This research is going to get personal. That picture of that girl looking in the mirror could be me.
As women, we tend to be very critical of our own bodies and tend to compare ourselves with others all too frequently. The occasional comparison or negative thought about our bodies can become a real problem. According to the Mayo Clinic and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a “type of chronic mental illness in which you can’t stop thinking about a flaw with your appearance; a flaw that is either minor or imagined ” (emphasis mine). It is also called dysmorphobia; the fear of having a deformity. Often times, a person will seek cosmetic or medical help to “fix” the problem.
A person may obsess over a particular body part (nose, hips, skin, hair…) or over-all appearance. The symptoms of this disorder are numerous, including:
- obsessed with physical appearance
- strong belief that you are ugly
- either frequent mirror viewing and inspecting or avoidance of mirrors
- excessive grooming, skin picking
- comparisons with others
- feeling the need to cover up with clothes or makeup
- belief that others see your appearance in a negative way.
So, why do people have this disorder? It is not known specifically, but there may be a combination of causes. Either brain structure or chemical issues, genetics, and/or the environment (our culture). More on this later.
When this becomes an extreme problem and goes beyond just having a bad hair day or not liking what you see in the mirror, it can lead to suicidal thoughts or behaviors, depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, substance abuse… just to name a few. If a person feels like these thoughts or feelings are taking over the ability to function, medical/psychological help may be needed. Don’t be embarrassed or afraid to get the help you need. The short-term embarrassment is worth the long-term gain for a better body image and a happier, healthier outlook on life. Cognitive and medical treatments can be used to help a person cope with this disorder.
The short-term embarrassment is worth the long-term gain for a better body image and a happier, healthier outlook on life.
Now that we know the extreme, Mayo Clinic, ADAA info about this disorder, what about the every-day, “I don’t like what I see” or “What I see is not what others see” issues? How do we deal with that? This is where it gets personal and I am going to share from my experience and research. I was a lean, active child who did not really have major body issues as a teen. I didn’t like my hair, sometimes didn’t like my “look” but no real traumatic issues. Once I got married and started having kids (5 in 6 ½ years), I put on some weight and did not like what I had become. I saw myself as fat and ugly! After a series of major life stresses and events, I decided to do something about my fluctuating weight and dislike of what I saw when I looked in the mirror. I lost the weight, liked how I felt, and sometimes even liked how I looked. I took it a step further and worked with a professional nutritionist, got my personal training certification, and started helping other.
Although I have been on the path to healthier lifestyle and have made so many positive changes, sometimes I still struggle with not seeing what is really there. I still see the fat girl, compare myself (and my progress) to others who seem to be succeeding, still buy clothes too big for me if left to shop alone. You get the idea. I know some of you feel this way too because I get messages and emails from others who struggle with these same feelings. I am a work in progress on all fronts, but then again, aren’t we all?
OK. So, why do we do this to ourselves and what can we do about it?
First, the why. Each person has to evaluate that for themselves, either with professional help, with a really honest friend, or by examining his or her own life. For me, I had to get past the ugly duck feeling (my nick name as a child by my parents was “ugly”). Also, I am submerged in an industry (health and fitness) that puts so much emphasis on physical appearance. It is a battle to not go down the “I will never be as thin as or as tone as or…” Honestly, I’m a competitive person by nature, and I have to just let that go sometimes because it can consume me. Your why may be totally different from my why. The important thing is to find it so you can do something about it!
Second, what can we do about it? For me, comparing myself now to my previous self and not others helps me keep an honest, real perspective. If I honestly look at pictures from years past, I can see many positive changes. Because I have a strong faith in God and believe I was created in His image, I choose to see myself as God sees me. I choose to not compare myself to the gals on the front of the fitness magazine covers that I read. This industry is full of visuals of what a fit, tone, healthy body should look like and many of those visuals are not real life (can we all say photo shop?). I am also learning to trust what others say. When I only see the FAT me and my husband points out the truth, I am learning to listen. I am also learning to not expect perfection; knowing that I eat well, work hard, and make good choices helps to free me from what I perceive. Your whats will be specific to your whys, and I encourage you to explore both!
On the preventative side, a really important what is nutrition and exercise.
On the preventative side, a really important what is nutrition and exercise. What you eat effects how you feel. Eating a healthy diet with portion control will help you feel better. I have fewer aches and pains and significantly more energy when I eat well. The sluggish, tired, blah feelings just don’t exist when I am putting good food in my body. There have been many studies that have examined the effects of exercise in our brains. When you exercise, you release serotonin; the feel good hormone! Not only is there a chemical reason you will feel better with regular exercise, you can’t help but be more confident and have greater self-esteem when you get stronger and accomplish more than you ever thought you could. If you don’t know where to start, ask for help! I would love to help you, and I know there are numerous local opportunities to get help wherever you live. Some direction and accountability can go along way! Find a gym, do your own research, grab a friend, and get after the changes you need to make.