I have occasionally looked in the mirror and been dismayed by how “small” my muscles are. I could have sworn that the last time I looked, they were larger. “I’m not growing,” I think. “What am I doing wrong?”
On another day, in a different light, I think my arms look bigger than I ever imagined. But on most days, I can see myself realistically – muscular yet feminine, with room to “grow.”
Everyone has bouts of doubt when it comes to body image. But do you have a mostly realistic, positive view of your body or, without realizing it, an unrealistic, critical view?
Rationally, you know how much you weigh and you can see yourself in the mirror. But if your inner critic is convinced there’s something wrong, this can lead to avoiding social situations, not buying clothes, putting yourself down, or trying to live up to impossible ideals. None of which lead to a happy self.
A Skewed Self-Perception of Weight
When it comes to our own weight, study after study show that many of us have a distorted perception. And women perceive their weight in a more negative light than men.
For example, in one study, 38.3 percent of normal weight women thought they were “overweight,” while 32.8 percent of overweight men thought they were “about the right weight” or “underweight” . Thus, a third of women who were not overweight were trying to lose weight, while a third of men who were overweight were not trying to lose weight.
No Help from our Culture
It’s no secret that many women are dissatisfied with their bodies. Being bombarded with images of thin, toned hard bodies in media plays a huge role. Studies have shown that subjects’ body image satisfaction decreases after viewing TV commercials containing images of the “thin ideal” for women and the “muscular ideal” for men, occurring more so with girls than boys .
Girls are sensitized to how they look from an early age, often being encouraged to “look pretty” and use hair styling sets, get their nails done, and dress stylishly. Our culture teaches us from childhood that it’s our job to be attractive for the opposite sex.
So it becomes second nature to compare ourselves to fitness models and actresses women who make a living from their appearance and hire professional trainers and dietitians We believe this is the standard to which we’re held, when in fact it’s completely unrealistic for 99 percent of women.
From Insecure to Obsessed
Feeling bad about our bodies and having low self-esteem can sometimes turn into something more serious. “Imagined ugliness” is what body dysmorphia is sometimes called – “an obsessive preoccupation with a real or imagined defect in one’s physical appearance,” according to the OCD Center in Los Angeles. This disorder, which can affect both sexes and is more complex than simple insecurity about one’s body, can even include obsessing about having a perceived deformity.
Studies also show that genetics, the environment, and the structure of and chemicals in the brain may cause body dysmorphia. Risk factors include childhood teasing, low self-esteem, societal pressure or expectations of beauty, and having anxiety or depression .
But poor body image isn’t just women’s domain. Muscle dysmorphia causes (primarily) boys and men to obsess about having large muscles and a lean physique. The pressure to have an “ideal” V-shaped body can start young and athletes are particularly susceptible, according to a review published in the Journal of Athletic Training .
Those with “bigorexia,” as it’s sometimes called, may use excessive supplements and steroids and let other areas of their life deteriorate while adhering to extreme diets and training schedules.
What Can You Do?
Whether you obsess about your appearance or simply don’t like it, you can turn poor body image around.
- Try not to compare yourself to the women you see in magazines, movies, TV, or on the Internet. Many have body fat percentages that are too low to be healthy in the long term. Most may not maintain that degree of leanness year round.
- Strength train for increased self-confidence (or do any regular exercise plus stretching).
- Stop punishing yourself with negative talk. Instead of letting your inner critic take over, replace it immediately with positive thoughts and affirmations. For example, instead of “My stomach is fat,” replace it with “My stomach is beautiful and a work in progress.”
- Focus on your non-appearance strengths. Your worth isn’t connected to how thin or muscular you are.
- If you think you have body or muscle dysmorphia, seek professional treatment.
- For more ideas and a body image quiz, read Build a Better Body Image at Experience Life. Also check out and follow Beauty Redefined, a movement to recognize and reject harmful messages about women’s bodies.