The Problem with Body Image is the Concept of 'Body Image'

The language of ‘body image’ is common in our culture of attention to appearance, and lately, conversation about body image seems to everywhere. Body image is a factor commonly related to mental health for young people, and is similarly a concern for many people as they age and come to terms with their changing bodies.

When you think about it, it’s pretty strange that we give so much attention to the image of our bodies. An image of something is a reference to its external, observable physical form. So when used alongside ‘body’, our body image relates to the way we objectify our own bodies, as if taking a view from the ‘outside-in’.

Many people I see in therapy are at war with this externalised image they have of their own bodies, endlessly analysing and criticising their bodies according to some comparison with a cultural ideal or an unrealistic expectation they have of themselves.

The term ‘body image’ is thought to have first been used by psychoanalyst Paul Schilder in his 1935 book ‘The Image and Appearance of the Human Body’. Schilder described body image as “the picture of our body which we form in our mind”. It’s a concept which caught on and has become a variable of self-assessment which many people use to measure their self-worth. Strange isn’t it that we should go through life concerned about the picture we have in our mind of something, as opposed to our subjective experience of that very same thing.

A powerful alternative to our focus on body image is that of our own embodiment. Embodiment is a term which refers to the subjective experience of living inside our bodies, an experience of our bodies from the ‘inside-out’.

People often ask me how I use Yoga in therapy with people recovering from an eating disorder. I use yogic strategies in therapy to help people improve their relationship with their bodies, that is to focus on healthy embodiment. Yoga can assist people to experience their bodies with mindfulness and self-compassion, as a lived experience of being in this moment, rather than taking a stance of objectification, dissatisfaction and judgement of ourselves.

Yoga can assist in the development of healthy embodiment in a number of ways, including:

  • changing the relationship we have with our bodies
  • offering practical strategies we can use to inhabit our bodies differently
  • developing a way of listening to our bodies rather than fighting against them
  • an understanding of the integrative relationship between our minds and our bodies, ie. can I befriend my body so that my mind and body can take care of each other?

So, the next time you find yourself in conflict about your body image, turn your attention inward – focus on function rather than form, wellbeing rather than weight, embodiment rather than body image. And be especially careful not to tie your perception of your worth or value as a person to your appearance.

Our bodies and our minds are in it together for as long as we continue to take breath. Life will be much more peaceful if they can get along.