Healthy Living in the North

I am not just the reflection in the mirror

Label on mirror reading: "Warning: Reflections  in this mirror may be distorted by socially constructed ideas of "beauty"

“I am a whole person; I am not just a reflection in the mirror.” Mental Health Week is a great opportunity to share Darri’s warning label for mirrors and other suggestions for improving body image, self-esteem, and mood.

Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.

This is a phrase I have unfortunately said to myself over and over, trying to talk myself down from a junk food ledge. My reasons for eating or overeating have never been restricted to one particular feeling – it’s a cycle of emotion, whether it be sadness, happiness or celebration. Feel, eat, guilt, restrict, repeat – for me, it’s a fairly predictable cycle.

The feelings I have about my body image at any particular time are also variable. I have always struggled with my weight, how I look to others, how I feel about myself. Placing value on who I am as a person solely on how I carry the weight of my body. Body image is complicated.

“I know that once I am thin enough, I will be happy.” These thoughts, whether rational or not, have been foremost in my mind most of my life. But I have been “thin” and I have still been unhappy. The thing is, changing my outside does not change how I feel on the inside. This is not a groundbreaking epiphany, yet it has taken years for me to accept that my value as a human being is not based on my weight.

So where did these ideas come from?

I could talk about my family and the emphasis that was placed on appearance. My mom and sisters were constantly riding the yo-yo diet train. The messages I received were subtle and self-esteem shaping. But where did my family members get these messages themselves? I can’t ignore the fact that we live in a superficial world full of glossy magazines and blockbuster movies oozing with sexuality. The basic message that we seem to hear all the time is that your successes in life can equate to how you look. The better looking you are on the outside, the more success, health and happiness you can attain.

In a 2004 paper titled The Impact of Exposure to the Thin-Ideal Media Image on Women, Hawkins and her colleagues found that:

Exposure to thin-ideal magazine images increases body dissatisfaction, negative mood states, and eating disorder symptoms and decreases self-esteem. Exposure to thin-ideal media images may contribute to the development of eating disorders by causing body dissatisfaction, negative moods, low self-esteem, and eating disorders symptoms among women.

The impact of body image on mental health and overall well-being is undeniable. How we see ourselves impacts how we feel about ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. What can I do to improve my body image and lessen the impact on my daughters? I can choose to eat healthy, not restrict, give myself permission to eat a variety of foods without shame or guilt; I can be active and do things that energize and motivate me to feel good about the body I live in. I can be kind to myself and all aspects of which I am.

I am a whole person; I am not just the reflection in the mirror.

As a mental health and addictions clinician for Northern Health, I see how body image directly impacts the mental health of the clients with whom I work. Here are some practical suggestions for improving body image, self-esteem and mood:

  • Stop comparing yourself to others. You are unique and need to celebrate your positive qualities.
  • Practice self-care. Go for a walk in nature, have a bath, read a book, reignite an old hobby you once enjoyed, take time for yourself. Self-care should not be confused with being selfish, it is important for your mental health to take time to re-energize and refresh yourself.
  • Create a support system. Spend time with those who lift you up and support you. They have a positive impact on how you feel about yourself. It’s OK to ask for support!
  • Pay attention to lifestyle. Small changes over time can add up to a large shift in mental health in the future.
  • Seek help from community resources such as Mental Health and Addictions Services. You can contact us through the Northern Health website. For more information on body image, please visit the National Eating Disorders Information Centre or the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Darri O'Neill

About Darri O'Neill

Darri has worked for Northern Health in the position of mental health and addictions clinician for the past six years. Darri enjoys her work and also knows the importance of getting outside to enjoy time with her young family. In the summers, they like to camp at the local lakes and have recently purchased snowshoes which they hope to use to explore the trails around their home in the winter. Darri and her husband were both raised on Vancouver Island and moved to the northwest 10 years ago. They've grown to love the area and appreciate that they can raise their family in such a naturally beautiful part of B.C.

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