How your body image is actually affecting your health — and might even be threatening your life

Logically, most of us know that we should all appreciate our bodies and love them as much as we can. Emotionally, however, that’s often very hard (if not impossible) to do. And it turns out our inability to get onboard with our body in a real way is hurting more than just our self esteem and ability to confidently post selfies. A new study found that our body image affects our health, especially when it comes to getting tested for certain, sometimes fatal, conditions. A study done by Professor Viren Swami of Anglia Ruskin University and Professor Adrian Furnham of University College London, published in the journal Body Image, surveyed almost 400 women about how they feel about their breasts and how often they do self breast exams.

Self breast exams, for example, are one of the best ways to detect breast cancer. If you do them regularly, you might spot a lump or something weird sooner and go to your doctor to get it checked out. In fact, about 40 percent of breast cancers are diagnosed because a woman had a concern and went to her doctor, according to Johns Hopkins University. So it’s important to know how to help women do more of them, which is what these researchers set out to do.

The results of the study are disheartening and clearly seem to reflect the larger issues at play when we socialize women to hate their bodies, or at least feel some level of “dissatisfaction” with their breasts, as the majority of the study participants did. According to a press release accompanying the study in Eureka Alert, 31 percent of women wanted smaller breasts and 44 percent wanted larger ones. Almost a third of women admitted to never or rarely doing a breast exam by themselves.

Swami said in the same release, “Our findings suggest that greater breast size dissatisfaction is significantly associated with less frequent breast self-examination, lower confidence in detecting breast change, and greater delay in seeing a doctor following breast change.”

Over half of the women said that they would see a doctor right away if they felt anything off, but that would require actually doing a self-exam. About one woman in 10 admitted that she might delay seeing a doctor. Swami added:

"For women who are dissatisfied with their breast size, having to inspect their breasts may be experienced as a threat to their body image and so they may engage in avoidance behaviors. Breast size dissatisfaction may also activate negative self-conscious emotions, such as shame and embarrassment, that results in avoiding breast self-examination."

It’s easy to see how that could be the case, especially if you’re a procrastinator or get a little anxious about health-related issues. We tend to avoid doing things we’re scared of, which might include going to see a doctor or even just touching parts of our bodies that we don’t love. Telling women to “love their bodies” is not such a simple solution either (because we don’t have to love anything we don’t want to), though Swami thinks it’s a place to start.

She added in her statement, “Promoting greater breast size satisfaction may be a means of empowering women to incorporate breast self-examinations and breast awareness into their health practice. And promoting greater breast awareness may be a useful means of helping women view their breasts in more functional terms, rather than purely aesthetic terms.”

Body image isn’t just getting in the way of helping us catch breast cancer early on either.

Stigma and shame surrounding all sorts of conditions — mental illness, reproductive health, sexually transmitted diseases — is the root cause of some people not getting tested and seeking out and sticking to treatment.

Research shows that there are many reasons people with mental illness or STDS like Hep C, herpes, or HIV don’t adhere to their medications. One factor in this, of course, is cost. But there are studies that show the runner-up is most definitely how patients *feel* about themselves. If you’re depressed or ashamed enough of your illness, it will affect whether you look into the mirror every day and take your meds with breakfast or just say screw it and go back to bed. If you’re embarrassed about your vagina in some way, you might avoid the gynecologist. If you’re overweight, you might not even go to the doctor at all, for fear of being fat shamed.

Basically, the ways we’re trained to feel negatively about our bodies has incredible consequences when it comes to how we take care of them.

Swami added that she hopes her study shows how much we have to educate health providers to not judge or shame women for their bodies either, and to understand that there are greater psychological reasons why we might not be taking our antidepressants or coming in for a Pap smear on time. The relationship between our brain and our body is a complicated one. Just don’t let it be so complicated that you end up not taking care of your health.