‘Does my bum look big in this?’ It’s a trick question, and one where we really don’t want to hear the answer. I have asked it, and I can tell you that I wanted to hear, ‘No! It looks great!’ when I knew the truth was actually, yes, it does a bit. It was a sneaky question because it wasn’t about helping me see what the mirror couldn’t show me, but aimed at making me feel better about myself. Although we often think of poor body image as disliking the body, it can also mean distortions of body size, shape or fat.
While it is common to want to focus on fixing negative body image – replacing self critical beliefs with positive ones – there are growing concerns that ignoring the body is a more significant issue for us a population who are increasingly engulfed in an obesity epidemic. Being unaware of actual body size is an increasingly difficult problem being uncovered by research on self-perceptions regarding weight. It seems that an overwhelming number of overweight people underestimate their size and don’t see themselves at risk of obesity related health problems.
Earlier this year, the BBC reported on the increasing problem of people failing to recognise their weight as a problem (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-26765078). Even when people see themselves as overweight, there is also trend to underestimate the problem. In another report, The Scottish herald reported that 55% of the people they surveyed considered themselves overweight and 9% considered themselves obese. But once measurements were done, of the people who thought they were carrying a few extra pounds 20% of these were actually obese and another 5% were morbidly obese (http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/many-scots-are-unaware-of-obesity-problems.23888262).
More worryingly, overweight parents are also less likely to see the weight problems in their children. In a large scale survey study, mothers were more concerned with their children being underweight than obese. Most rated their children as ‘normal’ but it was determined that 63% of these children were actually overweight (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2234629/).
But why would people not see their bodies for what they are? And what can help? Researchers suggest that advertising has a role to play. We all like to believe that we can dismiss advertising – that we are rulers of our own minds. But this is not the story told by the early pioneers of psychology in advertising. One of the big names in the field in the 1900’s, Walter Dill Scott, stated that people are not independently-minded, but suggestible and obedient. If this is true, consider the impact of the messages we see. We are routinely shown unhealthy foods marketed as ‘healthy’. Portion sizes shown in adverts are larger and larger.
Aside from food advertising designed to increase our consumption, more people around us are overweight and obese, making it seem more normal. At the other end of the scale, media presents us with overly thin models and photoshopped, perfected images. While there is a backlash against these thin body shapes, it has also been overly simplified in typical media style. The backlash has been distilled into the idea that thin is ‘bad’ and overweight is ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’. When I see those facebook posts with some particularly voluptuous woman telling me that ‘real women have curves’, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. Yes, some real women have curves, just like other don’t. This logic just fuels body image problems by suggesting that there is an ideal size or shape.
Advertisers are only motivated to sell products, not care about the other effects on us. While understanding this can help to some degree, we will have difficulty appreciating problems that we just don’t see. With such a wide range of similar research findings, we can assume that people just like you and I, people of normal intelligence, everyday average people have difficulty seeing the extent of their fat. So perhaps the blindspot for fat is a normal, everyday behaviour. Every human being is motivated to find ways to ease the pain and discomfort we feel – physically and emotionally. The classic psychiatric definition of denial is that it functions to relive pain or shame that would otherwise be intolerable.
Very simply, we are designed to avoid things that cause us pain, including the psychological pain that could come from honest self perceptions about weight. That is not to say that people intentionally lie to themselves, although that is also a possibility at times, but that avoiding painful subject matter is a natural, unintentional response. What begins as a way to control the discomfort about body shape or size only makes the problem worse.
We can’t solve problems we can’t see. Although it’s not exactly easy to recognise the extent of a weight problem in the midst of clever advertising, shifting standards of ‘normal’ and poor body image, it is essential if you want to make a lasting, healthy change. If you can relate to this and think you might be underestimating the size of your problem, what can you do? Here’s some steps I’d suggest towards getting real and getting healthy:
1. Look- Face the issue. Take some dedicated time to look at your full reflection in a mirror. Naked, or in your undies, take your time to scan your body, examining it in its full glory. If this feeling cringingly difficult, even more reason to do it. Those with the worst body image look at themselves the least, which only perpetuates the underlying problems. You won’t just suddenly feel better about it, but you can do something about it if you face it.
2. Listen- When you look at your body or think about your body, listen to what you tell yourself about it. Write down what you think when you look at your body. Is it fair? Is it helpful to you? I’m not suggesting you simply change upsetting thoughts about your body with positive ones, only that you are realistic and honest with yourself. Avoid unspecific and global statements like ‘My stomach is huge’ or ‘I’m a whale’. Be specific and real. Honesty means you acknowledge what’s bad as well as what is ok, or even good. Also, be wary of thoughts that imply that other people are judging you for your body. You don’t always know what other people think, and even if you did, you can’t control what people think, no matter what size you are. Let them think what they will. Instead focus on not letting your internal voice join in on real or imagined criticisms about your body.
3. Love – find compassion for yourself, no matter where your body is now. Even if you have eaten badly, even if you should have had more self control or made different choices, even if you’ve had hurtful comments made to you, you are still a person, and that is a valuable thing. You have value, you deserve to be happy, not because of how you look, but because you are a human being. You are more than your body – you are a unique and special person who has never been before and will never be again. What an awesome treasure! If you find it hard to see yourself compassionately, imagine comforting someone who is feeling bad about their weight. Imagine what would help them, what they might need from you. If it’s still difficult, imagine comforting an overweight child who is sad and needs your help. Taking your perspective out of yourself can help to find a compassionate approach. Once you have an idea what compassion might look like, fight to make it your stance towards yourself. After all, you will be more motivated to care for what you love than what you hate.
4. Learn- you won’t turn on better self awareness or self worth like flipping a light switch. It will be a process of learning. Learning to adjust your perspective, your behaviours, your lifestyle. You won’t always do the right thing, but you can commit to learn from your mistakes. One step at a time, you’ll make a big change.