Every day, we’re surrounded by messages about our bodies.
Eat this. Use this product. Lose weight. Gain muscle. Work out more. Wear this.
All of those messages can start to mess with our body image—how we see and feel about our own bodies, according to psychotherapist Sarah Frantz, LMSW.
“This is a problem that has been around for a long time,” Frantz said. “But with the increase in social media and technology, we have access to more information than we have ever had before. It’s everywhere now.”
The result? A growing number of children, teens and adults who are uncomfortable with their body image.
For some, that can lead to disorders.
One of these, body dysmorphia, is a mental health condition that causes people to obsess about perceived imperfections in their bodies, Frantz said.
It can lead to an excessive preoccupation with self-perceived flaws that others don’t notice. It can trigger repetitive behaviors, such as checking yourself over and over again in the mirror.
In some cases, people with body dysmorphia may seek constant reassurance from others, or they may avoid social situations altogether. They might also feel the need to exercise excessively.
This can become a serious problem when it crosses a line and interferes with daily life—be it work, school or relationships.
“It can be hard for people to recognize where that line is and when it’s more of a problem,” Frantz said. “There are a lot of ways our culture teaches us about what’s healthy and what’s unhealthy. That makes it tricky for people to recognize what’s normal and what’s not.”
Body dysmorphia can even lead to eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, she said.
This is when someone takes extreme measures—restricting caloric intake or binging and purging, for instance—to change perceived flaws in the body.
But not everyone with body dysmorphia has an eating disorder, Frantz said.
She offered some tips to guard against an unhealthy body image.
Focus on positive motivation
You might look at yourself in the mirror and not like what you see. Or you might see a photo of yourself and use that as motivation to lose weight.
“I have concerns about using a negative perception of yourself for being a motivation,” she said.
Instead, she said, focus on positive motivators like, “How do I want to feel?”
“Focusing on how we want to feel is more motivating than saying, ‘I look ugly,’ or, ‘I’m fat and that’s why I need to change,’” she said. “That inner dialogue and how we feel about ourselves is a factor in how healthy we are overall.”
Think instead about all the wonderful things our body does for us, she said.
“It can be really simple things—all the ways our body keeps us going, rather than all the perceived flaws that we have decided are bad,” Frantz said.
Value qualities beyond appearance
“I encourage people to find ways to recognize their worth and value beyond their physical appearance and even beyond their health status,” Frantz said. “What else makes you a wonderful human being?”
That can be a journey for many people, so be patient.
“You’re going from hating yourself to loving yourself,” she said. “We’re not going to believe the other if we have thought the opposite for a while.”
When you interact with children, do the same.
“Focus on a child’s strengths outside of what they look like,” Frantz said.
That includes inner attributes like character, intellect and kindness.
And most of all, show them unconditional love, she said—“regardless of what they’re good at and what they can do and what they look like.”
Manage your media perception
You need to keep your relationship with all forms of media in check. This includes advertising, pop culture and social media.
Our culture is rife with images of beauty and strength, with an emphasis on physical appearance. It can be overwhelming.
Find ways to keep that in check, for yourself and for your children.
Before your kids ever become involved on social media, talk with them so they know how to filter all that information they’re exposed to, Frantz said.
Emphasize that there is no perfect body and that photos are often edited to make people look stronger or thinner.
“Create an avenue for communication, allowing them to ask questions and share what their experience is like,” Frantz said.
No matter your situation, professionals are there to help. If you find yourself struggling with body image or personal perceptions, it’s wise to seek help.
“At any point, it’s OK to ask for help,” Frantz said.