Body-image issues have become increasingly prevalent in our image and diet-obsessed culture. As clinicians, it can be difficult to know how to help patients who are struggling with body-shame and poor self-image.
Body-image issues are complex and often have developed over a long period of time; therefore it makes sense that the transition to body-neutrality (or for some body-love) can take time.
The following are three simple strategies for starting to help patients who are struggling with their body image.
1. Help them to become aware of their negative body-thoughts and shift focus to more neutral or positive thoughts.
Help your patient to start to pay attention to the unhelpful thoughts that they are having about their body and the subsequent feelings that emerge. For instance, you could have patients visualize themselves in front of a mirror and share what thoughts typically come up for them. Explain to them that just because you have a thought, does not mean that it is true. Even if they believe that a thought is true, you can explore with them whether it is helpful or unhelpful.
After your patient has spent some time simply noticing his/her negative body-image thoughts, you can work with him or her to shift focus onto more helpful thoughts. For example, if your client says that she often has the thought, “My legs are so huge and disgusting,” you could encourage her to use a more neutral statement such as, “My legs help me to get places that I want to go.”
2. Ask them what they feel that having “an ideal body,” would bring them.
People do not want to have a “thin body,” on a dessert island. Rather, people often idealize “thinness or leanness,” because of what they believe it will bring them. For instance, diet-culture teaches us that thinness will bring “happiness, self-worth, love.” However, the reality is that people of all shapes and sizes find joy, self-confidence and love, everyday.
While, weight-discrimination and fat-phobia is a real issue, we are unable to control our external circumstances by attempting to control our weight.
Typically, the reason behind the pursuit of a certain body type is subconscious. Therefore, it can be helpful to explore with patients what they think having “an ideal body,” would bring them. For instance, do they believe that it would help them to find love or feel happier? Then, you can assist them in exploring how they can begin to pursue that desire, in the body that they have now.
3. When they are having a “bad body image day,” explore what else might be bothering them.
Often it is easier for clients to focus on what they dislike about their bodies, then the real issues that their body-hatred may be masking. For instance, it may feel more comfortable for a client to talk about hating her stomach, then to think about how a recent breakup left her feeling unworthy and depressed. When a client is struggling with a “bad body image day,” explore with her other things in her life that are causing stress and anxiety.
Then, you can help clients to actually address the issues that are projecting onto their bodies. It’s also important to acknowledge that it is normal to experience “bad body image days.” When patients falls into a spiral of negative-body thoughts, it can be helpful for them to view this spiral as an important signal that something else in their lives is bothering them and may need to be addressed.
Reflect on Your Own Views
Lastly, as a clinician, it is critical that you are aware of your own views towards your body, as well as any biases that you may have on the basis of an individual’s weight. We live in a society that is steeped with fat-phobia and weight-bias; therefore it is critical that you do your own work regarding any internalized weight-bias that you may have.
If you are struggling with internalized fat-phobia, it might be helpful to seek out further support in this area. I would also recommend checking out the books “Health at Every Size” and “Body Respect” by Dr. Linda Bacon.
It is critical that you address any issues that you may have surrounding your own body, as we cannot take clients further than we ourselves have gone. Together, we can spread the message that there is hope and healing for those who are struggling with body image issues.
Our patients can let go of their struggle with body image and get their lives back. They deserve to live a full life, one that is free from body-obsession and hatred.