Positive Body Image Isn't Enough

Three ways we can move beyond appearance to help girls build healthy embodiment.

Posted Sep 11, 2019

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Body image as a construct focuses on our relationship with what our bodies look like. Most research in the field that's been conducted with adolescent girls has focused on negative body image and its association with things like body dissatisfaction, body surveillance, and eating disorders.

The results from this body of work are harrowing. For example, the 2017 Dove Global Girls Beauty and Confidence Report, which included more than 5,000 girls from across 14 countries, found that more than half of participants did not have good body esteem.  

In recent years, there has been a movement toward focusing on positive body image in research and interventions with young women. The Dove Self-Esteem Project is a leader in this evolution. Its website states that "our mission is to ensure that the next generation grows up enjoying a positive relationship with the way they look—helping young people raise their self-esteem and realize their full potential." This is a valuable and meaningful pursuit.

However, as an adjunct to this goal, we need to find ways to promote positive embodiment—that is, healthy ways of subjectively experiencing one's body in the world that go above and beyond the way we look to the outside world. 

In her large research program with girls and women, Niva Piran and her colleagues (see Piran, 2016) developed the "Experience of Embodiment" construct, which takes into account a wide range of ways that people can live in their bodies. Importantly, these researchers stressed that positive and negative embodiment are not limited to one's appearance.

Although body image plays a role in having positive embodiment, the two don't always go hand-in-hand. Indeed, a young woman could have positive body image, because she meets a certain thin ideal, but at the same time experience disrupted embodiment because she does not live comfortably in her body (e.g., she restricts her diet and goes hungry, is not in tune with her emotions, or does not attend to her physical needs). 

So, what does all this mean for therapists and parents wanting to promote positive embodiment in their young female clients and children? For starters, I think it encourages us to expand our focus from simply promoting positive body image to fostering positive embodiment more broadly. 

Here are three ways to do so:

1. Promote mindful self-care. In today's "selfie" culture, where it seems like everything is about appearance, how do we help teens focus on the subjective, lived-in experiences in their bodies? One way is to promote mindful self-care—defined by Cook-Cottone (2015) as behaviors that cultivate an active appreciation for, and engagement with, the body. So, things that promote mind-body connection, like mindfulness, self-compassion, self-soothing, spirituality, art, and the physical care of the body. In promoting these activities, we can encourage teens to focus on how they feel from within when engaged in these pursuits—rather than what they looked like while doing them. 

2. Focus on body functionality. Girls learn from a very young age that their bodies are valued for what they look like. Thus, it's important to promote body functionality, which encompasses "everything the body is capable of doing—rather than how it looks" (Alleva, Veldhuis, & Martijn, 2016, p. 10). For example, focusing on how strong a girl's legs are and how they help her run and play soccer, rather than how "cute" she looks in her uniform. 

3. Look at the social context. Positive embodiment (and, conversely, negative embodiment) doesn't develop in a bubble. Teens are barraged by body-related messages and pressures from all directions, including peers, social media, and parents. As such, we can model ways of engaging in activities that promote positive embodiment and encourage girls to surround themselves with peers who do the same (e.g., things like sports, yoga, and healthy, mindful eating). And we can challenge society as a whole to promote places and spaces where girls can develop positive embodiment in a holistic, well-rounded way. 

References

Piran, N. (2016). Embodied possibilities and disruptions: The emergence of the Experience of Embodiment construct from qualitative studies with girls and women. Body Image, 18, 43-60. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1740144515301352

Piran, N., & Teall, T. (2012). The developmental theory of embodiment. In G. McVey, H. B. Ferguson, M. Levine, & N. Piran (Eds.), Improving the prevention of eating disorders: Collaborative research, advocacy, and policy change (pp. 169-198). Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfred Laurier Press. 

Cook-Cottone, C. (2015). Incorporating positive body image into the treatment of eating disorders: A model for attunement and mindful self-care. Body Image, 14, 158-167. Retrieved from: https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S1740144515000285?token=D07F322B568958D9BDFC65563ADB3812E1420E25329DF013457D0158F41387D62D6588F57487EA16B12ADA1C276C0A45 

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