8 mins

“I hate my body”: how to improve body image and when to seek help

Since the beginning of time, we’ve given importance to the beauty of the human body. If we glance back in history, we’ll find that this ideal of beauty is forever changing. From Marilyn Monroe’s curvaceous hourglass shape to the ‘heroin chic’ of the 90s. From the pale skin of the Elizabethan era – accentuated with glaring white face paint because it symbolised opulent indoor living – to the fake tanning crazy of the early 2000s, the symbol of endless trips to the sun.

We live in a society that constantly – and unfairly – asks us to change. It is little wonder then that so many of us will struggle with the way we look or dislike aspects of our physical appearance.

We all have perceived ‘imperfections’ but most of us don’t give them much notice and come to accept them. That’s because we realise they do not impact our sense of self – our personality and our inherent value as a person.

But for some people, negative thoughts about their body or appearance become all-consuming, impacting their self-esteem, behaviour, and how they how see themselves and interact with the world.

What exactly is body image? 

Body image is defined as the “multi-faceted psychological experience of embodiment”. Put in simpler terms, body image is the perception you have of yourself and how you feel about the way you look:

  • How we feel about our body
  • How we believe others perceive our appearance
  • How we feel about our height, weight and shape

In order to have a healthy body image you do not need to have a symmetrical face, a perfect nose or a body like Gisele. It is not about thinking that you are perfect. It is simply about being comfortable with the body you have, and accepting yourself as you are.

Importantly, having a positive body image rests on our ability to distinguish between our value and our appearance. We get into dangerous territory when we start to confuse our body image with our self-worth.

Body image and self esteem: what’s the connection?

Body image and self-esteem are both related to each other, but they are also different. Our body image makes up just one aspect of ourselves – our physical body. On the other hand, self-esteem encompasses how we see ourselves as a whole.

The two are connected because how we feel about our body is going have an impact on how we see ourselves as a whole. Because of this, having a negative body image heavily chips away at our self-esteem.

When we have low self-esteem, our quality of life inevitably takes a hit. Low self-esteem turns our energy inwards and makes us want to isolate. It causes us to doubt ourselves. It makes us feel self-conscious and worry about what other people think of us.

Because of this, having a healthy body image and good self-esteem are vital components of living a happy, fulfilled life because they allow us to develop into our most authentic selves.

Why do I hate my body so much?

First things first, it’s important to start by removing any self-blame. If we are someone who is willing to say that we ‘hate’ our body, we’re probably the type of person who is also very hard on ourselves.

Poor body image doesn’t happen out of nowhere. More often than not, it is reflective of the kinds of voices and subconscious messages we had when we were growing up – whether that’s society, family or friends.

Many of us have grown up believing there is some kind of ‘perfect body’ that we all have to attain to. The simple fact is, we are all uniquely – and beautifully – different. There is no cookie-cutter model we are supposed to fit into.

Growing up with very critical parents or with a lot of emotional instability can also lead us into having a poor body image. Or spending a lot of time in a very appearance-orientated environment where value has been put on appearances and not much else.

How to overcome poor body image 

Overcoming poor body image can take time, particularly if you have been criticising yourself for a long time. Because of this, it’s really important to seek the right support so you can start to feel better as soon as possible.

In the meantime, we’ve compiled some tips to start putting the wheels in motion:

  1. Call out what you see

We’re swamped with images these days, most of which have been heavily photoshopped. A lot of the images we end up comparing ourselves to do not even show real bodies. We see ourselves from the moment we wake up, tired and puffy eyed – we only see other people putting their best foot forward. No one is perfect. We all have off-days and we all have things about ourselves we don’t like. Remind yourself of that next time you find yourself comparing yourself to someone else.

2. Choose what you look at

Subliminal messages sneak into our subconscious without us noticing it. On social media, make sure you unfollow any of the brands or magazines that imply anyone should ever change themselves or improve their appearance. Fortunately, people are starting to call out this behaviour and promote healthier body image with hashtags like #bodyposi. Remember: there is no perfect body or bikini body – there are simply bodies!

