Does your actual appearance match what you see in the mirror?

Image via We Heart It

What do you see when you look in the mirror? Where do you focus your attention? If you're anything like me, your eyes zero in on the areas that you think need the most improvement, are ashamed of, or otherwise cause your distress and anxiety.

When I look into the mirror, my eyes immediately zoom in on my stomach. I am by far the most sensitive about that part of my body than any other, so much so that in July I devoted an entire post to the contentious relationship I've had with that body part. The state of my stomach defines my mood, my diet, and the level of anxiety I feel during the day. When it is flat I feel confident; when it's bloated or bulging I feel anxious and depressed. I don't want to be touched; I wear long shirts and Spanx in an effort to conceal what I am certain looks like a 9 month pregnancy belly; and, worst of all, I miss the days of my anorexia and bulimia, when my hipbones jutted forward proudly and my stomach was concave.

I was having dinner with two friends the other day when the conversation wound to our bodies - specifically, what parts each of us despised the most. One friend lamented her calves and thighs, which she proclaimed "huge." Her discomfort towards them was so strong that it dictated how she dressed - no short skirts, shorts or body skimming pants for her. The other complained about the "junk in her trunk" - her booty, which she felt had gotten bigger and bigger in the past few years. For the life of me, I could not see what either had to complain about. I didn't see huge legs, or a big butt, or any flaws at all. They each looked beautiful - two well-dressed, intelligent women I was proud to have dinner with.

Most of the time, the image someone has of their body is pretty close to its external appearance. You may see your thighs as slightly bigger than they actually are, or your arm muscles as slightly smaller, but the discrepancy is usually minimal. In some mental disorders, however, body image can become dramatically distorted. Those who suffer from body dysmorphic disorder think that parts of their bodies are malformed or grotesque, even when these supposed flaws are not noticeable to others. In eating disorders such as anorexia patients continue to think they need to lose weight even as their bodies become emaciated.

When I was in treatment for anorexia, one common group therapy activity was body tracing. We'd sketch an outline of our bodies on a life-size piece of butcher paper, then lie in the outline as another patient traced our actual size inside of it. The discrepancy between what we thought our body shape was, and what it actually was, astounded us. I couldn't help but flash back to this memory after dinner concluded. I wondered how far off the average woman's perception of her body is from her actual size.

What people see in their mirror and how they believe they look varies wildly according to age, ethnic group, sexual orientation, mood, what they've been watching on TV, what magazines they read, whether they're married or single, what kind of childhood they had, whether they take part in sports, what phase of the menstrual cycle they're in, whether they are pregnant, where they've been shopping – and even what they had for lunch. All research to date on body image shows that women are much more critical of their appearance than men, and much less likely to admire what they see in the mirror. Up to 8 out of 10 women will be dissatisfied with their reflection, and more than half may see a distorted image. According to the authors of the website My Body Gallery,  95 percent of non-eating disordered women overestimate the size of their hips by 16 percent and their waists by 25 percent, yet the same women were able to correctly estimate the width of a box. In a world full of images of how we ‘should’ look it can get difficult to tell how we DO look.

Your body image is how you perceive, think and feel about your body. This may have no bearing at all on your actual appearance. I've been feeling really crappy about my appearance lately, but while I'm struggling, I'm trying to figure out what has triggered these negative thoughts. My two friends mentioned the anxieties they're currently struggling with - work stress, and shame for having not attending college. I believe there's a direct correlation between how we see our bodies and external stress.

So now I ask you: What do you see when you look in the mirror? Do you believe you over or under-estimate your size? Have you ever noticed a correlation between poor body image and mood?

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21 comments:

  1. I caught this random British show the other day. Something like Thin and Thick but catchier. Basically one person is to thin and the other overweight. They do these little "studies" here in America. One they did in California was ask women their weight and then weighed them. American women were about a pound off from what the scale said. The British women were not even as close to guessing at what they weighed. they used this study as a way to show how obsessed we are in America about our weight, especially women. Its interesting though that we our average size is bigger than Britian. American women seem to have this blown up insane version of themselves in their head. Whether to big or to small. I know when I was very overweight a size 16, I perceived myself as smaller than I really was. And now that I'm a size 6, I see myself as bigger than I really am. Its like this catch 22 that is hard to correct.

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  2. I hope you smiled yesterday. This post is making me a little sad. Today, you should look in the mirror and smile, because you are beautiful--and whether you feel it or not, you are.

    Body image is a fascinating thing. My body image is directly related to what I do in the run of a day. If I'm reading fashion magazines or what not, I'll look in the mirror and feel pretty crappy about myself. If I'm reading something uplifting, I'll notice all the reasons why I am beautiful in my own unique way. We should surround ourselves with positivity. Ads and magazines and even some blogs can bring us down if we let them.

    I have bad days, but I have good days. And it always depends on what I'm doing or looking at.

    I pick things apart about my face. But there are times when I truly do feel okay and confident. Both affect my entire mood. I think we live in a very superficial world and it's a disastrous and sad thing. Yet I love fashion. But as a form of self expression and wearing what you love to feel good--not hide your body or make ourselves into a clone of something you wish you could be. That's the line. The trouble starts when we start to obsess about the things that aren't really important. When I lie down with my daughter in the night time in the dark, I am happiest, and it's not because I look great. Sometimes looking a million bucks isn't everything.

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  3. I really hope my comment made it though!

