In today’s digital age, photos of ourselves are everywhere. For many people with eating disorders and body image issues, they can be a source of distress.
Do you avoid photos? Do you refuse to let people take or post photos of you? Do you hide in the back when asked to be in a group photo? Do you agree to be in them but then feel awful when you see them because you can’t stop critiquing your body? Do you spend hours looking at old photos and longing to look like you used to?
If you relate to any of these scenarios, you are like many of my patients who feel uncomfortable with their bodies and either avoid photos altogether or obsess over them. I’m going to suggest some strategies that have been helpful for my patients.
The first thing to understand is your anxiety is almost always increased by the avoidance of something that is distressing but not dangerous. When a situation makes you anxious, the only way to get over it is to face it. With time, your brain learns to tolerate it—we call this habituation. This means that avoiding photos entirely will just increase your distress.
Next, consider how sad it is to not be photographed. As Alison Slater Tate wrote in her widely-shared article “This Mom Stays in the Picture”, “I’m everywhere in their young lives, and yet I have very few pictures of me with them.” I’ve worked with patients that have so avoided photos there was almost no record of their lives. How sad for the people that love them!
On the other hand, it is also unproductive to take photos and then scrutinize the results for each of your flaws. This kind of obsessive focusing is destructive and only makes people feel worse. It also defeats the purpose of having taken the photo.
Photo Exposure Strategies for Body Image
Here’s what I suggest:
- When you look at a photo, resist the urge to zero in on your areas of body concern with an eye to criticize. Instead, look at the image of your entire body more holistically. Try to be nonjudgemental and curious.
- Remember that what you are looking at is not actually your body, but a representation of your body. Many factors influence this representation—the lighting, the angles, the quality of the camera, the capability of the photographer. (How many times have you taken a number of photos in a row and the people look different and better or worse from one to another?). If you take enough photos, it’s an inevitability that some will be good and some will be bad.
- Think about the purpose of taking the photo. Set aside social media bragging rights—the authentic purpose of a photo is to capture a moment in time, to remind you of a feeling you have experienced, to recall a place that is special to you, or to celebrate a relationship.
Take, for example, a woman who attended her sister’s wedding. When she looked at the photos, she could choose to focus on how unmuscular her arms were, the imperfections in her hair, or how she was bigger than certain other guests. Alternatively, she could focus on why they took the photo: the joy she felt in sharing this special occasion and her love for her sister.
Also, keep in mind that your perception of the same photo can differ over time. How many times have you hated a photo when it was taken but looked back on it later and loved it?
So this is my challenge to you: when given the opportunity to pose for a photo, seize it. When you look at the photo, practice not critiquing your appearance or comparing yourself to others or to past versions of yourself. Instead, ask yourself what is important about the photo—why you took it and what you wanted to remember about the moment it captures.