Improving Body Image in Eating Disorder Recovery
Dr. Charlotte Markey (she/her) is a psychologist and professor at Rutgers University. She is the author of The Body Image Book series, and her next book Adultish: The Body Image Book for Life comes out in 2024. You can find more of her writing at Psychology Today and on Substack.
For many people, an important part of eating disorder recovery is learning to reframe how they think about their bodies and the importance of caring for them. Understanding your body as a vehicle that moves you through your life and not tying your worth to your appearance can be essential to recovery.
As a professional who writes about body image and eating disorders, I always want to set a good example and “practice what I preach.” Like many people who work in this field, I also have a history of disordered eating, maladaptive dieting, and overvaluation of physical appearance. Fortunately, those experiences are now 30 years in my past, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have bad days where those disordered thoughts and feelings come back.
Like most people, I struggle with my body image some days. I am not sure there is a single human who doesn’t have days when they feel just “blah” or even experience self-disgust. During the moments I struggle with my body image, I draw on the evidence-based advice I offer others.
Promoting Positive Body Image: What the Research Says
Adaptive Appearance Investments
Recent research published in the journal Body Image helps to clarify some adjustments in thoughts and behaviors that can contribute to improved body image. The authors describe “adaptive appearance investments” as those that help people express their identity and emphasize physical characteristics that they appreciate about themselves. What is considered an adaptive appearance investment varies from person to person and may depend on their stage of recovery.
Further, the researchers suggest that adaptive appearance investments are not about camouflaging the body, but about centering physical comfort. Buying clothes that fit comfortably is one way to invest in ourselves in an adaptive, compassionate way. The authors also propose that adaptive appearance investments should be only one aspect of the journey toward a positive body image.
Body Gratitude and Body Functionality
Focusing on body gratitude and body functionality are two other approaches to body image improvement. Some of my own research has found that the gratitude practice of listing reasons you are grateful for your body can provide a body image boost. Think about what you like and appreciate about your body. This list should include functions, not just appearance-oriented features.
Body functionality refers to what our bodies can do, from breathing to sleeping to allowing us to communicate with other people. We tend to take many of these functions for granted, particularly if we are non-disabled. Writing exercises that explore what the body can do have been found to be reminders of this functionality and can contribute to improvements in body image and a greater appreciation of one’s body. In particular, writing prompts that encourage people to consider their body’s senses, internal processes, physical capacities, and how their body allows for creative endeavors, self-care, and communication have been used in interventions to help improve body image.
Body image improvement should also focus on things outside of physical appearance. The Body Image study suggests the importance of spending time with people who value you for who you are, not how you look. Deriving agency and a sense of empowerment from educational or career success (as opposed to physical appearance) may also boost body image. And, of course, reminding ourselves that we are worthy of love, respect, and joy no matter our appearance or any external metric, is essential.
To summarize, body image is likely to improve when you:
- Focus on physical comfort
- Practice body gratitude
- Consider body functionality
- Make only adaptive investments in your appearance
All of this may feel easier said than done. I don’t expect immediate body image improvements from anyone who is new to these concepts. But practice pays off. Focusing on replacing maladaptive thoughts and behaviors with adaptive ones can improve your quality of life over time. You don’t need to feel satisfied with your appearance every day, and you may never completely divest from beauty culture. Perfection is not the end goal, but progress is possible!