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Navigating Photo Triggers and Body Image

September 19, 2023

Self-Paced Course: Non-Diet Academy


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A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

Meet Katy

You know that moment where you have someone take a photo of you out doing something, like maybe you’re at a concert or an event with your partner or friends, and you get your phone back and look at the photos and you’re horrified by what you see? Or maybe you’re scrolling on social media and someone has tagged you in a photo and you can’t untag yourself quickly enough because you’re panicking that everyone you know is going to see this photo and judge how you must have really let yourself go and that you’re obviously failing in life? 

This is a really common struggle, and I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all seen photos of ourselves that we don’t like, but for some of us this can be such a huge trigger for negative body image, self-hatred and desperately wanting to do something to lose weight or change your body. 

I’ve known people who didn’t want to get married because they were afraid of how they’d feel about the pictures, and people who basically have no photos of themselves with their family or friends because they refuse to get in the photo, or they’re always the one taking the photo. And it’s so sad to think about delaying major moments like your own wedding, or not having photos of yourself with the people you love. This is morbid, but let’s pretend that you died tomorrow and we had to plan your funeral, and there were almost no pictures of you to display. That’s really heartbreaking. 

I don’t want you to erase yourself from your own life. I don’t want you to skip out on living life vibrantly because you hate the way you look in photos. 

You CAN work through the body shame that you feel when you see images of yourself. In fact, you can also desensitize yourself to how triggering this is in the first place. And this is exactly what we’re going to cover today. 

Steps to Take When You’re Triggered by a Photo of Yourself

Step 1) Take a deep breath and set the picture aside and stop looking at it for now. 

It’s tempting to obsess about the picture, and to zoom in and look at all of the different parts of your body that you don’t like. You might even find yourself looking at everyone else in the picture and comparing your body to theirs. STOP

Scrutinizing yourself in the photo (or photos if there are multiple ones from the same event or situation) isn’t going to help you when you’re in shame. It’s only going to make things worse.

Being in shame is like having goggles on that only allow you to see yourself negatively. It’s whatever the opposite of rose-colored glasses is – it’s crap-colored glasses. So let’s take a break from the photo and do some grounding and self-regulating. 

So for step 1 I want you to set the photo aside, and take a big, long, slow, deep, diaphragmatic breath. Do this a few times until you feel your nervous system starting to calm down. You might need to distract yourself for a while so that the intense wave of shame can pass. That’s ok. Go focus your attention on something else – maybe for 20 minutes, or an hour, or the rest of the day. 

When you feel more regulated, it’s time to take the next step…

Step 2) Practice self-compassion and body kindness

Self-compassion is a tool for when we are in shame. It’s a big myth that self-compassion means we are letting ourselves go or that we’re being easy on ourselves or that we’re just lying to ourselves. That’s not it at all.

Self-compassion means that you’re offering yourself the same kindness you would a friend. If your friend came to you and said, “I just saw a horrible photo of myself and I feel terrible,” you probably aren’t going to tell her what a disgusting slob she is and that she needs to restrict her food and go exercise to lose weight. Of course not! 

Think about what you might say to her. Maybe you’d tell her, “Oh my gosh, that sucks, I’ve been there. Sometimes pictures just aren’t good, and it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.”

You see how you’d naturally be more kind and empathetic towards your friend? That’s what we’re aiming for here towards yourself. Truth bomb: You take better care of something you care about than something you hate. You can be kind to yourself through this struggle, even if you wish your body looked different. 

Self-compassion and body kindness are two things that I hammer home inside Non-Diet Academy, because if we can’t learn to relate to our bodies with kindness, we are always going to feel like we are in a battle against ourselves. 

So let’s use Tara Brach’s RAIN acronym to help us remember the steps for self-compassion:

R = Recognize

A = Awareness

I = Investigate

N = Nurture

That’s what to do – and here’s 1 important thing NOT to do. Do not restrict your food in response to photo shame. Don’t punish yourself through exercise. Don’t go on a diet. Trying to fix your body is not the solution to body shame. It only reinforces the shame. Instead, let’s practice self-compassion and body kindness.

