Body image is a contentious issue, both in scientific literature and social media (yes they are mutually exclusive). We are told constantly that the goal for improving body image is to “love yourself always hun xx”, but how feasible is that really? Is there a place for hating yourself?
Body Image Flexibility: Fundamentals
The majority of this section is derived from the excellent 2022 meta-analysis conducted by Linardon et al. , which can be found in the reference list.
Historically, body image research has typically focussed on the negative aspects of body image (preoccupation, dissatisfaction). However, recent advents in the field of body image has led to the development of positive facets of body image (appreciation, respect). It is important to denote that body image does not exist on a spectrum of negative to positive, rather there are unique constructs to both negative and positive body image that occur independently. Essentially, the Venn diagram of body image is not a solitary circle.
One such independent positive concept of body image is this idea of body image flexibility.
Body image flexibility (BIF) is defined as the ”ability for one to openly experience thoughts or feelings about the body without acting on them, or trying to avoid/change them” .
In essence, BIF allows the individual to interact with intrusive thoughts/feelings about their body, without ruminating or impulsively acting on these thoughts. BIF is an extension of the concept of psychological flexibility, or the ability to recognise and adapt to different situational demands . BIF theory is grounded in the same principles that give the Stoic bros raging hard-ons. According to BIF theory, the intrusive thoughts we experience are not what is important – it’s how we respond to these experiences . Individuals who don’t accept negative experiences tend to try suppress/avoid/numb these thoughts (hello my early 20s), which has the opposite effect and increases psychological distress . Love that.
One of the main facets of BIF is self-compassion, or not being a dick to yourself. Self-compassion is well-demonstrated in literature to improve body image and lower incidence of disordered eating . Self-compassion is absolutely vital in improving body image. It is not realistic to strive to love every part of your body at all times. Nor are you a failure for not liking things about how your body looks. You are unfortunately a human, and with that comes positive and negative experiences. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, nor should it be.
The Importance of Body Image Flexibility
Research has demonstrated many promising findings for BIF. In their 2022 meta-analysis, Linardon et al.  found BIF had moderate to large effect size on reducing depression, anxiety, general psychological distress an perfectionism. J’adore. This is supported by a 2018 meta-analysis from Rogers et al. who also noted a positive association between BIF and psychological health .
Developing a flexible body image is paramount, because it is realistic and accepting of the human condition. This is where I think the body positivity movement misses the mark. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you just don’t feel comfortable in your body. THAT IS NORMAL. If I feel uncomfortable in my body, telling me to “love myself” is ignorant and unhelpful. You wouldn’t tell someone with depression just to “stop being sad”, and with body image it’s no different. You can have good body image and sometimes not like your body.
BIF makes individuals more resilient to threats to body image (aka low-rise jeans), reduces the likelihood of engaging in maladaptive behaviours (excessive dieting, dietary restriction, overtraining) . In addition, those with higher BIF are more likely to exhibit healthy attitudes and behaviours (think intuitive eating, body appreciation) and overall improved life satisfaction .
Building Body Image Flexibility
BIF is built on the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which focuses on our capacity to accept intrusive thoughts around our body, and not let them take over . In essence, it involves embracing the suck.
- You can start improving your BIF by first identifying your triggers. What seems to spark this self-criticism? Is it comments from others, social media, foods, clothing? It can be really helpful to reflect on these events, so you are more prepared for them when they occur.
- Practicing breathwork. Breathwork can be highly effective during these “in the moment” spells of negative body image, and is effective in building BIF . Focusing on the breath allows the nervous system space and time to calm down. Of course, a few deep breaths won’t cure your body image woes, but that’s not the goal of BIF. It’s about not letting negative thoughts run you, and waiting for them to pass. Breathwork can help get you through.
- Employing distraction tactics. Essentially, you give your brain something else to focus on, other than the fact you feel violently disgusting. If you look in the mirror and all you can see is your stomach/arms/etc., try and focus on something more innocuous like your eye colour, or even something unrelated to appearance.
- Accept it will pass. You can’t hate yourself at this intensity forever. If you give it time, it will downgrade from hatred to disdain and then eventually indifference.
- Accept that you are human. Imagine someone you care about. Now, imagine you are someone you care about. Would you speak about their body like how you speak about yours? What gives you the right to pick your body apart? This is called self-compassion, and giving yourself a break, and she is incredibily effective in improving body image .
- Focus on body functionality. Shifting the focus from your body as a solely aesthetic being can be helpful. Practicing gratitude for what your body allows you to do (live/laugh/love innit) and all the ways it allows you to show up in the world is associated with improved BIF .
Of course, these are just some of the ways to develop your BIF. Some of these methods will work for you, and some won’t. The goal of improving BIF isn’t to love everything about yourself, rather it is about getting to a place where you just nothing yourself. Indifference is king, baby.
- Lindaron J, Anderson C, Messer M et al. (2022) Body image flexibility and its correlates: A meta-analysis. Body Image 37, pp. 188-203.
- Sandoz EK, Wilson KG, Merwin RM et al. (2013) Assessment of body image flexibility: The Body Image-Acceptance and Action Questionnaire. J Context Behav Sci 2(1), pp. 39-48.
- Kashdan TB, Rottenberg J (2010) Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clin Psychol Rev 30(7), pp. 865-878.
- Hayes SC (2004) Acceptance and commitment therapy, relational frame theory, and the third wave of behavioral and cognitive therapies. Behav Ther 35(4), pp. 639-665.
- Braun TD, Park CL, Gorin A (2016) Self-compassion, body image and disordered eating: A review of the literature. Body Image 17, pp. 117-131.
- Rogers CB, Webb JB, Jafari N (2018) A systematic review of the roles of body image flexibility as correlate, moderator, mediator and in intervention science (2011-2018). Body Image 27, pp. 43-60.
- Givehki R, Afshar H, Goli F et al. (2018) Effect of acceptance and commitment therapy on body image flexibility and body awareness in patients with psychosomatic disorders: a randomized clinical trial. Electr Phys 10(7), pp. 7008-7016.
- Guest E, Costa B, Williamson H (2019) The effectiveness of interventions aiming to promote positive body image in adults: A systematic review. Body Image 30, pp. 10-25.
- Alleva JM, Tylka TL (2021) Body functionality: A review of the literature. Body Image 36, pp. 149-171.