Let’s face it, it’s hard to find a woman in this culture who feels comfortable in her own skin. We’re bombarded with so many images of thinness and perfection that women, regardless of their weight, are often unhappy with their bodies. They stand in front of their mirrors, pinching and judging, and they feel shamed. They feel fat. Their legs are too big, their breasts too small, their stomachs too round. They dislike the bodies they live in, and as a result, end up disliking the person who lives there. That doesn’t mean that body image can’t be improved, though, particularly after people become aware of how poorly they treat their bodies, and why.
What your body really needs
Most psychologists who treat body image say that the first step is recognizing the problem, and acknowledging that it comes from a society that places ridiculous demands on women to fit an impossible mold of beauty. The next step is trying to give your body more genuine care. “If you treat your body with more respect, you will like it better,” says psychologist Judith Rodin, the author of Body Traps, a book that examines the role of women’s physical appearance and their psychological health. “What your body really needs is moderate exercise, healthy foods, sensual pleasures, and relaxation. Give it those, and it will respond by treating you better.”
Given how much some women hate their bodies that can be difficult to do. But psychologists who treat body image problems say it’s possible to at least make some improvement in the relationship between a woman and her body. A workshop given by psychologist Marcia Hutchinson on transforming body image, which I attended in a rural conference center in New Hampshire, suggests how this change can begin.
One of the first women I met in the group, sitting in a circle on the floor, was Elizabeth Beale.* I was surprised that a woman who looked like her was at the workshop: If you saw her walking down the street, you wouldn’t think she had reason to hate her body. The 47-year-old librarian, who is 5 foot 6 and 145 pounds, looks healthy and fit for her age. But that’s not how she sees herself, she says. She is so ashamed of the size of her hips and thighs that she wears loose, dark clothes, avoids mirrors, and tries never to draw attention to herself. “I don’t want to wear anything that says, “‘Hey, look at me.’ I’m just hiding.”
Hutchinson, a graceful fat woman who sits cross-legged in the circle like a Buddha, asks the ten women in the room to lie on the floor for an exercise. So many of us, she says, have a mental picture of ourselves — our body image — that doesn’t fit our actual size. She tells us to close our eyes, stretch our arms in front of us, and place our hands as far apart as we think our hips are wide. I peek: Beale, for one, looks as if she’s trying to encircle a redwood tree. “No one in this room thinks she can get through a doorway,” says Hutchinson.
We’re not so unusual. Most women can’t accurately guess how wide they are. It’s well known that women with anorexia can look at their gaunt reflections in the mirror and point out huge pads of fat. But a few years ago, psychologists who looked at how such women distort their size and compared them with normal women got a surprise: The normal women also viewed themselves as much larger than they really were. More than half of all American women, it turns out, overestimate the size of their bodies. The majority of women who stand in front of their full-length mirrors asking, “Who’s the fattest of them all?” get a stern reply: “You are.”
And it isn’t that women are generally bad at judging size. When psychologists at St. George’s Hospital Medical School in London asked 50 normal-sized women to estimate the width of a box, the women were dead on target. But when asked to estimate their body widths, they exaggerated the sizes of their waists by about 25 percent and their hips by 16 percent. More than half the women criticized their hips as the part of their bodies they hated most; the only ones who were content with their size were those who were ten pounds underweight.
Being thin doesn’t always guarantee satisfaction, though. Nor does being fat always result in a poor self-image. As with compulsive eating, it isn’t the size of a person that matters so much as the weight of her discontent. One thing that contributes to the difference among women in the amount of uneasiness they feel about their bodies, several studies show, is how much their parents and friends emphasized their appearance as a child.
Static from the past
Chubby, awkward kids who are teased about their bodies are apt to grow up with poor body images, as are pretty girls whose sense of self-worth is strongly tied to their looks. Whenever body shape is given undue importance, positively or negatively, it becomes a focus for future problems. Elizabeth Beale, for instance, says she was self-conscious about her size from the time she was five, when her parents first put her on a diet and discouraged her from wearing clothes they said made her look plump. She remembers refusing to color in the brides in her coloring books, thinking she was too fat and ugly ever to marry. Yet today, when she looks back at photos of herself, she’s surprised. “There were times when I wasn’t overweight at all,” she says. “But that’s how I always felt.”
