Struggling with your body image? Learn what it really means to have a positive body image, plus seven tips to help you find body acceptance and improve your mental health.
This guest post is by Sarah Newman, a holistic wellness and mindset coach who helps women ditch dieting, heal from food and wellness obsession, and reclaim their innate power and happiness. Sarah is a body image enthusiast and former disordered eater who learned to make peace with her body, food, and life. Now, she’s giving women the tools to do the same! Sarah helps women learn how to trust and accept their bodies at any size, including how to eat intuitively and become the experts of their own bodies.
Sarah is a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, has a BA in Psychology from The College of William & Mary, and is a Certified Law of Attraction Coach from the QSCA. She’s also the editorial director here at Root + Revel! If you want to reclaim your body, mind, and life so you can focus on the things that truly matter, visit Sarah’s website at TheBodyReclaimed.com and on Instagram @thebodyreclaimed.
Over to you, Sarah!
How do you feel about your body?
I invite you to answer this question for yourself. What are the first few things that come to mind?
If you mostly thought about and described yourself as an outside observer would–considering your worst fears of what others might be thinking when they look at you–you are not alone! When asked this question, most people start rattling off their perceiving physical flaws. It's as if, rather than being asked how they feel about their bodies, they were asked, “What do you most fear someone will see when they look at you?”
This is indicative of how our culture views and treats bodies–especially women's bodies. Women have learned to see and experience themselves as a body to be monitored, controlled, and perceived from an outsider’s perspective. We see women, including ourselves, as bodies first and people second.
Did you know…
- Research has shown that around 50% of young 13-year-old American girls reported being unhappy with their body. This number grew to nearly 80% by the time girls reached 17 years of age. (Kearney‐Cooke, 2015)
- 30% of women say they would trade at least one year of their life to achieve their ideal weight and shape. (Succeed Foundation, 2011)
- 46% of women surveyed have been ridiculed or bullied because of their appearance. (Succeed Foundation, 2011)
- Nearly 70% of adult women report withdrawing from activities due to their body image. (Etcoff et al, 2006)
- Research released by Dove for their ‘Self-Esteem Project’ found that 96% of women in the UK reported feeling anxious about the way they look, compared with 86% in China, 72% in Brazil and 61% in the US. Only 4% of the women in all the countries surveyed would consider themselves ‘beautiful’, and by the time girls reach 17, 78% will be ‘unhappy with their bodies’.
And the list of stats exemplifying our self-objectifying and “not good enough” thinking sadly goes on and on.
Too many of us not only feel awful about our looks–since we can never achieve or maintain the aspirational beauty ideals presented to us–but we also feel awful about our dynamic, miraculous bodies overall because all we care about is how they look. This is truly the root of negative body image.
Let's explore this deeper. What exactly is body image, and how we can improve it and return home to the truth of WHO we are, where our self-worth isn't tied to our physical appearance?
What is body image?
I define body image as your relationship to your body. Your relationship to your body includes how you think about it, how you feel about it, how you talk about it, as well as the corresponding behaviors you take in your life based on those thoughts and feelings.
Body image is NOT about what your body actually looks like, nor is it about what OTHER people think–it’s about how YOU are relating.
People fall into this trap of thinking: if you change your physical body (i.e. shrink it and make it more ‘beautiful', more youthful, more ‘perfect', etc.), then you’ll change your body image. But in actuality, this doesn't work. We think it will, because that's what society tells us, but this approach doesn’t actually get to the root of what’s creating your poor image in the first place.
For example: You could be a thin, world-renowned model who is the epitome of what most people think is beautiful in this world, and still have a negative body image if you feel ashamed, critical, unworthy, etc. about your body.
We all have a relationship with our body, just like we have a relationship with anyone else. In fact, your body is the longest relationship you’re ever going to have, as it's with you from the day you're born, until the day you die!
Just like any other relationship in life, it's something you have to continue to nurture and work on. Life changes. Our bodies change. Our relationship to our body changes through different stages of life. That’s why building a solid foundation now of learning how to cultivate acceptance and respect is so crucial, as it gives you the needed tools, resources, and resilience as life evolves.
What is positive body image?
Here's how body image experts Lindsay and Lexi Kite define positive body image:
Positive body image isn't believing your body LOOKS good, it's knowing your body IS good, regardless of how it looks.
It's actually really not about looks at all. Positive body image is the holistic approach of accepting your body, appreciating your body, and having respect for your body. This includes valuing it, caring for it, and generally looking after it and its needs.
It’s typically quite a gentle approach vs. what we often see in the “body positivity” or “body love” movements, where people are speaking affirmations in the mirror and saying, “I love myself! I look freakin' fantastic!” While it’s great if you like how you look, and that is helpful, it’s actually not necessary in order to have a positive body image.
