Many adolescents and young adults struggle with body image perception and complicated relationships with food and eating. Negative body image can stem from a variety of places, such as the media’s unrealistic depiction of beauty standards or spending time with people who express negative thoughts related to food and bodies. The negative messages young people receive through experiences and memories related to other people’s physical performance, height, weight, appearance, sexuality, or cultural ideals are deep-seated roots of negative body image.
Distorted thoughts and negative feelings about body image can be damaging for the people who experience them. They can lead to unhealthy behaviors around eating, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. They can also lead to powerful negative beliefs about oneself. People experiencing poor body image may feel they are unworthy, ugly, shameful, unlovable, different, or worthless. It’s a vicious cycle to be caught in. Fortunately, wilderness therapy provides a powerful venue for adolescents to explore, challenge, and reframe poor body image.
Our team of clinical therapists have a variety of tools, skills, and modalities they employ to help treat students who are experiencing negative body image perception. They might use eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR) or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to focus on students’ upsetting and distorted thoughts that underlie and fuel negative feelings. The therapist and student can then work together to start challenging these irrational thoughts and find greater acceptance for the bodies we spend each day of our lives in. An example of how a therapist-student conversation might unfold is included below:
For example, when working with a student struggling with poor body image, a therapist might explore how a student thinks being more physically “ideal” would impact their feelings about themself. Perhaps the student feels they would be more lovable, smart, or capable if their body were different in some way. The therapist would then help the student recognize the ways they are lovable, smart, or capable just as they are, without any physical changes.
Therapists might also help students explore other helpful practices, such as keeping mood journals connected to food intake (or lack thereof), practicing mindful eating, and using affirmations of positive body image.
Living in wilderness has a powerful and positive impact on body image perception. The absence of mirrors helps students begin to experience their bodies from the inside out. They start to focus on what their bodies can do, rather than how they look.
The Open Sky Student Pathway offers powerful tools to help students both connect to their bodies and identify values that contribute to their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. These activities include breathing exercises, mindfulness activities, journaling assignments, meditation, yoga, and introspection. The Student Pathway also frames food as medicine and teaches students to understand food as a necessary part of being strong, healthy, and capable. Students learn to see food as a member of their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellness team, rather than as an enemy.
In addition to the above actions that adolescents can personally practice, there are a number of ways parents and family members can support a young person struggling with negative body image perception.
Being intentional with your words by:
Modeling healthy behaviors by:
inadvertently modeling a lack of self-acceptance, or even worse, self-hatred.
Seeking outside help by: