Negative Body Image and ‘The Red Car Syndrome’

Negative Body Image and ‘The Red Car Syndrome’
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Today, I was talking with a brilliant client (this is shared with permission) and we got into a conversation about how negative body image relates to ‘the red car syndrome.’

What is ‘The Red Car Syndrome?’

Have you ever had the experience where you are shopping for a specific type of car (let’s say a red Honda) and suddenly you start to notice that car everywhere? This is the known as ‘The Red Car Syndrome.’

However, it doesn’t just relate to cars. The reality is that often the things that we focus on expand. For instance, let’s say that you have the core belief “I am such a failure.” You likely will start to see “evidence” of your belief everywhere.

The reason behind this phenomenon is that we have a reticular activating system within the neocortex of our brain. This system helps us to filter important information and impacts what we focus on. It heightens our awareness of certain things.

‘The Red Car Syndrome’ and Negative Body Image

So how does this syndrome relate to negative body image?

Often for people struggling with negative body image there is a desire to try to change their body, as they believe this will improve their body image. For instance, someone might decide that they need to “lose weight” or to “gain muscle.”

When you focus on trying to change your body to reduce or eliminate perceived “flaws,” the negative feelings that you have about your body often expand. When we try to change our bodies, the message that we are sending is that our bodies are flawed. When we view our body as flawed, we will start to see more “flaws.”

While focusing on trying to change your body may give you a “temporary high,” in the long-term it leads to increased anxiety and discontent.

Ultimately, the more that you focus on what you dislike about your body-the worse you will feel about your body.

How to use ‘The Red Car Syndrome’ to Cultivate Positive Body Image

I define positive body image as not spending so much time thinking about your body, because you are busy living your amazing life.

To use ‘Red Car Syndrome’ to cultivate a more positive body image here are a few quick tips:

1. Start to surround yourself on social media with body-positive accounts and images of body-diversity (i.e. people of all shapes and sizes).

2. Listen to podcasts that promote body-positivity, such as Life Unrestricted with Meret Boxler, Body Kindness with Rebecca Scritchfield, Food Psych, The BodyLove Project Podcast with Jessi Haggerty, and Fearless Rebelle Radio with Summer Innanen.

3. Make a list of the things that you are thankful for that your body does for you (i.e. body function).

4. Make a list of the qualities that you appreciate about yourself, which have nothing to do with your appearance.

5. Think about hobbies or interests that have nothing to do with your body, appearance, or food, and begin to pour your energy into those things.

The Bottom Line

Struggling with constant thoughts about food and your body can feel exhausting. However, with access to support and treatment-you can find freedom from this.

If you are struggling with this, it’s so important to be compassionate with yourself. It’s not your fault if you are suffering, however you can make the choice to seek help and to start to do some of these exercises.

After all, your life is worth so much more than spending your time hating your body and trying to change it.

Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C: is an eating disorder therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland. Jennifer specializes in helping teens and adults struggling with anorexia, binge eating disorder, bulimia, compulsive exercise, and body image issues. Jennifer provides eating disorder therapy in Rockville, MD. Connect with Jennifer through her website:

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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