Instead of using words like body love or body positivity, I prefer “body acceptance” or “body peace”. Body peace is simply seeing your body as okay and accepting it, as it is, in the present moment. Body peace is about meeting your body where it is. You may love it in that moment–or not. You may feel positive about it in that moment–or not. But peace and acceptance are still available.
Some people prefer the term “body neutrality”, as it helps you from identifying with your body as your source of value. In other words: you HAVE a body, but you are NOT your body. Finding worth and value outside of your body is so critical on the journey of self and body acceptance, and that's why body neutrality can be a powerful term.
Whatever term resonates most with you, great! The point is, contrary to what you think, you can have some elements of body dissatisfaction and still have a positive body image. Isn't that great news?!
Here are seven ways to help you improve and have a positive body image.
7 Tips for a Positive Body Image
1) Focus on functionality over appearance.
Think about your body and what it can DO, vs. what it looks like. This helps us cultivate body appreciation.
What does your body do that, when you think about it, is downright amazing? Examples:
- My legs allow me to walk and take me everywhere I want to go in life.
- My heart pumps without me having to consciously do anything.
- In every moment, I am breathing. I'm alive!
This all may sound overly simple, but they are things we take for granted daily.
The more you practice this, the less judgmental thoughts you’ll start to have over time. As you shift your attention away from focusing on what's ‘wrong' with you, and instead, actually speak out loud your gratitude for your body and all it does for you every single day, the more you'll notice the volume slowly start to get turned down on your inner critic.
Another tip: make a list of all the things you like about yourself that aren’t related to how much you weigh or what you look like. Read your list often. Add to it as you become aware of more things to like about yourself.
You may start to feel more appreciation and acceptance for the parts of you that you’ve never been able to accept before.
2) Reject unrealistic media body ideals.
The media is full of promoting unrealistic ideals about what men and women’s body types should look like in order to be considered attractive.
Unfortunately, due to basic biology, these ideals are largely unattainable since our body size and shape are largely programmed by our DNA. Our culture sells us an idea that anyone can lose weight or meet these ideal beauty standards if we just try hard enough, but that simply is NOT true since up to 95% of diets fail in the long term, and we all have a genetically determined setpoint weight.
Chasing beauty ideals in the hopes of ridding yourself of shame never actually solves your problems. Being defined by your looks is the problem. Why? Because your looks:
- will continue to change throughout your life, so being identified with and attached to them looking a certain way makes us destined to fail as we naturally age, have babies, have health conditions, deal with stress, engage with chronic dieting, etc.
- are largely are outside of your control (while there are some things we can control like our hair color, most of what we look like comes down to good ol' genetics)
- often don't live up to the impossible beauty ideal
- even if your the small percentage of women whose looks do live up to the unrealistic beauty ideal right now, the beauty ideal continues to change (since that's what makes the industry money); for example, the 1990's ideal was to be as stick thin and ‘adolescent' looking as possible, while now it's popular to have curves with a big booty
Thus: the endless beauty work you do to meet this ideal in hopes to feel better is just a symptom of the problem, not the solution.
So what is the solution then? Part of it is recognizing that these beauty ideals come from industries that prioritize profits over our true health and well-being, along with a patriarchial culture that keeps women preoccupied with how we look instead of what really matters most about us, like our character, our natural talents, our intellect, etc.
One step you can take to reject unrealistic ideals: it's time to unfollow any social media accounts that make you feel less than, ashamed, unworthy, put you into comparison mode, etc. Start following accounts that uplift you and have nothing to do with associating your beauty with your value. A great place to start is with @beauty_redefined on Instagram (and I'll give my Instagram a shameless plug here too @thebodyreclaimed).
3) Stop body-checking and body-bashing.
Body-checking is essentially comparing your body to the bodies around you, and making assumptions based on physical appearances. You may envy other people's shape and wish you looked like them, or notice who has the ‘best body' in a room full of people, or judge others for not having a “good” body.
It can also mean looking at yourself in the mirror multiple times a day, taking hundreds of selfies to feel in control, and even touching your body to double-check that you haven’t gained weight in the past hour.
Body checking is triggering, and it is such a difficult habit to break. Sometimes we do it unconsciously, and we don’t even realize we are sending the wrong signals to our brain. Every time you focus on your “imperfect” body parts, it creates more self-consciousness and body worry.
Studies show that when you refrain from conversations disparaging your own body or other people's bodies, it helps reduce body dissatisfaction, dieting, and eating disorder symptoms.
