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Normative Discontent: A Feeling Of Constant Unhappiness With Our Bodies – An Expert Explains


If you constantly look at yourself and criticise the way you look, even in the smallest way, you’re probably experiencing normative discontent.

Many of us know what it’s like to look in the mirror and not like what we see, or think we look ‘bigger’ despite being no different in size to the day previously – but really, it’s largely down to way we’re feeling and our own body image, rather than how we actually look. 

In fact, this generalised negativity towards our bodies has a name: normative discontent. The term was coined in 1984, and was originally used to describe the generalised negativity towards weight and physical appearance that many women experience.

A recent article in The Times has brought the phrase to light again, as a new study has found that less than half of its 750 participants were able to correctly perceive their own weight status. So what is normative discontent and how can we recognise our own body negativity?

GLAMOUR spoke to Liz Ritchie – an integrative psychotherapist from St Andrew’s Healthcare, who specialises in body image issues – about normative discontent and what it really means.

What is normative discontent?

“Normative discontent content is a means of describing perpetual dissatisfaction in what we actually have. This leaves us in a constant state of self-sabotage as we are constantly looking for something better,” says Liz. “Within this mindset, happiness is unachievable and regardless of any change for the better, we will constantly feel discontent and dissatisfaction. It is a widespread phenomenon and is not just exclusive to women but also affects men.”

“By definition alone, normative discontent is thought to be the ‘norm’ rather than the exception. Feeling negative about ones appearance becomes a way of life for many and becomes a very restrictive mindset. It has been specifically related to body image and manifests itself in dissatisfaction in body shape, size and weight. 

“The word ‘normative’ suggests it is not actually seen as a problem by many… being generally unhappy with your lot is acceptable and normal, and therefore it is okay to be unhappy with ourselves. These body image issues are very common in women, and can start at an early age.”

Why has normative discontent become prevalent among so many people?

“We live in a time where we have obsessive and incessant conversations about food and body size,” says Liz. “Normative discontent has become much more common in the digital age. As a result of increased exposure to social media , we find ourselves being immersed with images of the ‘body ideal’ – which for women is the ‘skinny ideal’ and for men the ‘muscular ideal’. 

“Many of us seek perfectionism, and the images on media platforms can reinforce these ideals, which of course maintain the narrative of normative discontent as perfectionism is an unattainable ideal. This can result in significant mental health issues including social and body dysmorphia.”

How can we change our thinking to avoid normative discontent?

“An understanding of what we mean by normative discontent is crucial in order to change the negative mindset that maintains these levels of dissatisfaction. Most of us at some point in our lives will experience moments of negative self-talk towards ourselves.  

“It’s about learning to recognise the unrelenting negative self-talk that defines normative discontent, in order to change the cognitive patterns or silence ‘the voices’ in order to make body dissatisfaction much more manageable. We can try and use the negative energy that is created by the emotional saturation to do something positive, which will enable us to break through the sabotages that prevent us from living our best lives.”

If you’re struggling with the way you look and it’s affecting your mental health, please speak to your GP or visit mind.org.uk.



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