For many people, summer might involve mixed feelings or even a love-hate relationship. Love the sunshine, hate the shorts; love the pool, hate the swimsuit; love the park, hate the tank tops. Often, summer clothes don’t allow us to hide the parts of our bodies we feel insecure about, leaving us vulnerable and open to criticism. Todd Jenkins, licensed marriage and family therapist, UnityPoint Health, explains how and when body image develops and some things we can do to build a more positive body image.
Positive vs Negative Body Image
“My definition of body image is the internalized image of a person’s body appearance,” Jenkins says. “It’s how a person thinks their body is perceived by other people. It’s almost as much of a feeling as it is a visual image.”
He says there are negative and positive body images.
“Someone with a negative body image may decline going to concerts or events with large groups of people because they don’t want to be the heaviest person attending. They might be self-conscious that other people are noticing their weight. That’s clearly a negative body image, because it’s impacting their activity level, it’s affecting socialization and recreation,” Jenkins says.
A positive body image is harder to describe, Jenkins says, because it’s just not discussed as much. He gives this example.
“Say a person goes from not working out for several years, then gets back into a healthier routine at the gym. They start feeling better, their body feels better, they like how their clothes fit. That is what I see as a positive body image,” Jenkins says.
Signs of Negative Body Image
Jenkins says body image usually begins to develop around puberty or during high school. It’s based on a lot of things: feedback from peers, feedback from parents and other adults, comparison to peers and all sorts of media and observation in mirrors and photographs. He says by the time most people get to the mid-20s, body image is more fixed.
“Men tend to be more preoccupied with musculature, size and height. Women, on the other hand, are generally self-aware of excess body weight,” Jenkins says.
If a parent or guardian is concerned about their young adults, Jenkins says to look for these signs of negative body image:
- Negative comments. An example is if your child says, “I’m too fat.”
- Refusing activities. Especially if they are refusing activities they’ve done before, because they’re self-conscious.
- Unnecessary dieting. This is especially common in high school girls. Instead of cutting calories or fad diets, parents should help young adults focus on healthy eating and being active.
- No desire to put on a swimsuit. Those who have a negative body image may prefer to hide behind their clothes.
“In my experience, what happens a lot of times, is if a person really has a negative body image, they just don’t put on a swimsuit. Swimsuits allow for a lot of comparing. It might not even be weight-related, but perhaps just a girl who hasn’t developed as quickly as her peers or a boy who isn’t as muscular as the other members on his school sports team,” Jenkins says.
Jenkins says, unfortunately the signs of a negative body image, or body insecurities, are pretty common. He says it’s a cultural thing in the United States, where we have such strict body norms about what is the so-called “right” body size.
“I think part of the problem is younger people, especially younger women, are internalizing misinformation that’s in the media or from a friend, and this ideal perfect body image is about one percent of the population. It’s important for them to recognize that most people aren’t like that,” Jenkins says.
If someone is avoiding activities due to a negative body image, it’s time to consider talking to a counselor to improve their quality of life. Otherwise, if a friend or family member notices someone is struggling with body image, try getting them to talk about it. Jenkins knows it can be uncomfortable, so it’s important that these conversations happen in very trusting relationships.
Solutions to Body Image Issues
Jenkins has four pieces of advice for anyone trying to embrace a more healthy, positive body image. If you’re a parent or guardian, it’s appropriate to use these tactics at young ages, too, especially before puberty.
- Don’t be critical. Try to avoid negative comments about anybody’s body. Instead, point out the positives.
- Don’t dwell on weight. Limit discussion about weight and size, but emphasis being healthy and active.
- Talk about the body. Bodies can be an uncomfortable topic. But, be open whenever it comes up in discussion.
- It’s not all about appearance. Take notice that people don’t judge a book by its cover. Our bodies can do amazing things.
There is a technique Jenkins suggests to people who’ve just undergone weight loss surgery. He says it might work for others struggling with negative body image, too.
“People who’ve been heavy their whole lives often think they are still heavy even years after their major weight loss. It can take three to four years for them to really internalize the change. What I tell them to do is dress and undress in front of a full-length mirror. It’s good to have a frequent visual reminder of what your body looks like without clothes. Then, make positive statement about what you do like. Things like, ‘I really like my abs,’ or ‘my shoulders are starting to look really chiseled,’ or even just telling yourself you look like most people,” Jenkins says.
If you are having trouble internalizing positive body image, try writing about it. You can journal about your feelings and use the white space to help work on positive statements. Jenkins says you can even put up sticky notes or post pictures of “normal” people around your living space. Find what works for you, and then use those strategies to love yourself—and the summer sunshine.
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