So start catching yourself and your inner dialogue. Whenever you notice body-checking or -bashing thoughts, reframe them into something neutral and consciously put your attention on something else.
4) Stop the black-and-white thinking.
Binary thinking is based in achieving perfection. It only gives you two alternatives, one of which is usually neither attainable nor maintainable. The other tends to be the black hole into which you inevitably fall after failing to get to the first.
If you've been a chronic dieter, this type of thinking is likely ingrained in you. For example, if you eat just one morsel of sugar, you've now decided that you're a “bad person”. You've just made a moral judgment about yourself based on small behavior that, in reality, is a neutral activity.
While there are a lot of ways to work with this, one approachable tip is to invite the word “and” into your vocabulary as your new favorite term, and focus on speaking in neutral terms. There may be things you want to change about your body or that you feel dissatisfied about–AND–you can also accept and be at peace with this current body. You can actually hold BOTH at the same time instead of either/or.
Example: “I really don’t prefer the way my tummy looks right now, AND, I know that my tummy and my body don't define my worthiness. I’m choosing to focus on how grateful I am that my body knows how to perfectly digest my food and give me energy.”
Thinking more in the grey vs. black-and-white is a helpful bridge to move from body shame to body acceptance. Another tip: observe your thoughts from a place of curiosity, vs. automatically believing they're true. Our beliefs are just thoughts we've continued to think, but are they REALLY true?
5) Practice Intuitive Eating.
Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based, self-care eating framework with over 140 studies to date. It’s all about getting to know and trust your own body and learning to listen to its wisdom. Eating intuitively is a way of eating that has nothing to do with diets, meal plans, discipline or willpower.
Intuitive Eating is a process to help you get out of your head when it comes to food and body image, and instead, tune into the signals your body is sending. During this process, we also want to remove anything that takes away from your attunement to your body—like diets you’ve tried, food rules you’ve carried with you over the years, and negative body image.
Intuitive Eating is NEGATIVELY associated with:
- Eating disorder psychopathology
- Shape and weight concerns
- Internalization of beauty ideals
- Binge-purge symptoms
- Emotional eating
- Anxiety symptoms
- Depressive symptoms
- Negative mood
Intuitive Eating is POSITIVELY associated with:
- Body appreciation
- Body image flexibility
- Body function
- Body acceptance by others
- Positive affect
- Social support
- General wellbeing
The only way to truly build a healthy relationship with food and your body is to let go of the mentality that reinforces feelings of success or failure. The good news is that you can’t fail at Intuitive Eating! It’s all a learning process with guidelines, not black and white rules.
Maybe you’re super intrigued by the idea of Intuitive Eating but don’t fully understand it or where to start. Maybe this is your first time hearing about it!
6) Wear comfortable clothing.
So many of us try to fit into smaller clothes just because of the number and not wanting to go up a size. But wearing clothing that is too small is extremely uncomfortable and is only going to be a constant reminder of your body discomfort and make you want to be vigilant about your appearance.
Getting comfortable clothes is a hugely underrated step in body acceptance. I've worked with many clients where this change completely shifted their acceptance toward their body size. When you find clothes that make you feel comfortable AND are a style you like, you'll be amazed at how much better you feel!
Mindset tip: It's the job of the clothes to fit your body, not your job to fit the clothes.
We're fortunate to live in a time where yoga pants, leggings, and comfy dresses are all in style, and where more and more retailers (especially online) are carrying inclusive sizes. And don't forget undergarments–getting bras and underwear that fit properly will be another gamechanger!
9) Get rid of the scale.
Does the scale determine how you feel about yourself and what mood you'll be in for the rest of the day? We tend to give so much power to this number, but your worth is NOT determined by your weight, and so many factors influence the number on the scale on any given day.
Most people who weigh themselves frequently have difficulty living in their present moment body as they are too worried about the numbers. When you weigh yourself, you'll have one of three outcomes:
- you lost weight: now you feel pressure to keep it off, which is stressful and makes it impossible to eat intuitively and not be obsessed with your food intake
- you gained weight: now you've spiraled into thoughts of shame and may do harmful behaviors to your body to compensate, like restricting food
- you stayed the same: this, too, feels disappointing since you were hoping for weight loss and didn't get it
The scale is a piece of material; it doesn’t get to control your mood or your life. The only thing the scale serves to do is to keep you focused on your appearance as your worth.
My advice: STOP weighing yourself. If you really want to go all-in–get rid of the scale! You really do not need it. Have a ritual or ceremony as you toss it out if you want. It’s one of the most liberating things I’ve personally done!
Your body is resilient and ready to make peace with you, as soon as you are ready and willing to make peace with her.
Thanks, Sarah, for sharing your wisdom with us!