If you struggle with anxiety about your body, you are certainly not alone.
Disliking or even hating your body and being stressed about its size and shape—especially if it’s outside of what’s deemed socially acceptable—is unfortunately a normalized concept, upheld by our weight-stigmatized society and culturally conditioned beliefs.
“I think it’s the messages that are rampant in our society that only thin bodies are valued,” says therapist Amanda Marks. “We are taught that if we have the ‘perfect’ body we will in turn have the ‘perfect’ life.”
Buying into the elusive “perfect body, perfect life” mirage can cost years of chasing a body ideal for which you are not genetically predisposed. Time and time again as a registered dietitian, I see such chasing backfire on my clients, wreaking havoc on their lives and health (both mental and physical). Body anxiety creates significant barriers to living in alignment with their values and engaging in life the way they desire.
How Can Body Anxiety Impact Your Life?
“Clients [with body anxiety] avoid social situations where they feel their body is on display, such as exercising at the gym, going dancing at a club, or doing outdoor activities, such as hiking or going to the beach or pool,” says Britt Richardson, Registered Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. “Body anxiety keeps clients from doing activities they may truly enjoy that are health-promoting and anxiety-reducing, such as exercise or spending time outdoors.”
Body anxiety breeds isolation, Richardson adds, as it can cause you to withdraw socially or even disrupt your romantic life, keeping you from dating or enjoying sex with your partner.
Marks said some of her clients have called in sick to work or avoided going to the doctor due to body anxiety. “It can also cause health problems if they avoid doctor appointments for too long or even get in trouble at work for too many missed days of calling in sick.”
Another challenge that often comes with body anxiety is the experience of being in photos and looking at photos of yourself. The self-judgment that comes with body anxiety puts a wedge between you and a memory that might otherwise be joyful to recall.
What Causes Body Anxiety?
“Diet culture messaging that thinner bodies are more beautiful, healthier, and more worthy of attention is a perpetual source of anxiety for many of my clients,” Richardson says. “[They] feel pressure from our culture and their peers to conform to these beauty standards, causing them to feel anxious about their bodies, frequently leading them to disordered eating and exercise patterns.”
Systemic patterns of weight-based stigma threaten the health of people in larger bodies and feed into body anxiety. Weight-based stigma reinforces the idea that only thin bodies are good and sends the message that larger bodies are not welcome. “It’s airplane or train seats that might be too small or having to ask for a seat belt extender,” Marks adds. “It’s worrying about fitting into a booth at a restaurant with a friend. It’s being passed over for the promotion.”
Additionally, body anxiety can be misplaced, meaning that there are different sources of anxiety in your life—like relationship struggles, difficulties at work, or trauma— that get taken out on your body. Sometimes, it can feel easier to feel uncomfortable about your body than to think about big life issues.
“Focusing on the body and blaming our bodies for things that do or don’t happen to us can also be a more ‘tangible’ way to process rejection, for example. We blame things on our perception of how we look instead of what our actual struggle may be about,” Marks shares. “Other sources can include trauma that has been connected or linked to their bodies.”
While taking it out on your body may offer short-term relief or distraction, it only makes your relationship to your body worse in the long term and does not help you deal with the actual life issue.
Five Ways to Work Through Body Anxiety
Shift your perspective. If you can shift the lens through which you see your body, you have the power to change your relationship to it. To help clients see their bodies as an instrument rather than an ornament, I guide them to focus on all their bodies can do for them and spend time acknowledging those functions daily. Take some time to scan your body and consider all it does for you every day, then write it down and keep coming back to that list.
When you struggle with photos, try viewing the process of being in or looking at photos as opportunities to create cherished mementos from precious moments in your life. “I ask [clients] to focus on what is happening in the picture and the memories related to it, not what people look like,” Marks shares. See if zooming out over the whole experience instead of focusing on how your stomach looks helps release body judgment.
Another way to change perspective is to work on how you define your self-worth, shifting it from appearance-based to values-based. “First, I ask [clients] to describe what they love about their best friend, child or pet,” Richardson says. “Then, I have them do the exercise in reverse by having them write down what their best friend or child or pet loves about them. This helps them begin to identify their positive qualities that have nothing to do with body shape or size.”
Use self-compassion in hard moments. Richardson, Marks, and I recommend our clients practice self-compassion to help manage body anxiety.
Let’s say you are having a tough body image day and it’s causing you anxiety. To apply self-compassion, take a moment to get grounded and find your breath. Then, see what your negative body thought is and put some space between you and the thought by putting the statement “I am having the thought that…” in front of the negative thought.
From there, you can observe the thought and see it for what it is—a negative thought about your body. Instead of continuing to be consumed by the thought and judging your body, you can speak to yourself and your body with kindness. Something as simple as, “I am struggling right now, but my body is working for me.” Finally, remember you are not alone in your struggle. There are other people in the world struggling with body anxiety in the same moment as you.
Talk to your inner child. Often, my clients can pinpoint when their body anxiety started, and it is usually in childhood. Visualize your younger self and be specific: What were you wearing? Where were you? Who was there? Then, imagine you now approaching your younger self, embracing them, and saying the words you needed to hear. Maybe it is something like, “Your body does not define your worth. You are lovable just as you are.”
Then, write down your words, keep them close, and return to them when your inner child gets triggered in your body anxiety.
Ask yourself if there is something else going on. As I mentioned, sometimes, body anxiety can originate from a different source of stress in life.
First, take some time to make sure your nervous system is regulated and you are grounded. Then you can start decoding and separating your body anxiety. With self-compassion, ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” and “Is this really about my body?” Based on what you discover, follow up with, “What do I need?”
If you find that your body anxiety is really about something else, you can then deal with the stressor through healthy coping strategies. If you need help or are working through trauma and do not have a therapist, reach out for help.
Clean out and replenish media. Media you take in, whether it’s mainstream or social, affects how you relate to yourself and your body. If you follow or take in media that disturbs your relationship to your body or heightens your body anxiety, eliminate those accounts and sources.
Luckily, there are a multitude of body acceptance accounts and resources you can use to help your process. Here are some books to get started:
More Than A Body by Lindsay Kite and Lexie Kite
Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
Body Respect by Dr. Linda Bacon and Dr. Lucy Aphramor
The Body Positivity Journal by Meghan Sylvester
The Body Image Workbook by Dr. Thomas F. Cash
Reclaiming Body Trust by Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant