What is body insecurity?
If you have a distorted or negative body image, you may also suffer from body insecurity. It usually causes an unrealistic view of how you see your body. People of all genders can struggle with body insecurity.
The four aspects of body image
- Perceptual: The way you see yourself, which is not always an accurate representation of how you appear to others.
- Affective: The way you feel about the way you look, concerning your weight, shape, and appearance.
- Cognitive: The thoughts and beliefs you have about your body e.g. I would feel better about myself if I was thinner.
- Behavioral: The things you do concerning how you perceive yourself e.g. if you’re insecure about your body you may engage in destructive behaviors, such as disordered eating and excessive exercise in the hope it will change how you see yourself. Or you may isolate yourself from others as you’re embarrassed about how you look. (3)
Research shows that body insecurity can lead to mentally and physically unhealthy habits, which can include: (4)
- Disordered eating, including restriction, binging, and purging behaviors
- Body dysmorphic disorder
- Low self-esteem
- Relationship issues
- Self-harming behaviors
- Muscle dysmorphia
What are the causes?
Body image is complex, rarely being as simple as “I like” or “I don’t like” my body. You begin forming your perceptions about your body’s health, functionality, acceptability, and attractiveness in early childhood. (2) Your body image continues to evolve as you age and is influenced by feedback from family, peers, friends, etc.
Several factors usually contribute to the development of body insecurity. In today’s society, the media plays a key role in how people perceive themselves. Through TV, the internet, magazines, and advertising, people are bombarded with images of unrealistic and unattainable beauty standards.
These stylized and heavily edited pictures promote image and body ideals which reaffirm that within our culture, for women, thin is beautiful, and for men, lean and muscular is the ideal body shape. People who are non-binary or other genders may also feel pressure to be thin and/or have no curves to fit a narrow stereotype of androgyny. It sends the message that if you don’t fit these ideals, then you should be dissatisfied with your body.
Other factors that may contribute to body insecurity include: (2,3)
- Gender: Adolescent girls are generally believed to have higher levels of body insecurity. However, recent research has shown that levels of body satisfaction in adolescent boys are rapidly approaching those of girls. People who are intersex, transgender, and/or non-binary also have high levels of body insecurity, which can also be caused by experiences of gender dysphoria.
- Age: Late childhood and adolescence are particularly crucial periods when it comes to forming beliefs about body image. However, body insecurity can affect people throughout their lifetime.
- Certain personality traits: People with perfectionist tendencies, high achievers, or those with rigid thinking are at higher risk of developing body insecurity.
- Appearance teasing: Those who have been previously mocked for their appearance - particularly body size - regardless of their actual weight and shape, are at greater risk of developing body insecurity.
- Family history: Individuals growing up in an environment where family members regularly diet to lose weight or talk badly about their bodies are more likely to also be insecure about their body.
- Certain mental health issues: People with anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression, are more likely to have a negative body image.
What are the signs?
If you’re wondering if you’re suffering from body insecurity, consider the following questions:
- Do you go to extreme lengths to avoid seeing your body?
- Do you obsessively self-scrutinize in mirrors?
- Do you frequently compare your shape and size to others or envy other people’s bodies?
- Do you often think disparaging thoughts about your own body?
- Do you compulsively check your body e.g. weighing yourself or taking body measurements?
- Do your feelings about your body impact your relationships or day-to-day lives
- Do you wear baggy clothing to hide your body?
If you answered yes to one or more questions, it’s likely that you have body insecurity and may want to consider talking to a therapist before your issues around your body escalate.
5 ways to improve and deal with body insecurity?
Body insecurity can negatively affect physical and mental health. (3) Furthermore, having body security is associated with better self-esteem, improved self-acceptance, and a healthy outlook and behaviors.
It’s not always easy to turn a negative body image into a positive body image, but there are strategies that can help reduce the frequency and disruptiveness of negative body image thoughts. The more you practice these thought patterns, the more natural it will be to feel positive about the body you have. (5)
1. Appreciate the ways your body supports you
Can you think of anything that your body does for you that you appreciate? Does your body help you breath, digest food, heal from injuries, interact with other people, read or write stories? All bodies function in slightly different ways, and it can be helpful to appreciate how your body specifically supports you, even if it doesn’t do everything that some other bodies do or that it may have done in the past.
2. Don’t compare yourself to others
Every person on this planet is unique and it’s our differences that make us special. Appreciating the beauty of others doesn’t make you any less beautiful.
Write a list of ten things you like about yourself that aren’t related to your size or how you look and read the list often. It will remind you of the value you have and that beauty is only skin deep.
3. Set yourself non-weight related goals
Many people who struggle with body insecurity believe they need to wait until they are a certain weight or body shape to do things they want to do, like getting a tattoo, trying a new activity, taking a trip, dating, or wearing certain styles of clothes. Focusing on things that you want to do or accomplish in your body as it is right now, and then taking steps to make those things happen, instead of trying to change your body first, can make your life more enjoyable and less dictated by your weight.
4. Challenging negative thoughts
It can be helpful to challenge the voices in your head that tell you that your body isn’t good enough or you would be happier if you looked different. Using positive affirmations is helpful for some people, while for others, journaling about these difficult thoughts can make them less oppressive.
Offering yourself caring and pleasurable activities, like having a relaxing bubble bath, taking time for yourself to read a book for a while, or eating delicious foods, can also be part of building a more positive relationship with yourself and your body.
5. Be critical of social media
What you see on social media is rarely real. Many images presented online are unrealistic and represent a minority of the population. If an advertising image, slogan, or campaign makes you feel bad about yourself, unfollow that brand or account.
Focus on wearing clothes and make-up that make you feel comfortable instead of trying to follow every trend or emulate the body type of models or influences.
Treatment for body insecurity
If you’re not getting the hoped-for results from self-help methods for improving body insecurity, there are also effective treatments available. (6)
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)
Research consistently shows that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a kind of talk therapy, is effective in improving body image. (1) During CBT, your therapist will help you identify disordered thinking patterns and reframe your thoughts so they are more accurate and kinder.
You might also learn relaxation techniques to combat the stress and anxiety that often accompany a negative body image.
A licensed therapist can work with you to discover the underlying causes and triggers for your body insecurity. Talking with someone about the experiences that have shaped your body image may help you change your misguided beliefs about your body.
Psychotherapy provides a safe space to talk about your thoughts without the fear of judgment. Plus, a therapist can educate you about the negative consequences a poor body image can have on your physical and mental health, and help implement effective changes.
In conjunction with therapy, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be prescribed to help you cope with the anxiety that can accompany a poor body image. Your healthcare provider will help determine if this medication is appropriate for you.