Dieting does not improve body image: 3 steps to feel better in your body
Poor body image is, for many people, the motivator to start a diet.
When we blame our body image issues on our weight or appearance, naturally the solution seems to come from "fixing" our body. If you relate to this you may have noticed dieting or weight loss attempts don’t improve body image long term. In fact dieting can do the opposite, creating a frustrating relationship with your body. So if you are serious about feeling more confident in your body, these 3 steps will bring you a happier relationship with your body.
What influences body image
Body image is the way you feel about your body or how you believe other people perceive your body. We’re often under the impression that to improve body image, we need to change our bodies. And it makes sense. The appearance of your body is what you feel poorly about. Yet body image actually has very little to do with your body itself. In fact an increased focus on the body creates a worsened body image, not better.
Your body image comes from your mind.
It is your thoughts that create your perception of your body and therefore the only thing that can improve your body image is in your mind.
Let’s take a step back. Why do we develop a poor relationship with our bodies to start with? Think about the way bodies are portrayed in your environment. How are thinner bodies portrayed? And how are larger bodies portrayed? Our culture connects being thin with increased value, worth, motivation and likeability, so it is no wonder our body image can often be wrapped up in weight loss.
Messages about which bodies are “good” and which are “less worthy” have become so normalised we often don’t even notice them but we do absorb them. Our culture is so focused on an idealised beauty and those who have body types or features closer to this invented ideal receive higher societal value and less pressure to change simply because of their appearance.
Why dieting does not improve body image
It seems logical that if you lose weight, you will be perceived better in a society that values thinness and your body image will improve. Here’s the problem with trying to improve body image by controlling or changing your body such as through dieting, food rules or calorie counting:
- You become more wrapped up in the appearance or size of your body and enter into a controlling relationship rather than one of self care. This hyper-focus on your body means more scrutinising of your features, more comparison to others and less headspace for what makes you feel good. An increased focus on your body's appearance is no friend to your body image.
- You tie body image to a size. If you don’t lose the weight you want, you may find increasingly self-critical thoughts. And, if weight loss happens, eventual weight regain is the norm, not the exception so any improved body image is likely to be temporary.
- It can really mess with your gastrointestinal system. In fact, dieting is a common cause of bloating, distention, abdominal pain and excess wind. This creates an increased awareness of discomfort in the body with feelings of frustration and stress likely to result in worsened body image.
What are body image thoughts
To really put the following steps into action, it is helpful (and fascinating) to learn what thoughts are and how body thoughts develop into either positive or negative body image.
Your thoughts are neural connections between cells in your brain. When you hear information, it creates neural connections which form into neural pathways. At this stage, the neural pathways can pretty easily be shifted to form a different neural pathway and create different thoughts. But, when you repeatedly hear the same information, it strengthens the existing neural pathway. When this pathway in your brain becomes really strong, it is difficult to change the pathway of these neural connections. This is what we call beliefs.
Thinking about how often we are bombarded with information about bodies and thinness in our culture, it’s fair to say we have some strong beliefs around what we want our body to look like. And with our culture’s unrealistic body ideals, for most of us, it is not possible to morph our bodies into this ideal. To feel better about your body, you need to change the beliefs you have about what your body should like from this biological level - the neural connections.
And, just like we can shift the weaker neural connections, we too can shift the beliefs we hold - it just takes a bit more perseverance.
How to feel better in your body
To feel better in your body you need to move away from attempting to change your appearance to instead changing the thoughts and beliefs you have about your body.
These 3 steps will help you shift the unhelpful neural pathways in your brain and create new, more helpful neural messages for a happier relationship with your body:
1. Notice your thoughts
When you have a thought about your body, consciously notice it, take a pause and get curious. Why are you having this thought? Where did it come from? And does it feel supportive or unsupportive for you?
2. Label your thoughts
When body thoughts arise that feel unsupportive (for example, it makes you feel shame), place a label on that thought to separate it from yourself. It may be simply “unsupportive thought” or perhaps “diet culture”.
3. Reframe your unsupportive thoughts
For unsupportive body thoughts, is there another positive or neutral way to think about your body or body part? Counter the unsupportive thoughts with new ones. Even if you don’t believe the new thought, you are actively starting to weaken the old neural messages and create new ones.
Remember, thoughts are not truth, if a thought is not helpful, you don’t have to act on it. In fact, the more you notice, label and reframe your thoughts, the weaker and less overwhelming the thought will become.
Written by Emma Townsin, Registered Dietitian, Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor
My passion is supporting women, just like you, who are tired of stressing over food, to find their food and life freedom.
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