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You Don’t Have to Feel Beautiful to Care for Your Body

Recent research suggests a new tool women can use to improve body image.

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Every woman I have ever met has spent some unhappy time in front of the mirror. When you’re alone, gazing at your own reflection, there’s no Instagram filter to smooth the rough edges of body discontent. For too many girls and women, looking at their own image is punctuated with a heavy sense of not being good enough.

Our culture’s responses to women’s widespread body loathing range from ineffective to insulting. We expect women to teem with confidence and body positivity when we live in a world that teaches us that our bodies will never be acceptable. We are exhorted to magically find the ability to love everything about our bodies in the face of an onslaught of advertising by companies that benefit from our body shame. We’re told to slap a Band-Aid on our psychological wounds in the form of a sticker that says, “You are beautiful.”

Telling women they are beautiful is not an effective method for improving body image. Recent research conducted by my lab at Northwestern University suggests a better way.

In a series of studies recently reported in Psychology of Women Quarterly, we demonstrate that several types of writing exercises can significantly improve young women’s body satisfaction. None of these exercises asks women to love the way they look or feel confident about their appearance. Instead, they offer different frameworks for thinking about one’s body — frameworks based on showing kindness and gratitude toward your body, even if you find it imperfect or disappointing.

We randomly assigned women to spend ten minutes writing one of several types of letters to themselves. They sat alone at a computer, typed their letter for ten minutes, then took five minutes to review and edit the letter. We identified three different letter-writing prompts that had an immediate, positive impact on body satisfaction and increased the positive emotions women felt. The first effective prompt was adapted from a self-compassion exercise developed by University of Texas professor Kristen Neff. We asked women to write a letter to themselves from the perspective of an unconditionally loving imaginary friend. “Imagine this friend can see all your strengths and weaknesses,” we instructed, “Reflect upon what this friend feels toward you: You are loved and accepted exactly as you are.” The second prompt was similar, but focused on the body. In this condition, women wrote specifically about what an unconditionally loving imaginary friend would want to tell them about their body.

The letters women wrote were stunning. They brought our research team to tears at times. One woman in the body compassion condition wrote, “Well, friend, here goes. You listen to the images, the media, the voices that tell you that your body is wrong, undesirable, and flawed. But listen to me. Your body is amazing. You find imperfection, but I find power . . . I see soft shoulders for leaning on and elegant fingers for making music. I see eyes of understanding and a smile that can light up a room.” It didn’t matter whether we asked women to focus on their body or not: Spending 15 minutes on these self-compassionate letters left them in a better mood and feeling more positive about how they looked.

We saw the same results from a letter prompt designed to encourage women to view their body in terms of what it does instead of how it looks. “Think about all your body does and how it helps you do the things you want to do each day,” we asked. Instead of nitpicking at perceived flaws, this prompt led women to show gratitude toward their bodies. One woman wrote, “Thank you, hands, for letting me paint, write, and type this letter out right now. Without you, I’d never know what it’s like to hold the hand of someone I love. Thank you, eyes, for letting me see the world, the good and the bad . . . Without my body, I’d never know the feeling of falling into bed at the end of a long day, or lying on the beach under the sun. I’d never be able to experience my mom’s hugs.” In a world where women are taught to view their bodies as objects, this prompt reminded our letter writers that their bodies aren’t just for being looked at.

If you want to improve your body image, stop trying to like every little thing you see in the mirror. Forget about advertising campaigns that insist you are beautiful just the way you are. You don’t have to feel beautiful to take care of your body. Instead, take out a pen and paper (or a laptop), and write yourself a letter harnessing the compassion we so often feel for others, but fail to give ourselves. You can show your body kindness, respect, and gratitude without changing a thing about how you look.