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  4. I always look to my stomach to decide how I feel. It's strange because that is where I look on other women as well. They will go on and on about whatever (legs, butt, boobs) and I will not understand because-at least they have a flat stomach! What else could you possibly care about? Just says how it's all in our own head.

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  5. i love this!! It seriously read my mind. I definitely don't see myself in the mirror the way others say they see me. I also really thing that body image correlates to mood changes.
    -nancy

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  6. Ah something we are all probably guilty of--overestimating our size. Lately I've been trying to focus on loving the body God gave me. He does know what He's doing, after all, and I am made perfectly in His image, so my body can't be that bad. ; )

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  7. I think I am skinnier in my head than I am in real life. A pic posted and tagged on Facebook yesterday was a rude reminder. Gah.

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  8. This post does explain your outfits. I have noticed you regulary feature garments that are loose around your stomach area. The funny part is: one of my favourite photos you posted of yourself is the one where you're wearing your jogging shorts :-D

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  9. I have to say I don't hate any part of my body. I do kinda dislike my tummy, the pooch left from having my daughter is a pain to dress but it's such an important part of me that even if I could wave a magic wand and whisk it away I probably wouldn't!! I see my body as fine, it's the badly shaped/ill-fitting clothes that are the problem!!

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  10. I don't like my stomach either!

    But my sister and I both occasionally suffer from what we call "reverse anorexia" when we look in the mirror and think we look great only to be rudely informed that we've gained 10 lbs when all of our clothes don't fit. (I was convinced that my dry cleaner was shrinking everything for a year!)

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  11. This was a great read and I can totally relate. I'm very self concious about my belly and it usually the first indicator when I'm gaining or losing weight. I try to have little self talks with myself that my tummy is okay no matter what size it is that day.

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  12. This is part of why I did my "mirror fast"--it wasn't so much that I didn't like what I saw in the mirror, it was that I was beginning to learn that what I saw didn't match what other people saw. In my case it was more about my "mirror face" than about over- or under-estimating any particular body part (though I do that too)--we never know what other people see, and the mirror lies when it tells us otherwise.

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  13. I fully believe every woman has a slight hint of body dysmorphia. I myself know I view myself as larger than I am, as do so many of my friends (it's the fashion world; we're all just way too critical and surrounded by stick thin models).

    This is a great, thought provoking post and it's great to know I'm not as alone as I thought!


    XO Sahra
    EffortlessCool

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  14. Congrats on being selected for IFB's link roundup this week!

    My "look" definitely changes my mood and it's especially bad around the time of my cycle. Some days I see myself as nice-looking, other times bad-looking. I often feel very heavy and gigantically tall around my petite friends. And then someone will tell me how they see me, ie: the bf telling me that I'm sexy or calling me short (which I am compared to him) and I am forced to laugh at myself. Our minds are warped.

    Longer comment than I planned to leave, lol. Great post.

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  15. It`s natural that we overestimate our size and hate what we see in the mirror - how could we not - the beauty-images the media brainwashes us with EXCLUSIVELY show girls who are young than us, 20 cm taller + 20 kilos lighter than us and PHOTOSHOPPED flawless on top of that.

    Congrats on making the Links a la Mode! Well deserved!

    Best, Jenny

    http://www.dresscodehighfashion.com

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  16. I'm a total Narcissus. When there's a mirror in front of me my eyes go to my face, which I love regardless of how other people react to it. I have to actively remember to make eye contact with my dance students in the mirror, because otherwise I am like "oh hello there fabulous, how you doin'; you are smokin', what, are there other people here?" I really do not know if I am "hot or not" from other people's perspective, but I am best buds with my own face.

    I do worry about my belly sometimes, but since I started taking daily outfit photos I've got a much more realistic feeling for how it actually looks, and not so many of those issues.

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  17. Thanks for this very perceptive and well-written article! This needs to be pointed out! I think I read somewhere that they did a study in which they had women pick the one closest to their own silhouette from a row of differently sized silhouettes, and the average woman routinely picked the silhouette two clothing sizes larger than her actual body, but I can't cite the source, so I don't know exactly which population they tested. In any case, it's a sad piece of evidence...

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  18. I was sad to read this and realize I'm not the only one who misses my unhealthy, starved, but stick thin body. I am now on the low end of a "healthy" weight, but I feel like a cow. I need to go eat something before I can't.....

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  19. I fixate on my body sometimes (mostly my stomach and my flat butt), but the real trouble is my face. This is a strange thing to say, but I don't think I really know what I look like. But I'm fairly certain that I'm ugly. If I'm having the kind of day where I don't like the way my body looks I can just wear clothes that make me feel better. There is no escaping my face and I usually look even worse with makeup. Every woman has things about her body that she doesn't like but I don't think I know anyone who hates the sight of her own face! I've felt like this since I was around 16, so 10 years...

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  20. I totally get what hellotampon said. I battle with my body image plenty, but even more so with my face. I don't see "pretty" in the mirror, just "acceptable" most days. And on the bad days, I'll try not to look at my face too often because it breaks my heart how ugly I seem. When I see pictures of myself, it's unbeleivable, and I'm always shocked to see I look even worse then I had thought.

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  21. hey, it was great to meet you the other day at the pearl cup--i'm the read head plotting my rise to fame as a beauty pageant judge after completing my VERY expensive education. :) thanks for all the tips you bestowed the other day! i'm commenting on this post because it make me think of the book "the body project." if you've not read it, i think you'd find it quite interesting . . . again, cool to meet you!

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