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The Open Sky Team

August 5th, 2021

Exploring Body Image Perception in Wilderness

The Open Sky Team

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.  

Senior clinical therapist Kirsten Bolt works with an adolescent girl at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.

Clinical Treatment

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. 

A young adult student at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy works on their Student Pathway with a guide.

Wilderness & The Student Pathway

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.  

A group of Open Sky Wilderness Therapy students wearing yellow t-shirts do yoga on a rocky outcropping with mountains in the background.

Family Support

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: 

  • providing information about the changes to the body during puberty; 
  • noticing and commenting on how healthy body shapes vary; 
  • identifying and discussing media that is harmful or upsetting and monitoring its consumption; 
  • verbally appreciating your child’s qualities, actions, and achievements unrelated to how they look; 
  • and refraining from making jokes or derisive comments about body-related topics. 

 Modeling healthy behaviors by: 

inadvertently modeling a lack of self-acceptance, or even worse, self-hatred. 

  • taking time to appreciate your own body and identify the qualities that make you unique, capable, and lovable; 
  • establishing and demonstrating healthy eating and exercise habits; 
  • and practicing and modeling self-acceptance.

Seeking outside help by: 

  • finding support through medical professionals to help evaluate and treat concerns. 
Senior clinical therapist Chris Blankeship works one on one with an Open Sky Wilderness Therapy student.
The Open Sky Team

August 5th, 2021

The Open Sky Team