You’re sitting on the toilet, scrolling through Instagram. Captioned pictures fly by giving you this week’s latest social news. An old college roommate is clubbing in Prague… your sister baked a notably delicious banana bread… some model drank a marg at the beach… You look down, now at yourself, inspecting your stomach as it rolls upon itself, as stomachs naturally do.
On your way out you wash your hands and without much thought lift up your shirt, briefly exposing your abdomen. You look for abs, or some flat, tan belly – hopeful and doubtful at the same time. As quickly as you pulled up your shirt, you put it back – but your mind lingers in that moment. “I haven’t been eating right,” your internal monologue starts its engine. “You’ll never get your abs back if you don’t stop eating like crap and drinking so much. And you need to go to the gym! Maybe tonight. But since when do I have the time?” You’re back at your desk.
One’s body image can be a source of anxiety, depression, or exhaustion for pretty much anyone who owns a mirror. Whether you’re young, old, female, male, trans, gay, thin, redheaded – it doesn’t matter, having a negative body image can impact your entire life.
If you think you could improve your body image, start by trying these 7 steps!
Disclaimer: No, I’m not going to tell you I have the magic solution to “bad” body image, or that it’s possible to fend off negative thoughts 100% of the time. What I do hope is that this article will help you to be realistic and honest with yourself, and help you to feel empowered in your amazing body. I promise it will be well worth the effort and positivity!
Step 1: Acknowledge the ebb and flow of your physical appearance, capabilities, and mental health.
Are you happy from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep again? If you answered Yes, I admire your positive outlook, but you may not be recalling your day accurately: what about your ill-timed pit sweat, when you were late to that important meeting, the traffic, your cousin’s racist Facebook comment, that pending Venmo request that remains unanswered, etc. Regardless of external factors in your life, you will have great days and off days, and ups and downs within each individual day.
The same goes for your body image. You might mercilessly scrutinize your acne scars one day, and forget you even have a face the next. It’s okay to ride the roller coaster as long as you acknowledge it and don’t let it get you down.
How do you do this? Relish in the good moments. Make this a habit. When you’re feeling down, recognize it and tell yourself that this feeling won’t last forever –tomorrow is a new day.
Step 2: Realize that people notice a lot less than you think.
In most cases, you are your biggest critic – evidence of this comes from the life-learnings of my empathetic mother: People really don’t notice.
This wisdom brings me a lot of relief. My mom once “consoled” me with these words: “Shelly, do you really think you matter that much? Nobody cares about your accessories!” She’s actually really sweet, I swear. But she’s right – people don’t think about you as much as you think they do.
Don’t agree? Ask your co-worker, your partner, your sibling, or friend to close their eyes and tell you what shoes you’re wearing. Or better yet, change your clothes on your lunch break and see if anyone says anything. They won’t. But you want to know who does notice you? Yep, you!
So, stop being mean and cut yourself some slack!
Step 3: Do things that make you feel proud of yourself.
Want to walk down the street feeling fly? Want more pep in your step, good posture, or an illuminated aura? How about a natural tendency to be patient with strangers or a generally nice disposition? Well, when you do things that make you proud of yourself, you develop a more positive internal monologue and therefore, better body image.
Setting personal goals (small and large), holding yourself accountable to those goals, and working actively to achieve them will also make you feel proud of yourself and lead to better body image. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and try to prove me wrong 😉 Start by making a list of goals that make you feel proud of yourself.
Here are a few of mine for example:
- Spend a minimum of 30 minutes outside every day.
- Chew slower and appreciate the taste of food while you’re eating it.
- Eat lunch without looking at a screen.
- Learn something new at the gym once a week.
- Don’t accept free drinks when content at current level.
It goes on, but you get the idea. I have some larger goals as well, and working toward them makes me feel proud and gives me momentum. One piece of advice: as you set your goals and work towards achieving them, allow yourself to make mistakes and even fail – tomorrow is a new day, begin the momentum again!
Step 4: Appreciate what your body does for you.
Seriously, it’s borderline magic. Feel your skin, tug on your hair, massage your neck. The human body is AMAZING and we often forget that. Your body works all day just for you, and then various influences slap their agendas on it. It’s a machine, an engineering marvel with the sole purpose of keeping you moving and grooving on planet Earth – not another projection of socially constructed beauty or a platform for the media.
Your body is yours – it’s the only thing you will ever truly own.
