We all have a relationship with our body, many of us have battled the image that is reflected back at us when we look in the mirror. For some the struggle is fleeting with momentary bouts of self-judgement and criticism, for others it’s a life-long war.
Living in an age of social media doesn’t help and even though there has been a definite push towards inclusivity and positive body image in the media in recent years, it’s difficult to not occasionally worry about the size and shape of our bodies and how they ‘measure up’ to everyone else’s, not to mention society's expectations.
While body image issues can and do affect both genders1, research shows that they are more common and felt more strongly in women2. The reason for this? Women are generally exposed to more social situations that make them experience body dissatisfaction. It is for these reasons that most studies on body image focus on women.
Regardless of your gender, imagine for a minute, being able to stop obsessing about the way you look and what that means for your career, relationships and social life and truly appreciate how truly amazing your body really is and how much it helps you achieve on a daily basis.
As it turns out, a new study, may have found the key to doing just that – 3D imaging3.
Changing the way you think about yourself in multiple dimensions
3D technology has not only revolutionised medical imaging and changed the way we watch movies, but it may now also be the answer to improving our perceptions of body image, allowing us to better appreciate how amazing their bodies really are, regardless of their shape and size.
Due to the fact that 3D body image scanning is a relatively new tool, research on how it could be used to improve body image perceptions has, to date, been limited. A research team, headed up by assistant professor in the School of Social Work, director of the MU Center for Body Image Research and Policy and renowned body image expert, Virginia Ramseyer Winter, set out to determine whether or not it could be employed to aid young women shift their focus away from how their bodies look to how they function.
The study involved adult women aged 18 to 25 who underwent 3D body scans which were then converted to 3D avatars using modelling software. The women were then asked to digitally paint body parts that they appreciated for a particular reason.
The researchers noted that when looking at the avatars of themselves, the women involved were able to think about their bodies in a different way. For example, instead of worrying about the size of their thighs could think about how they assisted them in running and instead of the shape (or lack thereof) of their arms, they could see how they enabled them to hug the people they loved.
This new way of looking at things enabled the participants to recognise that their bodies were defined by far more than their size or the numbers on the bathroom scale.
What’s interesting is that this new way of thinking lasted long after the 3D painting took place. Both immediately after painting their avatars and again at 3 month follow-ups, the women reported improved body appreciation which seemingly increased over time. In addition, the women also reported feeling less depressed and anxious.
While the study’s findings are preliminary and the researchers acknowledge that much needs to be explored in terms of 3D image intervention’s effect on mental health, the results do show that is has the potential to have a significant positive impact on body appreciation.
Existing evidence has revealed a relation between body appreciation and the development of depression and anxiety4,5, as such, the researchers believe that 3D modelling may just be the answer to not only improving body image but mental health too. As such, they plan to examine the effect that painting avatars has on women suffering from more severe cases of depression.
Applying the study’s principles yourself
While the results of the study are extremely interesting, we don’t all have access to the type of 3D modelling used in the study and some of us need help with our body image now. So, what can be done?
While a 3D avatar may help you to psychologically distance yourself from the image of your form, and allow you to not get side-tracked by focussing on the cellulite or acne you may see in a photograph, you don’t necessarily need an avatar to apply the principles in practice here.
Instead of focussing on the way a particular part of your body looks, think about how it functions and benefits you. It’s about retraining negative thought processes and the only way to do that is to replace them with something else. In this case, something that is not about appearance and more about functionality.
So, like the study’s participants, begin to find ways your body helps you do things like embrace your loved ones, run, walk, carry a child or help someone. If your toes are crooked, yes there’s not much you can do about it, but maybe you can pick up things with them… they’re talented toes! Big butts are in, but if you’re having a little trouble appreciating the size of yours rather focus on just how amazing your gluteal muscles are. They help you to move your hips and thighs, stand up, climb, and remain upright when you stand, all things that benefit us immensely in a variety of activities throughout the day.
Regardless of where your perceived issue lies, be creative in turning it into a positive that focuses on function rather than aesthetic. Practice this long enough and soon you’ll find that your thinking shifts. Instead of looking in the mirror and criticising yourself, you’ll find yourself developing and attitude of gratitude, and maybe, for the first time, truly appreciating how wonderful your body really is.
If, in spite of your best efforts, you still find yourself struggling with negative body image that makes you feel anxious and depressed, there is no shame in that. We all have different issues that sometimes cannot be overcome on our own. Consider enlisting the help of a counsellor or psychologist.
These mental health professionals are dedicated and trained to help you address any issues you may have, and work with you to help resolve them so that you can truly be mentally and emotionally free to truly love and appreciate your body. After all, you deserve it.
1. Bradley University: Male vs. Female Body Image. Bradley.edu. https://www.bradley.edu/sites/bodyproject/male-body-image-m-vs-f/. Accessed June 21, 2019.
2. Brennan M, Lalonde C, Bain J. Body Image Perceptions: Do Gender Differences Exist?. The International Honor Society in Psychology; 2010:130-137. https://web.uvic.ca/~lalonde/manuscripts/2010-Body%20Image.pdf. Accessed June 21, 2019.
3. 3D technology might improve body appreciation for young women. EurekAlert!. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-06/uom-3tm062019.php. Published 2019. Accessed June 21, 2019.
4. Body image report: Introduction. Mental Health Foundation. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/body-image-report/intro. Accessed June 21, 2019.
5. Kilpela L, Becker C, Wesley N, Stewart T. Body image in adult women: moving beyond the younger years. Advances in Eating Disorders. 2015;3(2):144-164. doi:10.1080/21662630.2015.1012728