Written by, Dr Gemma Sharp, National Health and Medical Research Council Early Career Fellow and Clinical Psychologist, in honour of Love Your Body Week.
It was only when I started working in the body image and eating disorder field six years ago, I realised how many misunderstandings about these issues I had grown up hearing. Dieting is just a normal part of life, right? Eating disorders are caused by vanity and only affect young girls. These girls should really just eat something!
These messages are incorrect in every way and I feel so lucky that I had the chance to see the truth of these issues first hand through my research and clinical psychology practice. The truth is that eating disorders are very serious and potentially life-threatening disorders. They are certainly not an issue of vanity – they are caused by a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors which researchers are still trying to disentangle.
Body image concerns and eating disorders do not discriminate either. They affect both women and men; all ages from young to old; and across different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds and sexual orientations. I often have patients tell me that they “shouldn’t have these issues” because they do not fit the stereotype, which illustrates that this type of education is crucial for encouraging people to seek help. I also hear patients in their 50s and 60s commonly tell me that they “should have grown out of this problem”. My answer is always “but how could you have done that?”, especially when it is often the first time they have sought treatment from a health professional. I feel honoured that these people have given me the chance to assist them with an issue which they have been struggling with for such a long time. It is never too late to seek help!
There are methods we can use to try to improve our own body image and encourage positive body image in those around us. We often get caught up on focusing how our body looks, in fact, society tends to encourage it! We recommend shifting your focus to what your body can do, its functionality. The human body is an amazing product of human evolution which allows us to live, love, laugh, cry, and everything in between.
Another strategy is to talk to ourselves about our body and appearance as if we were talking to a good friend. You would never tell a friend that they were “fat” or “ugly” so why do we say these things to ourselves? Taking a more self-compassionate stance in our internal dialogue can lead to greater acceptance of our bodies and selves in general.
In fact, to me, loving your body does not mean loving every part of your body all the time – that is just not realistic for anyone! However, it is about taking some time to appreciate what your body does for you every day without us even saying “thank you”.
I realise that this message of body appreciation goes very much against messages we often see on social media - messages which encourage us to continually strive to “improve” our appearance – we are never good enough! As a result, I see social media as *the* battleground for helping people to improve their body image. With the generous support of the Butterfly Foundation, I aim to harness the power and reach of social media and put it to good use. My current research involves the design and development of novel tools which sit inside social media and help to promote body positivity. Watch this space for further updates!
So, I started this blog saying that I was fortunate to find out the truth about body image concerns and eating disorders. People do not choose to develop these issues and they can affect anyone. I encourage all of you out there who also know the truth to be a voice for change – because together we are truly a force to be reckoned with!