Eva Haldis MS RD LDN is an Eating Disorder Dietitian Nutritionist in Pennsylvania and the owner of Reclaim Nutrition. In this post, she talks about how to navigate negative body image thoughts when you see photos of yourself you don’t like.
Body Image and Photos
Many of us have likely experienced a common scenario. You get dressed and ready to go out with friends, feeling cute and satisfied with your look. However, when your friends decide to take a photo, everything changes. Instantly, you find yourself thinking, “OMG, I hate how I look!” or “Is that really what I look like?”
This is a super common general experience and feeling that so many people have encountered. It can be very distressing in the moment, especially if you’re working on healing your relationship with food, your body, or recovering from an eating disorder. Before we explore coping strategies, let’s understand why photos can be so triggering.
Why Are Photos So Triggering
With the rise of social media and advanced technology, capturing every single moment on camera has become effortless. Filters have become so realistic that it’s sometimes challenging to discern what’s real and what’s not. We see unrealistic images posted all over social media, from ordinary people we know to celebrities and influencers. This constant exposure to unrealistic standards makes it hard not to compare ourselves with what we see online.
Moreover, we now have instant access to countless photos of ourselves. With smartphones, we can take hundreds of photos in minutes and scrutinize every little detail. Lighting, angles, and quality of images can all impact how you look in a photo.
Despite knowing all of this, many people continue to express dissatisfaction with how they look in photos. This is often related to changes in their bodies or appearing larger in the pictures. It’s essential to acknowledge that this dissatisfaction is often rooted in weight stigma, fatphobia, racism, and other factors that influence our perception of conventional attractiveness. While you may be working to undo these influences in your life, it can still be difficult to avoid feeling that there’s something wrong with you. So, it’s helpful to have tools to regulate your emotions and continue on your healing journey.
What To Do When You Don’t Like How You look In Photos
When exploring body image with my clients after they see a photo they don’t like, I like to ask them the following question.“How do you feel about 80s hairstyles?” You might wonder, “What does this have to do with my perception of how I look?”
Well, let’s consider that during the time the photos shown here were taken, people probably thought the styles in the photos looked…good. These perceptions influenced how people dressed and did their hair and makeup. However, today, we can agree that our idea of what looks “good” has drastically changed since then.
The same applies to various aspects of life, like clothing styles and interior design. I can still remember my mom urging 16 year old me to try on straight leg jeans, while I was very into bell bottoms in the late 90s/early 2000s. I would always respond to her, with my very angsty teen self, “ew, I would never wear straight jeans!” Cut to 2023, and the thought of wearing bell bottoms again makes me shudder.
Our perception of what looks good is ever-evolving, and bodies are meant to change too. However, we don’t often see these changes reflected positively.
If your body has changed, the way you look now might still feel really new to you.
Recognizing that our brains can change how we view things can be a powerful tool. Just as you might have gone from disliking something (e.g., straight jeans) to preferring it over time, you can also apply this to your photos.
Undoing Negative Influences and Embracing Acceptance
Lastly, we must acknowledge how we’ve been influenced to view fat bodies negatively. The beauty is that we can undo this conditioning as well. As you work on living according to your values, this process will make you a more compassionate person and help shift your body hatred or dissatisfaction towards acceptance or neutrality. The goal doesn’t have to be always loving how you look, but rather, finding more peace within yourself.
Until then, here are some tangible steps you can take when you see the photo of yourself you don’t like and find yourself spiraling.
Steps to Handle Body Distress from Photos
Validate the sh*t out of yourself that OF COURSE you are feeling this way.
- Years of diet culture, fatphobia and other influences have shaped this belief that a bigger or fat body is a bad body. So, of course, you are feeling “bad” or like you are doing something wrong. This is a systemic and culture problem, not a you problem.
Notice what thoughts you are having with compassionate curiosity.
- What story are you are telling yourself about what it means to look this way in a photo? Ask yourself why that may be a fear for you, and notice that your body and brain are trying to protect you with your eating disorder or disordered eating thoughts. Notice if you are romanticizing your body from the past and how it appeared in photos. Try to remember what that time period was like, and if it was really that much better.
Find a soothing activity to do to help you sit in the discomfort and allow it to move through.
- Whether that is watching your favorite show, calling your bestie, coloring in your favorite coloring book, or sitting outside and taking in some fresh air. Whatever that soothing thing is for you, take some time to engage in it.
Lastly, and I’m sure you’ve heard this one before, do a social media inventory.
- Are you following accounts that make you feel bad about your body? Are you being exposed to only one type of body that is influencing how you perceive your body? This is marketing. The same marketing that is probably going to convince me to wear bell bottoms one day again is also selling you the idea that your body is wrong.
Remember, understanding that your brain can change how you perceive things is empowering. As you work on your relationship with your body, know that societal weight stigma and discrimination can persist, but you are deserving of respect and acceptance regardless of your size. The journey might not be easy, but these coping tips can help you move through the distress and work towards a healthier relationship with your body so that you can find peace and joy in your every day life and still take care of you.
If you are struggling in your relationship with food and would like to learn more about resources and support, we invite you to reach out.
Our Dietitian team at Reclaim Nutrition would love to support you on your journey to food freedom, body image healing and eating disorder recovery.
We are here, if you should need it!