The images we’re surrounded by as women play a huge role in our body image.

We live in a world that is more driven by images that force narrow standards of beauty than ever before. Instagram has become a body-image battleground and the “selfie” has become the ubiquitous lens through which we judge our bodies and the bodies of everyone else. Too fat. Too tall. Too skinny. Too short. We are bombarded by too-this and not enough-that with every scroll of our thumbs on our cell phones.

All the body shaming has been a contributing factor of body dissatisfaction, and for some, eating disorders. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, more than thirty million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S.

But body image issues don’t just affect those with eating disorders—they are prevalent in virtually all of us, just to varying degrees.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, PBS, and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 80 percent of women say images of women in the media make them feel insecure. Ninety percent of 15- to 17-year-old girls want to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance; 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat; 58 percent of college-age girls feel pressured to be a certain weight.

These statistics are striking. They tell us that negative body image is a real problem. Dr. Carolyn Ross, an internationally known physician and author, stresses that “the more an individual is exposed to the media, the more he or she believes it is reflective of the real world.” 

And sometimes that reality disconnect can take a very serious turn for the worse. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a “body-image disorder characterized by persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one's appearance.” People with BDD can’t control their bodily obsessions which oftentimes lead to “severe emotional distress and interfere with their daily functioning.” Behaviors associated with BDD include severe comparison, surgery seeking, excessive grooming, exercising and camouflaging. People with BDD commonly also suffer from anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or social anxiety disorder, as well as depression.

In a 2011 segment from Good Morning America, Dr. Katherine Phillips of Rhode Island Hospital calls BDD a ‘secret’ disorder. “People with body dysmorphic disorder are worried people are going to think they’re vain,” Phillips says. “But BDD is not vanity.” Phillips instead believes that BDD is a real problem for so many Americans and that a severe enough case of it can paralyze a person from living their life, out of fear of not looking good enough.

While BDD and a host of other anxiety disorders are a diagnosed problem for millions of Americans, many more are suffering from body image insecurities. Battling negative body image isn’t easy, but licensed professional counselor Julia Hogan discusses how women best remedy these problems: “One thing that can be helpful is focusing on what your body can do and appreciating it for that. For example, focus on how strong your body is and the amazing things you can do with it (running a marathon, giving birth, etc.).” Positive body image starts with being realistic and meeting yourself where your body is at. Whether its abandoning the idea that you can get your pre-baby body back or adopting the attitude that a strong body is a beautiful body, you have the capacity to focus on just how lucky you are to have your body in the first place.

Hogan also suggests intentionally focusing on what you like about your body. “Stand in front of the mirror and, instead of criticizing your body (like that scene from Mean Girls), acknowledge what you like about your body.” You can always find at least something you appreciate about your body—whether you have amazing arms, great eyes, or a fantastic smile. “Try to do this daily to counterbalance the negative messages you receive from the media.”

We can choose to defy media’s standards of how a body should or shouldn’t be. Let’s turn our online communities into reserves that help us lead healthy, envy-free lifestyles. Because the first step into transforming our body-shaming culture to one that is body-sustaining is changing the way we use and view the media ourselves.

Photo Credit: Julie Cate