Body kindness might mean taking a hot shower, or massaging your skin with lotion, or getting a hot cup of tea, or having your favorite meal. Maybe it means wearing something comfy that day, or curling up under a cozy blanket. There are so many ways that we can treat our bodies with kindness rather than punishment. 

Step 3) Revisit the photo with new intentional and compassionate self-talk.

This part is going to be hard, but it’s really important. Instead of avoiding this photo that was so triggering to you, we are going to look at it again. I know this sounds bonkers, but hear me out. 

If you have a phobia of spiders, the solution isn’t to avoid spiders for the rest of your life. At some point you’re going to encounter one, and rather than having it send you into a panic attack, we can work on neutralizing the fear. The way that an anxiety specialist would help you do that is to work through systematic exposures to spiders. It’s through facing the fear that you are able to neutralize your anxiety and discomfort. 

Same thing with the photo. Avoiding looking at yourself in photos makes it feel more shocking when you see a photo of yourself. Of course that’s going to feel shocking if you hardly ever see yourself from that angle! Most of us don’t necessarily see fully body pictures of ourselves very often. We’re used to seeing ourselves in the mirror, and often the pictures we take are selfies where we can pose ourselves at the angles that we prefer. 

So when someone else takes a photo and you can’t necessarily pose yourself in a way that you think looks best, or simply just seeing your whole body can be really disorienting, confusing and triggering. 

What we’re going to do here in this step is revisit the photo that sent you into a spiral. This time however, you’re going to go into it with an intentional and compassionate mindset. Before you look at the photo again, I want you to come up with coping statements that you are going to use while you’re looking at yourself in this photo. Let me give you some examples:

  • This is a photo of me that I don’t like, but I can tolerate that.
  • My body looks different from different angles, and this is one 2-dimensional perspective.
  • Who cares what I look like in this photo? 
  • Nobody is scrutinizing me the way that I am.
  • My body deserves kindness and respect, no matter what.
  • I care more about the memories than I do my body size and shape in this photo.
  • This photo represents a memory from my life. 
  • I can see photos of my body without liking the photo, and still be ok with myself. This does not define me.
  • Everyone sees photos of themselves that they don’t like sometimes. It’s not a big deal.
  • The more I see myself in photos, the less bothered by it I will be. 
  • That is my arm. That is my leg. That is my stomach. (Speaking factually, without judgment, about the parts of your body.)

I encourage you to write down your coping statements before you look at the photo again. And to only spend a few minutes on this step, and then move on and put the photo aside again. You can follow this 3-step process as often as you need to. It gets easier and faster the more you do it.

The Work You Can Do NOW to Prevent These Shame Spirals From Happening in the Future

Most people try to avoid photo shame by not being in photos. They’ll offer to take the photo, or they’ll hide in the back of a photo, or they’ll avoid going to events where they might be photographed. 

All of these avoidance behaviors only reinforce that underlying assumption that there’s something wrong with your body that you must hide from the world, and it perpetuates your inability to tolerate seeing yourself in photos because you are avoiding them. 

Again, you’re going to think I’ve lost my marbles, but here’s what I recommend:

Take more photos of yourself. Yep. I said what I said.

I want you to take your phone, set it up across the room, set the timer and take some full body pictures of yourself from different angles. 

I don’t want you to pose for these photos. This is not about practicing how to make yourself look as thin as possible. That’s what celebrities, models and influencers do, and it’s part of why we have such effed up beauty standards.

I want you to just stand normal. In fact, try to stand in as UN-flattering of a way as possible. 

And then you’re going to use your coping statements that you wrote out earlier, and you’re going to look at the pictures. They’re just for you. Nobody else needs to see them and you can delete them when you’re done. 

I want you to do this on a regular basis. The goal here is to repeatedly expose your brain to images of yourself, and to normalize that image. That way when you see yourself in photos that other people take it’s not so shocking. 

This is how we help you not have that sense of not recognizing yourself in photos. This is a really common phenomenon where people will see themselves and the photo doesn’t match their mental image of themself and it can be so upsetting and confusing. This often happens because of 1) distorted and negative body image, and 2) not having enough exposure to seeing these types of images of yourself so it doesn’t feel familiar or normal. 

