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Want Help With Body Image Worries? 5 Strategies for Finding Support

BY Dr. Thea Bardin

Have you ever thought it would be nice to have someone to talk to about your body image concerns? Not just anyone- someone who will get it. Someone who will know exactly what to say, even if you can’t express exactly what you are thinking or feeling. Someone who will make you feel like your worries matter, even if you aren’t sure they do. Someone who won’t overreact and panic and get too worried, but will still take you seriously.

Body image is a complex topic. Our thoughts about our bodies are deeply personal, but they are also influenced by our families, friends, teammates, role models and society at large. Talking to a clinician can help you see new perspectives and feel less alone with your struggles.

Yet it can be really hard to seek help. Since body image concerns are both personal and painful, it can be tough to open up and talk about them with a stranger, even if that stranger is a trained professional.

The process of scheduling an appointment can also feel difficult- you might feel like you don’t know who to go to, or what to say when you call to make the appointment, or if you can afford treatment. If you’re a young person, you might worry about how your parents will react if you tell them you’ve been struggling and you’d like some help. If the process of getting help feels so overwhelming that you’re tempted to just forget it and cope by yourself, you’re not alone! Many people feel the same. The five tips below are for you. I hope they make it a little easier for you to seek (and find) help.

Try not to worry about whether you’re “sick enough”

Many of the images of people with eating disorders on social media are sensationalized. This can make people think if they don’t look a certain way, they don’t need help. Not true! People of all shapes and sizes can have serious body image concerns. Clinicians who specialize in body image understand this and are eager to support anyone who wants help. Other times, people feel that if their concerns were serious, someone would have noticed and suggested they get help. However, even when someone has very serious concerns, their family and friends may not recognize the warning signs, or if they do, they may not know what to say. This can lead people to suffer alone and in silence. You don’t have to wait for someone to encourage you to get help- you know yourself best, and asking for help is a sign of strength!

Start where you feel comfortable

General practitioners, therapists, dieticians and psychiatrists all help people struggling with body image and eating concerns. This gives you lots of options! Some people have a GP they’ve known a long time and trust. Others feel safest starting with a dietician who knows all about nutrition. Some people need time to tell their story and prefer a therapist who has plenty of time to listen. If going straight to scheduling an appointment with a professional feels scary, starting with a family member, school guidance counselor, teacher, coach or athletic trainer may be easier. They can help you figure out the next step. Seeking help can be a big challenge, so think about who you feel most comfortable talking to and start there.

Remember treatment is collaborative

Many people feel reluctant to let go of their concerns about weight and shape. They may feel sick and tired of being at war with their bodies, but afraid that if they are kinder to themselves their weight will spiral out of control. Clinicians aren’t wizards. I’ve been a clinical psychologist for years, and nobody has ever gained weight just from stepping into my office! You can have a voice in your treatment. When you seek help for body image concerns, you and your clinician will likely work together to pick goals that feel meaningful to you. You can tell your clinician if you have any fears about pursuing your goals. You can also work together to find the right pace to move towards your goals- a pace that will challenge you to grow but not feel too overwhelming. If treatment feels too hard or too scary, you can ask your clinician to slow down. They may suggest you try new ways of thinking about things or doing things, but ultimately, it’s up to you whether you try what they suggest.

Express yourself

Clinicians are humans. That’s a good thing- it helps them connect, care and collaborate. However, it does mean they can’t read minds. In general, the more you share, the more your clinician can help. This can be especially challenging for young people, who often aren’t used to speaking to unfamiliar adults. Be creative- take some time to journal or draw before your appointment. Think about what feels most important for you to share with your clinician and how you can share it. If there’s a meme that captures exactly how you feel; screenshot that to share. Remember it’s a process- you won’t share everything exactly the way you want to in your first appointment. Take some time to reflect after. Think about what helped, what didn’t, what you want to clarify or share next time. Don’t be afraid to give your clinician feedback.

Have patience, finding the right clinician can take time

Seeking help can be scary! You might have an idea about what sort of clinician would be easiest for you to trust- maybe someone of a specific age, or gender, or cultural background. However, sometimes it’s hard to find a clinician that is affordable, has openings, has expertise in body image AND seems easy to trust. If circumstances require you to start with a clinician you’re a bit skeptical about, keep an open mind. Try a session or two, sharing as much as feels comfortable. If your clinician doesn’t feel like a good match for you after you’ve given them an honest shot, explain what you’re looking for and ask if they can recommend someone else for you. They won’t be offended, they just want to help.

It can also feel disheartening if you DO find a clinician who seems to be exactly what you’re looking for (on paper), but things don’t go as you hoped in your first few sessions. You may have a thought like “If this person seemed perfect and I didn’t feel comfortable talking to them, then I won’t feel comfortable talking to anyone.” Again, don’t be afraid to express your concerns and/or ask for a referral. There are many factors that go into a good clinician-client match. Sometimes the right clinician is the person you’d least expect.

Just like bodies come in all shapes and sizes, therapy can vary a lot from person to person. Different people have different needs, and different clinicians use different styles and strategies. You may feel better after your very first session, or it may take time for you to build trust in your clinician, share your story and learn different ways of thinking about things and doing things that help you feel better. It can take a lot of hard work to learn how to trust your body and treat it with respect, especially when in a world where body shaming and appearance-related teasing and bullying are common. But you don’t have to do it alone- help is available, and you deserve it!

Are you ready to take the next step and look for a clinician? If so, these resources may help:

  • If you are in Australia, The Butterfly Foundation has a helpline you can call to get support in getting help
  • If you are in America, NEDA has a helpline that can be accessed by call, text or chat, as well as a database of treatment providers
  • Academy of Eating Disorders has a directory that includes body image and eating disorder experts from across the globe

Meet The Author,
Dr. Thea Bardin

Dr. Thea Bardin is a clinical psychologist originally from New York. After completing dual undergraduate degrees in psychology and health science she worked as an artistic swimming coach prior to starting graduate school. Thea is passionate about reading, writing, talking and teaching about body image issues and eager to contribute to efforts to create healthy environments for young athletes.

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