Body Image & the Brain
By: Abby Emmert & Gabby Morreale
Ladies, let’s talk! As the weather gets warmer and clothes get tighter, body image issues often kick into overdrive. It’s ok, you are NOT alone! We’ve been there, so we get it!! Body image is defined by how we see our bodies based on four factors. These factors are perceptual, affective, cognitive, and behavioral. Perception is how we see ourselves, affective is the way we feel about the way we look, cognitive is the thoughts and beliefs we have about our bodies, and behavioral is what we do in relation to how we look and the other three factors. We know this is a lot to take in, but more simply said... body image may seem like it’s all about our bodies, but it’s actually more about our brain than our body! Oftentimes it's not really about our body at all!! So let's geek out for a minute and talk about the brain.
There is a part of our brain called the reticular activating system. This part filters out unnecessary information so that our brain can focus on topics that we find most pressing! Another explanation of how this part of the brain works is that it connects the unconscious information in our brains with the conscious. It can make connections between what you are currently thinking with things that you don't even realize are in your consciousness! It’s truly amazing how our brains work.
This part of the brain comes into the picture with what we call the Red Car Phenomenon. This phenomenon plays out like this:
Imagine that you are taking a trip to the car dealership to get a new, red sports car. You haven't seen any red cars on the road, so you feel like you're going to feel unique with this one and only car. As you are driving off the lot with your new car, you start noticing how many red cars you are passing. It suddenly seems like the number of red cars on the road instantly multiplied since you got to the car dealership. How is that possible?
Well it's not, truthfully. It's actually not that the number of cars on the road has changed, but that your focus changed so drastically that now they are all you see.
We compare this thinking to what happens with our body image and eating disorders. If you are someone who has struggled with restriction and trying to make your body smaller, bodies that look like the one you are trying to achieve are probably the only bodies you see. This would be the percentual part of our body image! This also means you aren’t going to be seeing how many bodies do in fact look just like yours, which may result in negative self talk and shame, or the affective and cognitive factors to body image!
To clarify this, think of this example. When you go to the beach, you will probably look around and see bodies that look smaller, more toned than yours. This might make you feel as though your thoughts about not belonging in the body that you have are accurate. Is it true though that at the beach there are only small bodies? NO. It may just be that because you have been so focused on achieving that smaller body, it is the only body type that you notice when looking at others. You don’t notice how many bodies look just like yours!
The point of this example and phenomenon is to say that it is not that bodies like yours don't exist and are not accepted. It may be that you just haven’t noticed them yet. :) One of the hardest parts of recovery is accepting that the body you are meant to be in, the body that you have tried to change, is actually acceptable just as it is. Once we work through some of the negative self-talk and work to accept that bodies other than the only ones you have seen as acceptable are in fact just as worthy, we can change the behaviors and thoughts you have about yours! Those behavioral changes will include actively looking for bodies that are different from yours to see how many there are :) We guarantee if you open your eyes to a broader range of bodies, you will see ones just like yours and understand that they are just as beautiful and acceptable.