It’s kind of like hearing your own voice on a recording and being horrified by it. Prior to doing this work online I hardly ever watched myself on video or listened to audio recordings of my voice. It was just not something that happened in the things I did in my life. Now that I am frequently recording these podcast episodes, hosting masterclasses and live trainings, recording videos for my courses and programs – I see and hear myself all the time. At first it was SO weird and uncomfortable and I hated it. Now I’m used to it. I can look at it just as part of the work I do and I can see when I need to edit things for clarity or quality, but it’s not about shame over my voice or my appearance anymore like it was at first. 

It gets easier, I promise! In fact, I want you to try this photo activity out and then DM me and let me know how it goes and what it was like for you. 

Ok, one more thing and then we’ll wrap up…

How to Stop Comparing Your Body to Past Pictures of Yourself and to Others

Typically comparison is a big part of the reason we don’t like the way our bodies look in photos. We see a picture of ourselves and think about how much weight we’ve gained, or how we don’t look as good as we used to. Or we compare ourselves to other people in the photo who we think look better than we do.

Another thing that we are usually unconsciously doing is comparing ourselves to the other images that we constantly see. We don’t even realize we are doing this, but it’s happening beneath the surface.

Research shows that the more time we spend on social media in particular, the worse our body image gets. This has been shown again and again. 

And it makes sense. Think about it…You’re on social media and most of what we are seeing is curated. People are posting the things they want you to see. They’re not posting the pictures of themselves that they hate. A lot of the images we see are either edited or used filters, so what we are seeing isn’t necessarily reality. We might know this intellectually. But your brain doesn’t fully know it when it comes to comparison. 

The research on body image and comparison used to be all about the magazines and photoshopped models and celebrities, right? They found the same thing back then. The more we looked at magazines, the worse our body image got.

On social media it’s actually worse, because now we aren’t only comparing ourselves to celebrities and models – we’re comparing ourselves to people we know in real life. We subconsciously think to ourselves, “If Suzy down the street can look like that, then I should be able to as well.” 

So even though I’m telling you to expose yourself to more pictures of yourself as a therapeutic strategy, I’m also telling you to stop looking at so many pictures of other people. It’s not helpful.

And when you are on social media, I encourage you to intentionally curate your feed so that you’re not only seeing thin people. Diversify the bodies represented in your feed so that your brain can see and recognize at your subconscious level that body diversity exists and is normal. 

When it comes to pictures of yourself in the past, stop comparing yourself. It does you no good. Bodies change over time. Bodies change as we get older. Life happens. Aging happens. Our hormones change. Our relationship to food changes. We aren’t meant to look the same for our entire lives, and we must learn to accept this. There may be a grieving process that you experience over your old body. That’s ok. Let yourself feel it – the anger, the sadness, and eventually the acceptance. You can get there, I promise. And if you need support, that’s what I’m here for, reach out. You don’t have to do this alone.

These are the hard conversations that we’ve got to keep having. Body image isn’t about body positivity. It’s about learning to connect with yourself in ways that are more authentic and compassionate. 

For most of the clients and students I work with, body image is the longest and hardest part of their healing process. They tend to get the hang of things in terms of making peace with food quicker than they’ll feel at peace with their bodies, and because of that I have really built out and enhanced the part of Non-Diet Academy where we talk about body image, in order to help you get to a better place faster, without continuing to flounder. 

Even if you feel like you HAVE TO lose weight in order to be healthier or to accept your body, we can still work on body image. It doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your health or your desire to feel more comfortable and confident in your own skin. We can absolutely work on the way that you think about and feel about your body, as well as the way you treat your body – and I promise you that this will make a big difference. 

So if you want to make progress with this faster, and if you’re ready to also make peace with food, then I highly encourage you to reach out to me and we can chat about what additional tools and strategies might best support your needs right now. 

That’s all for today, we’ll talk again soon!

I covered it all in Episode 95-Navigating Photo Triggers and Body Image

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