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Body Image

How to Have a Positive Body Image

It starts with how we relate to ourselves

PlayNLive/used with permission
Source: PlayNLive/used with permission

This post is from the Eating Disorders, Compulsions and Addictions Service (EDCAS) of the William Alanson White Institute in recognition of Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 22nd through February 27th).

By Elizabeth Halsted, Ph.D.

How we feel about ourselves as people directly impacts what we ultimately see in the mirror. Negative messages from others in our lives and from the media can make this a challenging proposition. Creating a positive body image requires being able to integrate our feelings about ourselves with the messages we are getting from others.

When we have a hard time reconciling how we feel with external influences, we are likely to experience insecurity in our social lives--anywhere from a low hum of anxiety to a crippling self consciousness. We may also find that a good feeling about our body image is hard to hold onto and can be disrupted by small comments or an unexpected glimpse of our reflection.

When it comes to creating a body image, each of us has a set of factors that come into play. As you read this post, ask yourself which elements come in to play for you:

  • Am I critical of my personality?
  • Am I a perfectionist?
  • Do I compare myself to other people?
  • Do I judge other people on their appearance?
  • What messages about my looks have I received from family, peers, and my community?

What we bring to the table

Creating a positive body image starts with how we relate to ourselves. It requires self-esteem, a positive attitude and emotional stability. These can be challenging to maintain.

Self-esteem stems from valuing our personalities and finding that others appreciate and enjoy our company and contributions. If we feel negatively about our personalities, we may have to rely too much on how we look to create a positive effect on others.

A positive attitude comes from being self-accepting of our strengths, as well as our limitations. Negative attitudes that tend to directly impact body image are perfectionism, comparing and being highly critical or judgmental. These are characteristic thinking styles of people with anorexia and contribute to body image disturbance.

Perfectionism creates a negative feeling about our bodies by creating ideals that    we are doomed to fail to achieve or maintain.

Comparing ourselves to others increases our susceptibility to possible      negative self-assessments.

Being highly critical or judgmental in general increases the likelihood that we   will turn this attitude against ourselves.

Emotional Stability comes from being able to maintain a connection to our feelings, thoughts and desires while being able to engage in shared experiences with others. For a positive body image, we must be able to hold onto how we feel about our bodies in the face of negative messages from others. Without emotional stability our internal body image might be too vulnerable to how others perceive us.

What others dish out

Negative or conflicting stereotypes make it particularly difficult to maintain a positive body image. Dealing with an onslaught of these messages makes it difficult to find an image that reflects how we feel about ourselves while withstanding the judgments of the external world. Here are some examples:

Gender stereotypes have historically placed a high value on a woman’s appearance. The “right” appearance included contradictory messages. Women were expected to be sexually attractive to men, but could not appear too sexual. Also, the presumption that there are only two genders pressures individuals to create a body image that resembles the stereotypical man or woman, even if one feels like neither.

Hetero-centric stereotypes make it difficult for homosexual men and women and  queer individuals to integrate a comfortable body image.

Racial stereotypes by their very nature overvalue appearance. If stereotyping is    in play then racial categorizing based on appearance dominates how a person is     seen as a whole. 

There is hope

It is vital to realize that attitudes can be changed. We can learn to be less critical and perfectionist and to avoid comparisons. We can learn to resist stereotypes and to value the internal attributes of ourselves and others. We can choose friends that value our personality and are not overly judgmental. And we can let ourselves explore clothing that helps us to feel comfortable about our appearance. Remember it is our image in our minds, and we are in charge of creating it. 

Elizabeth Halsted, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and a psychoanalyst. She has a private practice in Greenwich Village in New York City working with adolescents and adults. She is a graduate, a faculty member and supervisor of psychotherapy at The William Alanson White Institute. She has a special interest in the body image concept and its clinical applications.