other words, to lose weight, it’s more important to let go of the fear of "Does my bum look big in this?" and the preoccupation of what others may be thinking about how you look in your bikini. It is much more useful to stop obsession about body size and shape than it is to always feel great about yourself if you are trying to lose weight.
(After all, remember our hypothetical people who feel good about their body, but are afraid of losing it? They’re much more likely to rigidly control their eating and exercise, which sets them up for problems like diet rebounds, exercise compulsions, and binge eating later on. Plus, if you’re not as invested in your body image, you realize that small things like day-to-day weight fluctuations aren’t that big a deal.)
So what can we take away from this?
You’d think people would be motivated to change if they were unhappy with their body. In fact, the opposite is true: Greater body image dissatisfaction actually hinders weight loss.
You may need a certain amount of dissatisfaction with your current body if you want to change it, but more isn’t better. Pointing out that someone is overweight or obese, or beating yourself up mentally, doesn’t make you more motivated. Nor does it help you get leaner.
At My Coaching Hotline, we use an “awesomeness-based coaching” approach. We don’t spend time pointing out your “flaws” or “problem areas” (imaginary or otherwise). We find what’s already awesome about you, right now, no matter what your body looks like… and help you do and feel more of that. (And just a warning: We have a Ten Push-up Rule at My Coaching Hotline: Self-criticism gets you ten push ups. We know that negative self-talk doesn’t do you any good. So we push-up that nasty stuff right outta you.)
This study shows that improving body image helps with weight loss. And it seems that spending less time worrying about how your body looks and how other people may scrutinize your body is a bigger part of the puzzle than how unhappy you are about your body.
Want to lose weight?
- Stop obsessing about your body. If possible, try to get “outside yourself” — into a bigger world full of activities, experiences, social causes, and other things more interesting than whether you can see your abs.
- Pursue self-acceptance, self-care and self-compassion… not self-criticism.
- Pay more attention to what you eat — eat slowly and mindfully.
- Move your body more.