Body Avoidance: What it is and How to… | Center for Growth Therapy

Body Avoidance: What it is and How to Combat it

Suzanna — Intern therapist

Body Avoidance (Body Dysmorphia Therapy in Philadelphia)

Summer is in full swing now, so the temperatures are rising! With this hot weather, we can often find ourselves by the pool, playing sports, or walking outside. Despite the rising temperatures going up, some of us may not feel as comfortable shedding off the amount of clothing we wear. There may be many reasons for wearing more clothing, such as modesty, religion, or just general comfortability. However, sometimes people fall into behaviors which are referred to as body avoidance. Some individuals may wear more clothing to hide their weight or body shape. Maybe you’re wearing long-sleeved shirts or full-length pants to cover up your body despite the heat. Sometimes individuals wear clothing that is vastly oversized to hide their shape. These body avoidance behaviors are normal responses to our discomfort! Yet, these coping mechanisms can get in the way of our summer fun and may even cause health issues in extreme heat. So, addressing body avoidance can be really important.

Feeling Uncomfortable is Normal (Body Dysmorphia Therapy in Philadelphia)

Sometimes, we can have difficulty feeling comfortable with our bodies. Body shape can change at the drop of a hat for reasons such as age, environment, diet, hormone levels, stress levels, and/or jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic has also been a massive factor in changes in our body shape, as many of us have been much less mobile with work from home and pandemic restrictions. You may have noticed recently that your body is not shaped how it used to be. Possibly, you’re having a more challenging time fitting into your clothes. Changes in our body shape are typically normal and to be expected. However, that does not change the distress we may feel.

The media we consume constantly tells us stories about how we are supposed to look or what weight we should be at to be “normal.” Social media influencers and stars are often at weights we can not fathom ourselves at ever. Even our medical system is based on old-fashioned ideas about weight! The Body Mass Index scale is something many doctors still use to determine “underweight,” “overweight,” and “obesity” status, despite the fact it has been proven to be outdated for our modern times. This scale fails to account for factors such as bone density, muscle mass, and differences due to sex or race.

People deal with changing body shapes in different ways. Some may choose to exercise or change their diet. Others may be perfectly fine with their new shape and choose to accept it. Sometimes when individuals are unhappy with their new body shape, they may choose to engage in unhelpful behaviors. There are many unhelpful behaviors individuals sometimes engage in to help rectify these uncomfortable feelings. One of these is body avoidance.

What is Body Avoidance? (Body Dysmorphia Therapy in Philadelphia)

Body avoidance is a term that refers to the steps one may take to prevent themselves and others from seeing their body. Body avoidance can be a way to cope with changes in our body shape and weight. As mentioned earlier, this may mean covering up with layers of clothing inappropriate for the season we are in currently. It can also mean wearing baggy, loose clothing that leaves individuals shapeless. Some of the ways body avoidance can manifest itself include (but are not limited to):

  • Covering up with layers of clothing

  • Wearing excessively baggy clothing

  • Not engaging in activities that typically require less clothing (i.e., swimming, athletics)

  • Avoiding shopping for new clothes

  • Covering mirrors in the house or avoiding mirrors in daily life

  • Avoiding all reflective surfaces

  • Refraining from physical contact with others

  • Avoiding taking pictures of oneself and viewing images of oneself

  • Refraining from touching certain parts of the body one is dissatisfied with

It is important to remember that all reactions to changes in your body are valid responses. These changes in your behavior may serve you at the moment to prevent further distress. However, there are often harmful effects that go hand in hand with these behaviors. They can also limit your ability to engage in certain activities. For example, if you are avoiding wearing a swimsuit, you may not be able to swim at the beach or tan outside with your friends. While these behaviors may seem harmless, they could be contributing to continuing a negative body image. Negative body image can lead to a myriad of issues such as depression, eating disorders, and anxiety. So, while these behaviors may seem harmless, they can contribute to some serious problems.

Body avoidance can become problematic when it interferes with your daily life. For example, if you can’t participate in outdoor activities because you need to wear baggy clothes and it’s too hot outside, that is impeding on your life and happiness. If you feel limited because of your need for larger clothing sizes or wanting to avoid your perception, it is time to confront your behaviors and seek to change them.

Managing Body Avoidance (Body Dysmorphia Therapy in Philadelphia)

So now you have realized that you engage in body avoidance and see how it is getting in the way of you enjoying your life. You may feel distressed by learning the purpose behind these behaviors. These behaviors may have been a part of your life for years. It can feel intimidating to try and change them. What now? Moving forward, you have a few ways to reverse your behavior pattern. One of them is by setting manageable goals to help reverse these behaviors.

Step One: Notice Your Behaviors

As said earlier, some of these behaviors may be ingrained into your everyday routine. They could be secondhand now. So, take the time to be mindful and notice what behaviors you are engaging in from the above list. Do you reach for the baggy shirt even when it’s over 90 degrees outside? Are you shying away from pictures and seeing yourself? It may take a bit, or you may notice right away. See if these behaviors happen around specific activities or times, such as after eating or before going to the gym.

Step Two: Address Behavior

If you engage in multiple body avoidance behaviors, you may feel moved after reading this to target all of your behaviors at once. However, it may be too much to address all of them head-on at first. These behaviors may have been a part of your routine for a while now, so it can be hard to reverse them immediately. Choose one or two behaviors that you have the most confidence in your ability to target. These may be the ones you find the least distressing or maybe the behaviors you find the easiest to change. If you only engage in one or two behaviors, starting with those is a great place to start.

