As someone who wants to make their body more muscular, the idea of body acceptance, and having a positive body image can be confusing, and maybe even seem unattainable. In this article I’ll clarify exactly what a positive body image is, and why it’s not necessarily incompatible with bodybuilding goals.
“Body image is the perception that a person has of their physical self and the thoughts and feelings that result from that perception.”
(National Eating Disorders Collaboration)
Body image isn’t just one unidimensional construct. It’s made up of four aspects:
- Perceptual Body Image
- This is how you see your body, which is not always accurate to how you truly look.
- Affective Body Image
- The way you feel about your body in terms of satisfaction or dissatisfaction in regard to your shape, weight, and individual body parts.
- Cognitive Body Image
- Thoughts and beliefs you have about your body. For example, believing that you will feel better if you were leaner or more muscular.
- Behavioral Body Image
- The way you behave as a result of your perceptual, affective, and cognitive body image.
In other words, it’s your interpretation of the physical reality. Because body image is subject to distortions, it may or may not hold any relation to how you actually appear. Dissatisfaction over a slight or undetectable perceived “defect” in appearance that leads to an obsession is the severe form of poor body image, otherwise known as body dysmorphic disorder.
When we have a positive perception of body image, we are able to accept, respect, and appreciate our bodies. This does not mean that we necessarily avoid feeling any insecurities or think our body is perfect (without any flaws/undesired features). Rather, it is the ability to acknowledge any insecurities for what they are and hold the belief that our bodies are perfect as they are. In the context of bodybuilding, we want to “improve” our bodies for the sport without a sense of it being bad or being unsatisfied with it. This can be akin to other forms of body modification (tattoos, piercings, etc.). Further, you may want to build your physique through weight training towards a competitive ideal, but preferably not because of a negative body image or beliefs of unworthiness.
Improving your own body image can be challenging, although it can certainly be realized. Here are ways you can start moving towards a more positive body image:
What Are You Saying To Yourself?
Negative self-talk can cripple self-esteem and half the time you may not even be aware of this internal dialogue. Pay attention to how you negatively examine yourself in the mirror, evaluate yourself, and possibly magnify any perceived flaws. Most of us are not very conscious of the drill sergeant that rambles on and on in our heads. Its impact can be significant, whether we are aware of it or not. Further, the more critical and judgmental we are to ourselves, the more likely we are to be of others. To begin, bring your attention to what you tell yourself even in the most mundane tasks, like making yourself a cup of coffee or taking a walk.
Acknowledge, Then Ignore Negative Self-Talk
Both self-talk and dialogue with others are important for healthy body image. Pay attention to the conversations you have with friends, loved ones, even co-workers. Often, topics of food, diets, and weight creep into discussions only adding to body-conscious obsessions. You can transform your conversations by setting an intention to discuss the many interesting things about you and others that are not body focused!
If you become aware that you are engaging in negative self-talk, notice it, and shift your attention elsewhere. The awareness of harmful thought patterns allows space and empowerment to change those thoughts to better feeling, more realistic ones.
In addition to reframing negative thought patterns, daily affirmations are very helpful. If for years you have been telling yourself negative messages, these statements can be diffused with neutral and/or positive messages said every day, sometimes multiple times a day. For example, try stating an affirmation such as: “My self-worth is more than how lean I am”, or “I enjoy feeling strong in my body.” You can diffuse the focus even more by emphasizing positive qualities, skills, and talents.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T & Appreciation
Every day, all day, our bodies are working for us without much effort. Could you imagine how much energy and attention it would take if we had to consciously make sure we were breathing, digesting our food, or circulating blood throughout the body?! With a mindset of appreciation, you can refocus your self-talk towards the amazing things your body does for you. Your arms let you hold the people you love. Your legs take you on walks to beautiful places. Your hands help you express yourself. Try writing a letter of gratitude for the ways your body has lovingly served you throughout your life.
Set Goals Focused on Well-being
For most people, diets are not an effective or healthy means long-term of weight control (Kärkkäinen et al., 2018). We are familiar with the physiological toll that extreme or prolonged dieting can cause, but many take a considerable toll on emotional well-being as well. It is typical for mainstream diets to encourage extreme calorie restriction or complete elimination of entire food groups/ingredients. The mere thought of omitting your favorite food, meaning you can NEVER eat it again, typically increases the craving for it. When cravings increase, so do behavioral impulses. Then not only will you be more likely to eat the prohibited food, but perhaps even consume a lot of it (Polivy & Herman, 1985). Because of the common diet restriction-binge cycle, the crash diet is often followed by crashing feelings of shame and failure.
What can be more helpful is setting goals focused on well-being, such as, setting performance (not body composition) goals, spending time outdoors, media breaks, or some form of meditation. When it comes to nutrition, learning to recognize hunger and satiety cues, rather than strictly following set daily macro goals. Additionally, learning the difference between emotional hunger (eating out of boredom) and true physical hunger can allow for a more balanced/secure attachment to food.
Reduce Comparing Yourself To Others
One of the most influential ways to feel better about your body is to consciously stop the process of social comparison in its tracks. It is incredibly easy to compare ourselves to all of the bodies we see every day, in person, in Zoom meetings, on television, and of course, on social media. There is a fine line between looking at and admiring images of “ideal” bodies in comparison to thinking, “Why don’t I look like that?” Avoiding these social comparisons may be the best way to boost your own body satisfaction (Posavac, Posavac, & Weigel, 2001).
Published research confirms that having a positive body image can help overall well-being; a long-term study found that on average those with the lowest body satisfaction increased their Body Mass Index the most compared to the girls with the highest body satisfaction (Loth, Watts, van den Berg, & Neumark-Sztainer, 2015).
In sum, when we have a negative body image and say we gain weight, we might think, “I’m so fat. I’m lazy and useless and I don’t deserve attention and happiness.” Contrastingly, when we have a positive body image and we gain weight, we are more likely to think something like, “Oops! I’ve gained some weight. I can focus on making healthier meals and getting out more.”
I hope this reminded you that you can accept and even love yourself exactly as you are. Regardless of whether or not you want to change your body, you can always start from a place of self-love and compassion. It may seem more difficult to cultivate self-love and acceptance after a long pattern/momentum of negativity, nevertheless you can do it if you put your mind and body to it!
- Loth, K. A., Watts, A. W., van den Berg, P., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2015). Does body satisfaction help or harm overweight teens? A 10-year longitudinal study of the relationship between body satisfaction and body mass index. The Journal of adolescent health: official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 57(5), 559-561.
- National Eating Disorders Collaboration. 2017.
- Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (1985). Dieting and binging. A causal analysis. The American psychologist, 40(2), 193–201.
- Posavac, H. & Posavac, S. & Weigel, R. (2001). Reducing the impact of media images on women at risk for body image disturbance: Three targeted interventions. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 20, 324-340.
- Kärkkäinen, U., Mustelin, L., Raevuori, A., Kaprio, J., & Keski-Rahkonen, A. (2018). Successful weight maintainers among young adults—A ten-year prospective population study. Eating Behaviors, 29: 91-98.