For this step, think about your own body, your limbs, your organs, etc. Your jaw chews food to intake nutrients. The fluid in your ears maintains your upright balance. Your thumbs allow you to grasp! There are times when we doubt just how amazing and wonderful our bodies are. Take a moment to think about all the things your body is able to do, and be thankful for being so powerful!
It’s easy to focus on external appearances, but remember that as you age, your hair falls out, your skin deteriorates, and your muscles wither… but your heart has your back ‘till the very end. Can we get a round of applause for the heart? I personally think that fact alone is insanely impressive, and a good starting point to begin appreciating what your body does for you.
Step 5: Practice media literacy.
“I know it’s photoshopped, but I wish I had a body like that!” The brain might be insanely impressive, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. We, as people, are easily tricked into thinking we need to look a certain way and buy a certain thing – and even when we know we’re being sold, or know something is photoshopped… it doesn’t make us want it any less! So, we must take active measures to protect your brain from bad influences.
Here are a few practices you can adopt to help your body image:
- Don’t follow especially unrealistic models and celebrities on Instagram.
- Watch fewer movies with hetero-normal sexualized characters.
- Have a mental conversation with yourself when you notice a particularly imposing media depiction.
- Limit your exposure to advertisements: don’t buy lifestyle magazines, reduce T.V. time.
- Pick shows/movies that are inclusive of different races and identities.
It’s important to note that you will always encounter some media. You cannot avoid it entirely, but you can try to limit your intake. Even if you are doubtful about media literacy’s ability to impact your body image, just try it –I promise it won’t hurt.
Step 6: Talk nice to yourself.
A.K.A., develop a healthy internal monologue. Have you ever caught yourself thinking really negative thoughts about your body? That’s ok! We all think those thoughts, but your ability to catch yourself gives you a leg up on your journey to better body image!
How do you maintain confidence and train your internal monologue? Practice, practice, practice. Start by conditioning it with positive word associations and attaching those words to powerful mantras.
Here’s an example from my life: My initial internal monologue: “Ugh I have to go to the gym today.” New monologue: “I get to go to the gym today. I’m overwhelmed and just watching Netflix sounds sooo nice, but not everybody gets to go to the gym and I’ll feel proud of myself when I’m done.” Not gonna lie, as time has passed I only think the first sentence now. But the rest was necessary when I first needed to get my butt off the couch.
Here’s another example: Initial monologue: “My scars are so dark and ugly.” New monologue: “Yeah my body has some scars. They are a reminder of where I have been, my strength, and how resilient I am!” With all the media bombardment and external influences, the least you can do is work on your own brain.
Start improving your body image by taking down your biggest critic… YOU!
Step 7: Show your body some physical love too!
Are you a hugger? If so, welcome to the club – you’re into physical touch! Not a hugger? That’s cool too, but I bet with the right person, in the right situation, even you wouldn’t mind a little physical attention. Some people require more physical touch than others, but we all need at least a little bit. It is important to be sensitive when discussing intimate physical touch. Survivors of sexual and physical trauma may have difficulty accepting physical touch – even positive self-touch. Whatever someone’s experience, their comfort level and boundaries are valid and demand the utmost respect. As you read these tips, trust your instincts and listen to your body – it will lead you in the right direction.
Here are a few ways you can increase body-positive touch and teach your brain that your body is deserving and capable of experiencing pleasure, love, and acceptance:
- Hug your friends, even if you plan to see them soon.
- Massage your own feet, your neck, your hands or whatever you desire!
- Buy yourself a discounted massage at your city’s local massage school or foot reflexology spa.
- Hug yourself when you’re lonely, or happy, or after you masturbate!
- Get a haircut.
- Take a long bath.
- Moisturize your skin, taking time to apply lotion mindfully.
- Ask for hugs (from consenting family/friends).
- Go dancing.
- Have sex! Don’t have a partner? Have sex with yourself!
Talking about your body image is like talking about your personality. It’s uncomfortable to address your weaknesses and downfalls – your kryptonite. We’re sensitive to the way others perceive us and are protective of our egos and reputations.
Being honest with yourself is challenging but rewarding. Your body is the one you were given, and it is the only one you will ever have. It will give you problems. It will impress you and make you proud. When riding this roller coaster of life, remember to be nice to yourself, enjoy the up days, acknowledge the down days – and start again tomorrow.
Bodies are crazy, life is weird, and it is within your power to stay positive and make yourself proud!