Navigating the Intersection of Body Image and Mental Health
On episode 3 of SohoMD’s “Beyond the Therapy Session” podcast, George and Robin chatted with Kelly Porter on the intersections of body image and mental health. Kelly has a history of working in residential mental health, health programming, and youth development. She currently works as a Behavioral Health Technician and Education Liaison at an eating disorder clinic in Phoenix, Arizona.
Together they chatted across the board about what negative and positive body image can do to mental health, how this may surface in behaviors, and some ways to help improve body image.
Here are some awesome things we heard from them during the podcast:
“Body image can be defined as the picture or the mental image a person has of their own body, it’s more complex than what we see in the mirror.” - Kelly
Kelly then goes on to explain that “it encompasses how someone perceives their body, how they think and feel about their body and behaviors they might engage in as a result of their thoughts and feelings about their body”. These thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are unique to each individual across time and perception, she notes.
Someone may be experiencing both positive and negative thoughts about their body while also maintaining a healthy overall body image. The complexity of how we understand ourselves can be dependent on internal and external factors.
“The thing we do know in general, is that a positive body image is associated with healthier mental health. While the negative can be highlighted through instruments like social media” - Robin
Robin makes a great point here about the effects of body image dependent on your environment. Someone who is on social media apps may perceive themselves differently if they tend to create comparisons.
While those with a healthier mental health status could be less affected by these things. Such as “that’s okay I’ll go out and meet this group or be involved in this activity” rather than dwelling in the impossible standards created by social media. While the opposite could be associated with excessive exercise, intrusive thoughts, and even self-harm activities.
“Being on social media at a young age, while you’re still going through identity formation and being in a constant state of comparison, can result in obsessive thoughts of your body image, what you are eating, and how you look in relation to others” - Kelly
As a response to these thoughts, Kelly points out that people (especially chronically online kids) will then create behaviors to fit the idea of who they should be in their heads.
Essentially, “How can I become that person I see online?”
“One of the biggest things I see as a risk factor would be someone’s experience of gender and a family history of dieting, eating disorders or just general addiction or mental illness” - Kelly
Those who feel dysphoria or feel like they are not at home in their body have risk factors for eating disorders and negative body image. Causing what is considered compensatory behaviors, so the actions they use to compensate for what they don’t like about the way that they look.
Family history can include more direct or obvious causes such as eating disorders and general mental health issues. However, this could include families who diet often, encourage their children to exercise excessively, or have a certain way of talking about food and bodies.
“[Body image] is a spectrum. Someone can have at once both positive and negative feelings about your body” - Kelly
George kicked off this conversation with a great question: “Is there a spectrum of where someone can fall for body image?”
There is a line between dissatisfaction and disorders, when it becomes unhealthy are when the behaviors come into play. Excessive exercise, negative self-talk, and constant dieting can be actions that move someone to the farther side of the spectrum.
“For adults, typically if they have an eating disorder it’s formed in adolescence” - Kelly
Kelly also notes that this isn’t true for all cases. There can be triggering events or major changes in someone’s body such as pregnancy or rapid weight gain or loss that may cause someone to fall into a disordered state of eating.
However, in adolescence, you begin to understand how other people see you. So typically it is formed then, but even patients in their 50s or 60s can have intrusive thoughts about body image. At any age, you can experience a range of feelings about your body image.
Robin brings up menopause and the effects that that could have on older people.
“Most people with eating disorders have an experience of negative body image but not all people with negative body image will experience or develop an eating disorder” - Kelly
George spoke on this topic a little earlier in the podcast when he brought up the question about the spectrum. For every person who experiences negative body image, they will fall somewhere on that spectrum. It is the behaviors associated with someone’s thoughts and feelings about their body that will constitute an eating disorder, not the negative body image itself.
“There are so many healthy coping skills out there that can help us rewire our thoughts to improve body image. We talk about body neutrality and catching yourself in the act when you are using negative self-talk about your body”
When we speak about our bodies in a neutral way we are removing the need for something to be “good” or “bad”.
Reminding yourself of what your body does for you in a neutral sense. Such as;
- “My legs help me move from this place to this place”
- “My arms help me to hug people”
- “My ears help me hear music”
Starting with the neutrality and gratitude model is a great starting place.
“We can all be negatively impacted by too much scrolling. Do a social media audit” - Robin
Robin’s experience as a therapist helps frame this conversation into the positive ways people can assess their actions to build a healthier body image. Kelly and her talk about the need to do a social media audit and find where you may be experiencing “dread scrolling” or other negative habits.
“Stop going comparison shopping”, Robin adds.
If you or someone you know needs support or resource options the National Eating Disorder Association has a helpline. Call or text 1-800-931-2237 or for immediate help you get text NEDA to 741-741.