3. Start loving your body exactly as it is, however hard it feels

It’s easy to say things like you’re going to feel happier with your body when you get in better shape. But the truth is, you’re much more likely to start treating your body better when you like it. Start working on loving your body first – that’s true self-acceptance.

4. Be YOU

You don’t have to be perfect, you simply have to be you. And when you’re comfortable with that you shine. Being authentic is the most attractive quality there is. Find a vibe or look that makes you feel comfortable and ignore the rest. Trends mis-sell the idea that we have to dress or appear a certain way in order to be attractive. The best thing you can be is you.

5. Celebrate your body as an instrument not an ornament

Run, swim,, dance, laugh! Celebrate all the amazing things your body does for you everyday.

6. Indulge your body

Whether it’s a juicy, restorative yoga class, a weekly massage or a trip to the nail salon…. Do something different and indulgent that makes you feel good.

7. Stop your inner critic in its tracks

Most of us are much harder on ourselves than we would ever be with friends. Next time your inner critic rears its ugly head, call it out and make a list of the things you love about yourself instead.

Body dysmorphic disorder: when poor body image distorts how we see ourselves

Poor body image can have dangerous consequences, and can lead to eating disorders or an anxiety known as body dysmorphic disorder. Someone suffering from body dysmorphic disorder will judge their sense of self primarily on their looks. This will cause them to worry a lot about their appearance and have distorted views on any of their perceived ‘flaws’. BDD is not the same as OCD but it does hold some similarities, such as the repetition of compulsive behaviours.

Here are some of the signs and symptoms to look out for:

  • Constantly comparing your looks to other people
  • Either spending a lot of time at the mirror dissecting your appearance or avoiding the mirror at all costs
  • Spending a lot of time concealing a perceived defect on your face or body
  • Skin-picking
  • Feeling distressed about a particular area of your body or face
  • Feeling anxious in social situations and maybe even avoiding them altogether
  • Avoiding talking about it out of fear of appearing vain or self-obsessed (to be clear, BDD is NOT about vanity)
  • Excessive dieting and exercising

If you think you might be experiencing any of the above, it’s really important that you seek expert help. You do not have to go through this alone – with the right support a full recovery is possible. Therapy will help you realise that every part of you is worthy of your love and care.

And I said to my body, softly, “I want to be your friend”.

It took a long breath and replied,

“I have been waiting my whole life for this”. – Nayyirah Waheed

Dr Elena Touroni

Dr Elena Touroni

17 May 2019

"Dr. Elena Touroni is a skilled and experienced Consultant Psychologist with a track record of delivering high-quality services for individuals with all common emotional difficulties and those with a diagnosis of personality disorder. She is experienced in service design and delivery, the management of multi-disciplinary teams, organisational consultancy, and development and delivery of both national and bespoke training to providers in the statutory and non-statutory sector."

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Dr Elena Touroni

Dr Elena Touroni is a skilled and experienced consultant psychologist with a track record of delivering high-quality services for individuals with all common emotional difficulties and those with a diagnosis of personality disorder. She is experienced in service design and delivery, the management of multi-disciplinary teams, organisational consultancy, and development and delivery of both national and bespoke training to providers in the statutory and non-statutory sector.

Having obtained a first degree in Psychology (BSc) at the American College of Greece, she completed her doctoral training at the University of Surrey. Dr Touroni is highly experienced in the assessment and treatment of depression, anxiety, substance misuse, personality disorder, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, adjustment disorder and relationship difficulties. She works with both individuals and couples and can offer therapy in English and Greek.

Dr Touroni has held a variety of clinical and managerial positions including as Head of Service in the NHS. Further she has held academic positions for the University of Surrey and the Institute of Mental Health lecturing on specialist postgraduate Masters and Doctorate programmes.

She is trained in several specialist therapeutic approaches such as schema therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based approaches and Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT). As well as holding a variety of NHS positions, Dr. Touroni is the co-founder of a private practice in Central London that has been a provider of psychological therapy for all common emotional difficulties including personality disorder since 2002. She is the founder and one of two directors of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic.