Many of us have felt dissatisfied with some aspect of our physical appearance. And it’s no wonder: Everywhere we look—social media, TV shows, magazines, advertisements—we’re bombarded with unattainable, picture-perfect bodies.
Body image and the media
Body dissatisfaction can’t be 100 percent blamed on the media, but they certainly play a part: Research shows a connection between media and social media portrayals of “body ideals” and people feeling unhappy with the way they look.
“It took time to overcome my body issues, but once I started focusing on how my body felt instead of how it looked, I got a lot healthier (and happier).”
—Mary, senior, Laurel, Maryland
Becoming at peace with your body
“People often feel that peace with your body is conditional: ‘I’ll accept my body when I lose weight or when I exercise more often,’” says Dr. Megan Jones, a body image expert and clinical assistant professor at Stanford University in California. “However, research shows that when you’re less self-critical and [when you] improve body image, you’re actually more likely to do the things necessary to optimize [your] emotional and physical well-being.”
The good news? There are realistic ways to learn how to accept and appreciate your body, and they don’t involve dieting, buying new clothes, or spending endless hours at the gym. Here are four of them.
4 ways to feel better about your body right now
1. Shut down negative body talk
It can be hard to feel good when you’re hanging out with someone who’s saying negative things about their body or judging others’ bodies, so it helps to know what you can say and do in these situations.
“Make a choice to only do things, watch things, read things, and be around people that make you feel great. If something or someone makes you feel bad, don’t do that thing, don’t be around that person,” says Sarah Newton, author, speaker, and founder of Talented Teens.
What to say in response to negative body talk
- When a friend starts any negative body talk, tackle the issue head-on. For example: “You know I love you, and it hurts me to hear you say that about yourself.”
- If a family member says something about your weight (positive or negative), you can tell them, “Thank you, I care about my health, but I try not to let my weight be a focus.” Or, “say that you’re trying to focus on feeling positive, or let your family member know those types of comments (while likely intended to be harmless) actually can lead to insecurity,” says Dr. Jones.
- Focus less on weight and body shape in your conversations. Even though you may think you’re complimenting someone by saying, “Have you lost weight?” or “You look like you’ve been working out,” you’re actually reinforcing the stereotype that thin means beautiful or that muscular means good-looking.
- When it comes to discussing diets and exercise, focus on the health and emotional benefits rather than appearance. For example, if your friend recently started exercising, ask whether they’re feeling stronger or sleeping better as a result.
“If you’re healthy and happy in your body, you do you and never look at yourself as less than.”
—Baylee, junior, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
2. Remember that media and social media portrayals aren’t real
We all spend a lot of our time engaging with media. Whether we’re looking at our phones, laptops, TV screens, or billboards, we see a lot of unrealistic body images. It’s been well established by research that the portrayal of certain body types in the media (such as thin and curvy women and extremely muscular men) contributes to our feelings of body dissatisfaction.
Nearly 90 percent of students said that the media’s portrayal of unrealistic body images affects the way they feel about their own body, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey.
So keep an eye on reality
You’re not expected to avoid all media because, well, that would be nearly impossible. But it’s important to constantly remind yourself that these portrayals and expectations are unrealistic (and be sure to take breaks from your phone when it’s getting to be too much).
- Airbrushing software, makeup, lighting, apps, and filters can make actors, models, and even the average Instagram user appear thin, chiseled, and flawless, and they often take things too far. Google “airbrush mistakes” and you’ll see plenty of examples.
- Many actors spend large chunks of their time focusing on strict diet and exercise regimes, especially if they have specific roles that require a certain body type. Remember, these people are being paid to look that way; it’s their job.
- Don’t forget that the media is usually trying to sell you something. Often, they play to our insecurities. They like to tell us that something is wrong with the way we are, but that their product will fix it. Hence all the miracle creams and get-thin-quick products (which don’t actually work).
The next time you come across that seemingly perfect guy or gal on your feed, remember that what you’re seeing probably isn’t the whole picture. Avoid comparing yourself. Instead, think about some things you like about yourself, especially those things that don’t have to do with looks. “Silencing the inner critic is a key step in the process [of accepting your body]. But it also involves being willing to let go of that critic,” says Dr. Jones.
“All my life, I was conscious of how I was always a little pudgy, or just a tad bit chubby. As I grew up, I learned that not everyone has a six-pack or huge triceps. Human bodies come in all shapes and sizes.”
—Brandon, sophomore, Houston, Texas
3. Recognize that you’re good enough
Here are some tips from the experts:
“Make a list of things you like about yourself that aren’t related to what you look like. Everyone has strengths; what are yours?”
—Dr. Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and professor at the University of Connecticut
“Whenever possible, challenge yourself to think about your body in terms of what it can do instead of in terms of how it looks. For example, if you find yourself feeling bad about how your legs look, remind yourself of all the things those legs do for you. They move you around in the world. They let you dance. Focusing on the functions of your body is a great way to treat your body with more kindness and respect.”
—Dr. Renee Engeln, professor, psychologist, and body image researcher at Northwestern University, Illinois
How else can you work toward feeling good about your body?
Chaminie, a student from San Diego, California, recommends surrounding yourself with supportive people. “I really think the way to overcome a negative body image is to be around people who support you and make you feel good about your body,” she says. “Having a great support system can make a world of difference when it comes to a negative body image or low self-esteem. Once you’re around people who love you no matter what you look like, you can really start to love yourself and your body.”
4. Get active
It’s not about losing weight; it’s about doing something that can make you proud of what your body is capable of. Research suggests that being physically active can help you feel more positive about your body and can help you feel less stressed. Before you start to groan about how much you despise working out, remember that there are many options for getting active that don’t involve the treadmill.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator or take a walk during your downtime. The recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day doesn’t have to be done all at once.
- Check out your local community center. They tend to have a bunch of workout options such as basketball, kickboxing, yoga, and dance.
- Get your friends to join you for social support. You’ll encourage each other, have more fun, and hold each other accountable.
“I overcome negative body image by being proud of the body I’m in. If I exercise, it’s because I love my body and want what’s best for it, not because I hate it.”
—Rebekah, junior, Baldwinsville, New York
Renee Engeln, PhD, psychologist, body image researcher, and director of the Body and Media Lab, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.
Ana Homayoun, author, motivational speaker, and founder of educational consulting firm Green Ivy, Los Altos, California.
Megan Jones, PsyD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University; chief science officer at Lantern in San Francisco, California.
Sarah Newton, author, speaker, consultant, founder of Talented Teens, Northampton, UK.
Rebecca Puhl, PhD, deputy director of The Rudd Center for food policy and obesity; professor, University of Connecticut.
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