She wasn’t much different from most girls who grew up in a culture where it was hard to fit the image of the coloring-book brides, hard not to color outside the lines. The ideal body today is, after all, several sizes smaller than what nature intended for most women. “We live in a culture where it’s normal for women to feel we should be thinner, prettier, firmer, and younger,” says Hutchinson. “So it’s normal for us to have body-image problems.”
Men, too, are sometimes troubled by body flaws — particularly, studies show, a balding pate. But women tend to judge their bodies more harshly. If you’ve ever changed your outfit six times before going out, relentlessly shopped for clothes that never seem right at home, or obsessively checked out your rear view in the mirror, you know how body-image concerns can infiltrate daily life.
When it comes to body size, even in this fat-obsessed culture, women view themselves much more harshly than others view them. “Women aren’t scrutinized nearly as much as they think they are,” say April Fallon, a psychologist at the Medical College of Pennsylvania. When she asked nearly 291 men and women to rate sketches of a range of women’s body types, the women predicted men would prefer much thinner bodies than the ones the men actually picked as their favorites. “If a woman is 20 pounds over the ideal, that doesn’t actually have a big impact on people’s interest level,” says Fallon. More likely, she says, a poor body image gives a person an air of resignation and unhappiness. “That,” says Fallon, “is something people notice.”
Of course, some women have complicated reasons for hanging on to a poor body image, says psychologist Marcia Hutchinson, author of Transforming Body Image. Some people make their bodies the central “problem” in their lives because it allows them to have the fantasy that if their bodies were different, everything else in their lives would be different, too. If they had a perfect body, they’d have a man, a good-paying job, and sky-high self-esteem, too. A bad body image shields them from failure, and in many cases, keeps them from success. It keeps them from confronting whatever fears of power, intimacy, rejection, sexuality, or success are between them and their fantasy.
Transforming the way you feel about your body
Women whose body images are so poor they’re reluctant to go out, meet people, or find a job may be suffering from what psychologists call body dysmorphic disorder and could benefit from therapy. But for less severe cases, there are a few techniques that body image experts practice that they say can be helpful to start working on a positive relationship with your body.
In her workshop, and in her book, Hutchinson discusses visualization exercises for improving how people see themselves. In one of her exercises, she recommends recalling the times parents, lovers, or friends attached names to your body — such as “Fat Face” and “Baby Whale” — and feeling the weight of those labels. Then imagine stripping off the labels, one by one. “You have to peel away the obstacles to seeing your body as an acceptable, comfortable home,” she says.
Movement, along with all the other ways it makes you feel good, can also do wonders for body image. Hutchinson also uses a technique called the Feldenkrais Method, a series of gentle floor exercises intended to increase a person’s awareness of how her body parts move and are connected. Almost any kind of movement will help. When psychologist Rita Freedman, author of Bodylove, surveyed 200 women, 87 percent of them said exercise had improved the way they felt about their bodies. For women who were not athletic as children, exercise often prompts an epiphany: They realize for the first time that their bodies are valuable not only for the way they look but also for what they can do. Freedman suggests forms of exercise, such as dance, yoga, and walking, that are relaxing and directed toward making you feel better about your body at its present size.
Freedman also suggests that people accentuate what they like about themselves. Even the toughest self-critics generally take pride in their eyes, hair, hands, or some other body part, she says. She tells clients to use a mirror constructively to zero in on the parts they like, rather than the parts they hate, and encourages them not to be afraid to play up the parts they like about themselves. Freedman also suggests that her clients pamper themselves, learning to enjoy their bodies by indulging in small, sensual pleasures such as soaking in a scented bath, slathering on lotion, getting a massage, or wearing silk. Buying clothes that really fit and are flattering — and giving away ones that are too small — can make people feel better about their bodies, too.
Freedman says that transforming the way you feel about your body, like changing your eating or exercising habits, is a slow process. But like those, once started, it is a series of small, positive changes.
After the workshop, Elizabeth Beale still feels fat, but even a few weeks later, she noticed a difference. She got up the nerve to wear a hand-painted silk scarf — a real attention-grabber — and relished the compliments. She’s learning to catch herself before she starts criticizing her body flaws. And she’s taken up figure skating.
“I’ve just stopped thinking so much about my body,” she says. “It gives me time for more important things in my life.”
* This name has been changed.