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improving body image

written by Judy Lightstone © 1999

"If we place pornography and the tyranny of slenderness alongside one another we have the two most significant obsessions of our culture, and both of them focused upon a woman's body." - Kim Chernin

Body image involves our perception, imagination, emotions, and physical sensations of and about our bodies. It s not static- but ever changing; sensitive to changes in mood, environment, and physical experience. It is not based on fact. It is psychological in nature, and much more influenced by self-esteem than by actual physical attractiveness as judged by others. It is not inborn, but learned. This learning occurs in the family and among peers, but these only reinforce what is learned and expected culturally.

In this culture, we women are starving ourselves, starving our children and loved ones, gorging ourselves, gorging our children and loved ones, alternating between starving and gorging, purging, obsessing, and all the while hating, pounding and wanting to remove that which makes us female: our bodies, our curves, our pear-shaped selves.

"Cosmetic surgery is the fastest growing 'medical' specialty.... Throughout the 80s, as women gained power, unprecedented numbers of them sought out and submitted to the knife...." - Naomi Wolf

The work of feminist object relations theorists such as Susie Orbach (author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, and Hunger Strike: Anorexia as a Metaphor for Our Age) and those at The Women's Therapy Centre Institute (authors of Eating Problems: a Feminist Psychoanalytic Treatment Model) has demonstrated a relationship between the development of personal boundaries and body image. Personal boundaries are the physical and emotional borders around us.. A concrete example of a physical boundary is our skin. It distinguishes between that which is inside you and that which is outside you. On a psychological level, a person with strong boundaries might be able to help out well in disasters- feeling concerned for others, but able to keep a clear sense of who they are. Someone with weak boundaries might have sex with inappropriate people, forgetting where they end and where others begin. Such a person way not feel "whole" when alone.

Our psychological boundaries develop early in life, based on how we are held and touched (or not held and touched). A person who is deprived of touch as an infant or young child, for example, may not have the sensory information s/he needs to distinguish between what is inside and what is outside her/himself. As a result, boundaries may be unclear or unformed. This could cause the person to have difficulty getting an accurate sense of his/her body shape and size. This person might also have difficulty eating, because they might have trouble sensing the physical boundaries of hunger and fullness or satiation. On the other extreme, a child who is sexually or physically abused may feel terrible pain and shame or loathing associated to his/her body. Such a person might use food or starvation to continue the physical punishments they grew familiar with in childhood.

Developing a Healthy Body Image

Here are some guidelines (Adapted from BodyLove: Learning to Like Our Looks and Ourselves, Rita Freeman, Ph.D.) that can help you work toward a positive body image:

  • Listen to your body. Eat when you are hungry.
  • Be realistic about the size you are likely to be based on your genetic and environmental history.
  • Exercise regularly in an enjoyable way, regardless of size.
  • Expect normal weekly and monthly changes in weight and shape
  • Work towards self acceptance and self forgiveness- be gentle with yourself.
  • Ask for support and encouragement from friends and family when life is stressful.
  • Decide how you wish to spend your energy -- pursuing the "perfect body image" or enjoying family, friends, school and, most importantly, life.

Think of it as the three A's....

Attention -- Refers to listening for and responding to internal cues (i.e., hunger, satiety, fatigue).

Appreciation -- Refers to appreciating the pleasures your body can provide.

Acceptance -- Refers to accepting what is -- instead of longing for what is not.

Healthy body weight is the size a person naturally returns to after a long period of both non-compulsive eating* and consistent exercise commensurate with the person' s physical health and condition. We must learn to advocate for ourselves and our children to aspire to a naturally determined size, even though that will often mean confronting misinformed family, friends, and media advertising again and again.

*Simply stated, non-compulsive eating means eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are satisfied. This involves being able to distinguish emotional hunger from physical hunger, and satiation from over fullness. Link to: Compulsive Overeating for more information. Link to: Bibliography to view sources.


The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, by Kim Chernin, Harper & Row, 1982.

BodyLove: Learning to Like Our Looks and Ourselves, Rita Freeman, Ph.D., Harper & Row, 1988

200 Ways to Love the Body You Have by Marcia Germaine Hutchinson, EdD , The Crossing Press, 1999

Fat is a Feminist Issue, Books I and II, by Susie Orbach, 1979

Hunger Strike: Anorexia as a Metaphor for Our Age, by Susie Orbach, Norton Books, 1986

The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf, Doubleday, 1991

Eating Problems: a Feminist Psychoanalytic Treatment Model, by The Women's Therapy Centre Institute, Basic Books, 1994

Judy Lightstone is a psychologist, supervisor and trainer with a private psychotherapy practice in West Auckland specialising in eating and body image issues.  » see Judy's website 

Article posted 8 August 2007