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Body Image

Five Research-Based Tips for Improving Your Body Image

Many people can address their body image problems in a few simple steps.

Body image dissatisfaction is relatively common. Many women and men internalize unrealistic physical standards and base their self-worth on their bodies. When they fail to fit cultural ideals, they experience negative consequences, including body shame, appearance anxiety, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression, and sexual and romantic relationship dissatisfaction. Some try to meet cultural ideals through unhealthy means like restricted eating, purging, extreme diets or fasts, over-exercise, supplement and anabolic steroid use, and surgery.

Practical ways to improve your body image

A negative body image is bad for our mental and physical health. Fortunately, there are things you can do to feel better about your body. Here are five research-based practical tips for improving your body image.

1. Reduce your exposure to media images of idealized, unrealistic bodies. Compare yourself to normal healthy people instead of unrealistic media ideals. Social comparison theorists explain that the media contributes to body image problems by encouraging us to compare ourselves to unrealistic ideals, against which we fall short. Our media is saturated with beautiful, thin, toned women and beautiful, V-shaped muscular men. Research finds that viewing media portrayals of ideal bodies is associated with body image dissatisfaction in both women and men.

2. Think about whom you’re “hanging” with and whether they’re healthy for your body image. Avoid or distance from “lookist” people and groups that are overly focused on physical appearance and achieving unrealistic physical standards. Cultivate relationships with people and groups with healthy body images and practices.

The research is clear: Interpersonal interactions with family, peers, and strangers can negatively affect our body image. The things people say to us about men's and women’s bodies, their own bodies, and our bodies communicate cultural ideals and affect our self-evaluations. Hearing people critique other people’s appearances leads us to believe that we too will be judged.

People who talk a lot about their weight, workouts, supplements, weight control/cosmetic procedures, or how they hate their bodies, also influence us. If you can’t distance from lookist friends, family members, or groups, practice a simple assertive statement that you can use to shut down looks-focused conversations (e.g., “Do you mind if we talk about something else? I’m trying to focus less on how I look and more on just being healthy”).

3. Write a letter to a hypothetical younger woman or man, or a young daughter or son, that outlines the costs of pursuing the idealized body and the benefits of a healthy body. This dissonance approach will help cement your commitment to a healthier ideal because you will feel hypocritical if you continue pursuing the culturally ideal body at the cost of your mental or physical health.

4. Identify and challenge any irrational absolutist thoughts that feed your body image dissatisfaction. Make this your practice until you’ve truly banished these damaging little devils from your head. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approaches to body image problems recommend we identify the extreme thoughts that aggravate our body image problems and counter them (e.g., “What are the extreme thoughts that make me feel so bad about my body? What’s wrong with this pattern of thought? What are some reasonable arguments against it?).

To use CBT to counteract your negative body image, catch yourself when you're feeling bad about your body. Take a piece of paper and make two columns. Write down the extreme things you’re saying to yourself in one column and in the other write down rational (and healthier) thoughts to counter them. Every time you start to berate yourself with your extreme thoughts, silently chant your healthy counter thoughts like a mantra.

For instance:

  • “I must have a perfect body or else people won’t like me.” Counter with: “I like people who don’t have perfect bodies and obviously other people do too. And if someone doesn’t like me because I don’t look like that, then their priorities are screwed up.”
  • “My body is awful because of [insert imperfection here].” Counter with: “My stomach might not be flat but I’m healthy and my partner still finds me attractive,” or, “I may not have the abs of Thor, but I look pretty decent for a regular guy,” or “Just because my [blank] isn’t perfect, that doesn’t mean that I’m unattractive.”
  • “Because my body is imperfect, I’m worthless.” Counter with: “Fitting the societal ideal doesn’t make a person good. What makes a person good is their character and how they treat other people. I’m a person of worth even if my body isn’t ideal.”
  • “I hate my body because it’s so different from the beautiful bodies I see in the media or at the gym.” Counter with: “It’s unfair to hate my body just because it’s not perfect. A perfect body is unrealistic for me, as it is for most mortals. Very few people have the genetics, time, and resources to look like that.”
  • “I’m not a real man or woman because I don’t look like the ideal man or woman.” Counter with: “Muscles aren’t the only thing that makes a man. Men are more than just their bodies,” or “I may not look like the ideal woman, but my less-than-ideal body is a marker of my womanliness. Look around: Real women don’t have flat stomachs!”

5. Stop thinking of your body, diet, and exercise in terms of how it will make you look and focus on how it will benefit your health. Aspire to the healthiest body you can realistically achieve rather than the ridiculously flat stomach, no body fat, and small waist achievable only with extreme and unhealthy sacrifice.

Finally, while many people can successfully address their body image dissatisfaction on their own, many need professional help to do so. Depending on the depth and severity of your body image issues, you may benefit from therapy with a licensed mental health professional that specializes in the treatment of body image dissatisfaction and eating disorders.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


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