Picture this:  You wake up, excited for the day ahead of you. You’re meeting your friend for coffee and some shopping. Your friend is looking for a dress for a wedding she has coming up, and you’re looking for a new pair of jeans. You head into the mall, coffee in hand, ready to peruse your options in a few of your favorite stores. You get to the dressing room to try on a few pairs of jeans, and the dressing room mirrors and lighting are not it today.

The jeans don’t feel right, and you find yourself standing there, face to face with yourself in the poorly lit dressing room mirror, suddenly flooded with an onslaught of negative thoughts about yourself and your body: I don’t look good in these jeans. In fact, I don’t look good in any jeans. I’m so uncomfortable; it’s probably because I’m too big for these. This used to be my size, but these don’t fit. I have gained weight. Oh, and now that I am standing here– looking at myself– why does my arm look like that? I might as well just stop trying on new clothes. 

The Impact of Body Image Struggles on Friendships

And now you leave the dressing room – no jeans, aware of how every inch of your body feels, self-conscious about how all those inches look, and you suddenly don’t feel like shopping anymore. You struggle to stay upbeat through the rest of your shopping trip, and you even find yourself feeling annoyed and jealous when your friend is trying on dresses. She asks you if you’re okay, you assure her you’re fine – that you’re just tired – and you go home feeling defeated. And your friend is wondering what happened that upset you.

For those of us who struggle with body image – within a struggle with an eating disorder or not–we know intimately that this struggle can impact friendship dynamics. 

If you think of our closest  friendships, you might say that they are built on trust, shared experiences, and mutual support for one another. When we struggle with our body image, however, our anxiety and preoccupation with our body can have a surprising impact on some of our closest bonds. As in the case of the above example, a fun day out can quickly become tainted by the insecurities our body image struggles bring to the surface. 

You may feel the pull to decline invitations to social gatherings out of fear that someone will judge you or because you don’t want to compare yourself to the other people who will be there.  And when you are around friends, you may notice that your preoccupation with negative thoughts about your body can strain conversations, as thoughts about weight, size, or appearance dominate the mind. In turn, our friends may feel unsure how to support us or may inadvertently contribute to insecurities through remarks or actions.

**In the following video, Dr. Colleen Reichmann talks about this the impact of negative body image on relationships, unpacks the importance of talking about and working through it, and gives a few affirmations for those who find themselves struggling in this area:

The Impact of Body Image Struggles on Romantic Relationships

A similar struggle dynamic cna occur in romantic relationships, with the added layer of increased emotional and physical intimacy. Body image struggles can introduce barriers to intimacy, which can make it feel challenging to be comfortable with physical intimacy or vulnerability.

This can manifest in various ways, from avoiding physical contact – either partially or entirely– to feeling unworthy of love and affection. You may notice that when you are in a physically intimate setting, that you struggle to be fully present because of your issues with your body image. Oer time, pervasive self-criticism can create distance between partners, eroding trust and communication that is intended to be at the foundation of your relationship. In some cases, it may even lead to the breakdown of relationships as the strain becomes too great to bear and – either actually or seemingly – too challenging to repair.

Impact of Negative Body Image on Other Relational Dynamics

Body image struggles and negative body image can have an impact on other relationship dynamics, as well: relationships with parents, children, siblings, colleagues. Body image issues can be particularly complex when considering that the impact of our relationship with our own bodies can have implications on our relationship with others AND on the relationships that people who are under our influence (kids, for example) have with their own bodies, as well. This is not to create, add to, or perpetuate any shame dynamics, but rather to provide for ourselves (I’m included here!) a gentle reminder that our relationship with our bodies matter, that the way we interact with ourselves, our thoughts and feelings about our bodies, and how those show up in our daily lives – it all matters.

3 Strategies to Mitigate the Impact of Body Image Struggles on Your Relationships with Loved Ones

While the effects of negative body image on relationships can be variable and hard to navigate, here are 3 quick strategies to mitigate their impact and foster healthier connections with those around you:

1. Open Communication

 If you are comfortable, sharing (even a little bit of) your struggle with your body image with the person who is in the impacted relationship can be helpful in preserving and even strengthening that relationship. This is one I know that I struggle with personally; my strength does not lie in my ability to be overly vulnerable with people I am in relationship with, but when I push myself to do so, I often find that it has a positive impact on the relationship because it allows the other person to meet you where you are, to help you in the ways that they can, and it shows that they you trust them enough to “let them in.”

2. Foster a Body-Neutral Environment

 As much as you are able, avoid making comments about your body or anyone else’s when you are around other people. If you are struggling with thoughts about your own body, verbalizing the in a self-deprecating manner, or even when you verbalize a compliment about someone else’s body, you can get stuck in a loop of thoughts that result from a hyperfocus on the way your body (and others’ bodies) look. Although it can feel “natural” and even cathartic to mention how much you “hate how your arms look in this shirt,” it’s often helpful to you, and can then put your friend, partner, family member, or coworker in an odd position to either refute your statement or to otherwise shift the conversation to focus on each other’s bodies.

Focusing your time and conversations on shared hobbies, experiences, or on the present moment you are in can help maintain a body-neutral environment where the focus stays on the activity you are doing or the relationship you are building instead of on assessing and criticizing your body. 

3. Seek Professional Support

First and foremost, if you notice or suspect that your body image struggles are impacting any of your relationships, connecting with a professional can be a critical component in the work you do to foster stronger connections with those around you. Having a regular connection with a professional who can provide support and help you come up with coping strategies, skills that are specific and catered to you and your personal struggles can be pivotal in your journey with your own body image. 

Tackling Negative Body Image & Moving Toward One Another

As you may relate to if you have read this far into this blog post, our body image struggles can have a profound impact on various relationship dynamics. Being aware of the effects and implementing strategies to mitigate their impact can help to cultivate more supportive relationships with those we care about. With this increased awareness and effort to stay connected, we can not only minimize the impact our body image struggles have on our connections, but we can actually work to move toward – and not away from – one another in our struggles while moving toward a more positive body image ourselves.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

How Can Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?

If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you unpack and approach the the complex set of emotions you may experience during the holiday seasonour therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help!  In fact, you can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy, Philadelphia, PA

Life is a unique and sometimes messy journey for each of us; we all have our own individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s challenges and because of that, we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services.

We offer services for eating disorder therapy, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health maternal mental healththerapy for college students and athletes. As well as LGBTQIA+ Affirming Therapy. As you can see, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office. Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health. We look forward to partnering with you on this journey!