It’s easy to be sensitive about the smallest change in weight or appearance — after all, no one looks at you more than you do. Maybe you wake up in the morning after a night in which you ate a larger meal than usual. You look in the mirror and ask yourself: Was this belly fat always here? Should my chin be more defined? Do I need to go up a jeans size? These seem like simple, practical questions, but for many people, obsessing over weight gains and losses causes harmful body image stress.
There are a variety of social and personal factors that combine to create the sensitivity we have about how we look, but the result is typically the same. Obsessing over weight and diet can lead to a number of unhealthy attitudes and behaviors that can severely impact mental health as a whole.
In this piece, we’ll explore how weight gain anxiety and body image stress cause people to take extremely unhealthy actions and create a harmful conception of self-worth.
The Importance of Body Image and Self-Esteem
As a society, we place a great deal of importance on our appearance as a sign of status value. Something as simple as going to an important meeting with a piece of lettuce in your teeth can have a large effect on the way you’re seen by others, as well as your overall credibility.
This is something we internalize over the course of our lives, and as a result, many people feel the best about themselves when they’re satisfied with the way they look. This is, essentially, the concept of self-esteem.
This can be rewarding, but it also can cause damage very easily. Life can get in the way of the pursuit of a controlled appearance. As people age, they naturally gain weight more easily and look older, two things that society has judged to run counter to “looking good.”
At the heart of why stress about body image can compound into severe physical and mental health issues is the high value we put on our physical appearance and, by extension, our weight and body shape.
Why We Put So Much Value on Our Weight
The reason why so much of our self-esteem is tied to weight gains and losses is due to a combination of what we see on TV and what we hear from the people around us.
“Getting in shape” is something people are repeatedly told they have to do, both explicitly and subliminally.
First, there’s a multibillion-dollar market for weight loss products, fitness programs and gyms that hammers home the message about aggressive weight loss and the pursuit of a “perfect” body.
And then, there’s subconscious pressure to lose weight spurred by the people we see on TV and in magazines. Models, actors, athletes and spokespeople are all airbrushed down to the finest detail to send a message that any imperfection — including a little excessive weight — is something that needs to be hidden.
The way society responds to imagery of overweight people matters also. Too often, conversations about celebrities and public figures devolves into criticisms about their body shape or weight. If an actor gains 10 pounds, for example, it’s assured they’ll be on the front page of a tabloid near the grocery store checkout.
As a result, weight gain anxiety and weight loss anxiety go hand in hand. When we start gaining weight, we stress about it, and then we compound that stress by increasing the pressure to lose weight as quickly as possible.
The Consequences of the Link Between Weight Gain and Mental Health
When self-esteem is so closely tied to weight loss and gain, it’s not healthy. Low self-esteem can significantly impact mental health, and when the cause is a person’s weight or diet, the result can be a related mental health condition.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Eating Disorders
Body dysmorphic disorder (also known as “body dysmorphia” or “BDD”) is a condition that causes a person’s self-image to skew from reality. It’s estimated to affect 1% to 2% of the population in the United States. People with BDD obsess over their body image — or at least, their perception of it — and are at increased risk for other conditions, like increased anxiety, depression and a range of eating disorders.
Bulimia, Anorexia and Binge Eating
The negative feedback loop created by the constant cycle of scrutinizing diet and obsessing over every weight fluctuation can create a very unhealthy relationship with food. A person experiencing this level of body image stress can develop an eating disorder based on the unique habits they’ve developed.
Some of the most common eating disorders are:
- Anorexia nervosa: A person severely limits their intake of food, often to the point of malnutrition.
- Bulimia: A person overeats and then purges (vomits) immediately after, leading to malnutrition as well as damage to the stomach and esophagus.
- Binge eating disorder: People with BED typically fluctuate between dieting and overeating to the point where they make themselves sick. Periods of binging are usually followed by intense shame.
These conditions are usually accompanied by bouts of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Tips for Avoiding Body Image Obsession
If you or a loved one is obsessing over weight or the food you’re eating, you could be setting yourself up for some severe risks to your mental and physical health. Here are a few tips to reduce body image stress and lower your risk of developing an eating disorder.
- Stop counting calories: While it’s generally good to try to eat healthy overall, counting every calorie you consume is not conducive to your health as much as you might think.
- Don’t weigh yourself every day: In the same vein, keeping track of tiny weight fluctuations isn’t productive, especially considering your weight can be affected by minor things like recently eating or your body’s water content at any given moment.
- Give yourself a break: There are certain foods that are considered unhealthy, but it doesn’t mean you’re unhealthy if you eat them from time to time. If someone brings a box of doughnuts to work, you can have one — and you don’t have to feel ashamed about it.
FHE Health and Excessive Body Image Stress
It’s important to understand that obsessing over healthy habits can be unhealthy in its own right. If you or a loved one are experiencing body image stress issues, contact FHE Health and learn about your options to refresh your mindset and start living a healthier, happier life.