Step Three: Set Progressive Goals for This Behavior

Now that you have one or two behaviors you would like to focus on, it is time to describe how you would like to change those behaviors. Be detailed in the level of change you would like to make in a specific time frame. For example, if you avoid shopping for clothes, maybe start by making yourself shop online once a week. Gradually exposing yourself to more aspects of situations you are trying to avoid will help you realize you are able to accomplish. Eventually, the idea of hiding your body will be replaced by the carefree nature of being able to navigate life without worry surrounding your body. By writing out goals that are specific in levels of change you hope to achieve, it helps make the goals measurable. Continue creating goals around that behavior that progress on the scale of difficulty for you. In the example of shopping, here are some progressive goals that could be made:

  • Week One: Online shopping once a week
    • Start out by shopping online at a store that is not exclusively clothing related (i.e. Target), so you can get used to shopping online while being exposed to clothing marketing. Spend part of your time clicking through the styles of clothing you like and see if any jump out to you. Also, spend some time online shopping for non-clothing related items to give yourself a break much like you would in real life.

    • After this experience, reflect on what was the hardest part of the experience, and what was surprising about the experience?

  • Week Two: Online shopping three times in a week
    • Explore different clothing stores’ online marketplaces. Click through the pictures, sizing, and colors. Explore what types of pieces of clothing you are drawn to, what pieces of clothing you think you would like on your body, and figuring out what types of clothing pieces you’d be interested in purchasing. If your body size does not fit in the sizes of clothing sold at mainstream stores, check out size-inclusive brands online so you can find clothing that fits your body type.

    • After this experience, reflect on what thoughts were going through your head? Did you notice any patterns to your thoughts or worries?

  • Week Three: Going to the clothing store and walking around
    • You’ve been exposing yourself to clothing shopping the last two weeks now. While online shopping can be fruitful and handy, sometimes we need to shop in store. Shopping in store can give us easy access to a handful of sizes and styles to try. Likewise, sometimes specific clothing items are only sold in person. Therefore, it is important to relearn how to navigate a clothing store. Go to a clothing store that has clothing in your size. Much like you did online, walk around the store to see what sticks out to you. Pick up pieces of clothing that catch your eye. Touch them. Focus on what fabrics feel good to your body, and specify which ones don’t feel good. Notice the elasticity of different fabrics and pieces. See the variety of sizes clothing stores carry. Also pay attention to how the same types of clothing (i.e. pants) can have different sizes and fits, even when they are labeled as the same size. You can see this by holding different styles up to each other and comparing fabrics.

    • After this experience, reflect on W

  • Week Four: Going to the clothing store, picking out one to two items that appear to fit, and trying them on
    • Last week you checked out the clothes. Now it’s time to start trying clothes on! Some individuals may find it helpful to take a tape measure with them and pre-measure themselves. This way when you get to the store, you can measure different clothing items before hand. This may help prevent discomfort from trying on an item that does not fit. Pick out a few different sizes in a piece to see what sizes fit your body best. If you end up liking the piece, you can buy it too!

  • Week Five: Going to the clothing store, picking out multiple items that appear to fit, and trying them on
    • After last week learning what size you are, now you can shop more freely. You have overcome so much by gaining exposure to different aspects of shopping, that now you are ready to really shop. Pick out a few pieces in that size. Understand that each piece is constructed differently, so you may not fit in the same size in every item. Know this is totally okay and that everyone experiences this when shopping!

    • If harmful thoughts cross your mind, reflect on whether you would tell a friend these thoughts. Think about ways to talk kinder to yourself.

  • Week Six: Going to the clothing store, picking out a bathing suit, and trying it on
    • Bathing suits can be one of the harder things to shop for when experiencing body discomfort due to how little they often cover one’s body. Picking out a few sizes and styles can help you best find what’s comfortable for you and what you like on your body. You have gotten used to shopping for other clothing thus far, so shopping for an item like a bathing suit should feel much more manageable than before.

    • Something to ask yourself is what could I do next time to make this experience easier for myself? How do I feel empowered by getting through this experience?

This goal outline is just an example of how a goal list could look. Items on your list may change based on your comfort level with the behavior, what other stresses you are under, and/or your preferred timeline in moving past the behavior. There is no right or wrong way to shape your goal progression list. Once you progress through addressing one of your behaviors, maybe try addressing another. If you feel super confident, you can even address two simultaneously! By reducing these behaviors, you can begin reducing the shame and dissatisfaction you feel with your body. Likewise, you are able to live life to its fullest and experience all that our warmer temperatures have to offer!

Schedule an Appointment Now for Body Dissatisfaction in Philadelphia

If you would like more support on your path to a healthier, more enjoyable relationship with your body, please schedule an appointment with one of our trained clinicians. They can help shape and guide your journey with evidence-based approaches. Help is only a phone call away. Call (215) 922-LOVE, extension 100. You can also schedule an appointment at thecenterforgrowth.com/therapy/schedule-an-appointment. A therapist at the Center for Growth will be more than happy to help you on this journey. We have offices located in Society Hill, Philadelphia; Fairmount, Philadelphia; Ocean City, New Jersey; Mechanicsville, Virginia; and Santa Fe, New Mexico that offer in-person treatment. We also see clients virtually from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Mexico, Florida, and Georgia.


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