The term body image gets thrown around a lot in ED circles, but what exactly does it mean, and how does the brain process it?
We understand that, as humans, we are born with an innate body model (more specifically, a body schema) that gives us the ability to separate our own embodied existence from the outside world. But the self that you know yourself to be is not just about you as an individual; it’s also about where you are in relation to things, people, and objects in your environment. Moment to moment, your brain is tracking all of this subconsciously.
A more complex body representation builds on this schematic representation as you gain more life experience. More life experience means more awareness, more pattern recognition, more comparison. Why are we prone to comparison? Because it’s how we orient ourselves in society, with self-worth contingent on meeting body shape ideals.
Think about the ways in which your body has become an expression of institutional norms and values, like blindly following the latest diet touted in Shape magazine or the booty builder workout promoted by your favorite Instagram model (who, more often than not, has reconstructed her own body to also fit social expectations).
We are conditioned to habitually monitor our body’s outward appearance, the consequences of which know no bounds: Body shame (and dissatisfaction), social anxiety, disconnection from internal bodily states (like not being to identify when hungry/full), etc.
The more we surveil, the more attention is drawn to the parts of our bodies we dislike most. But that’s not all; it draws attention to previously-stored body image stimuli in the brain, biasing incoming perceptual data. Ever diet hardcore and still feel “fat”? That’s your brain’s inability to hit “refresh” on its browser, so to speak, and update a real-time experience of your body.
What if we focused on non-observable body attributes, like “What am I capable of?” or “How do I feel?” as opposed to observable body attributes like, “How do I look?”
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