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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Improving your Body Image

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With about 80% of all women being significantly dissatisfied with their bodies and appearance-and with body image issues on the rise for men--it is crucial to address body image as a part of your overall well-being. Body image has to do with what you feel and believe about your body and physical appearance, how you picture your body in your own mind, as well as how you actually feel in your own skin. It is an important part of your general self-concept, comprising about 25-33% of your self-esteem.

A negative body image can be responsible for lowered self-esteem and can contribute to depression. Many people who struggle with a negative body image find that they experience self-consciousness which can cause problems in their social lives. For instance, they may avoid activities in which they would be looked at by others, they may make the assumption that others are as critical about their looks as they are themselves, they may feel insecure in their relationships, and they may experience decreased sexual fulfillment. Additionally, body image concerns can lead to compromised physical health due to the harmful effects that can emerge from dieting, excessive exercise, and dangerous weight loss drugs. Eating disorders may also become a factor. About 35% of those who try dieting progress to pathological dieting-where they experience impairment in their physical, emotional, social, and/or academic/vocational health-and about 25% of pathological dieters progress to full blown eating disorders. With a negative body image, the body becomes something that a person fights against.

A positive body image, on the other hand, usually reflects a clear and accurate perception of your body. It does not vary as much as a negative body image does as it is based on a firm foundation of self-acceptance and appreciation. Those who can achieve and maintain a positive body image tend to feel more confident-in general as well as specifically about their bodies. Because they respect their bodies, they are more likely to take good care of it through adequate rest, balanced nutrition, and moderate exercise. This self-care tends to increase their overall physical health. Those with better body image tend to see their bodies in perspective-they know their appearance is just one thing and is only a part of how they feel about themselves. Additionally, they can recognize their other assets and can base their self-esteem on all of the positive things about themselves. With a positive body image, the body becomes something that they work with, value, and enjoy.

Numerous factors influence our body image, many that come from the past and some that are related to current concerns. Certainly, cultural factors play a large role in shaping body image. Standards of attractiveness have changed over time. Current trends promote an exceptionally thin, yet both big-breasted and athletically-toned, physique for women and a lean, well-muscled look for men. The fashion industry reflects this trend. For instance, the average American female model is 5'11" tall and weighs 117 pounds whereas the average American woman is 5'4" tall and weighs 140 pounds. As fashion models represent less than 3% of the population that their stature is nearly impossible to achieve for more than 97% of the population. However, these impossible beauty standards are often presented as the desired and "right" way to look. The same goes for men. Overall, the more that people are bombarded with these messages and the more they find themselves lacking, then there is more likely to be body image dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, the diet and weight loss industry is heavily invested in playing into that dissatisfaction. Advertisements for diet and weight loss programs, pills, foods, and usually useless (and sometimes dangerous) quick fixes feed into your insecurities and anxieties, grabbing your attention and influencing your choice to buy their product. With $40 billion a year going into this industry, is it any wonder, then, that 45% of women and 25% of men are on a diet on any given day?

A person's family is also an important influence on body image. Family members communicate a number of messages that are internalized and adapted to a person's beliefs about himself or herself. Families influence attitudes about food, a person's body, and health issues. Parents and siblings, as well as other relatives, model their beliefs about weight and self-acceptance. Thus, if someone is called negative appearance-based names, is pressured to be thin, or is criticized about weight, he or she is more likely to adopt those attitudes and to incorporate them into his or her body image. Additionally, families model specific behaviors from which a person learns. By watching how families eat, exercise, perceive others, and take care of themselves, we receive very specific messages about what must be the "right" way of being.

Peers have another big influence on body image. Being bullied or teased about appearance issues will often have strong contributions to the development of a negative body image. Competitive settings-such as on sports teams or in a sorority-will also often influence the direct and indirect messages that are communicated by peers. Especially in these settings, there tends to be a "thinness subculture" that sets a specific tone for how a person can best fit in. And, in general, a people tend to compare themselves to others to gauge how they are doing in a variety of ways. When they compare their appearance to that of their peers and are critical of the differences they see, there tends to be a much stronger inclination towards body dissatisfaction.

Other factors that affect body image include a wide variety of lifestyle issues. Activity level affects a person's energy level and connection with the body as well as the level of ability we have to appreciate our bodies' functions over form. Food choices also have an impact including whether or not nutrition is balanced and whether there is emotional reasons behind those food choices. Of course, a person's body type-based on genetics-sets specific limits on a person's body with regards to weight, height, fat content, muscle content, shape, and metabolism. Other issues such as age, illness or injury, economics, work and/or school schedule, pregnancy, geographic location, amount of travel done, and daily stressors also play a role in body image.

So, if a people are plagued by negative messages and if they cannot control what they learned when they were growing up, can they really expect to have a chance at changing how they view their bodies? The answer is, simply, yes, though the solutions are less simple. It is true that people often do not have a choice in the messages that others give to them about appearance issues. But, they do have a choice in whether or not they buy into those messages. No matter how long those messages have been accepted as truth, it is still possible to pay close attention to those messages, to recognize the inaccuracy and harmfulness of those messages, and to make a conscious choice about whether or not those messages promote a positive body image. When people choose to incorporate new and healthier messages into how they see themselves, they gain much greater control over how they feel about themselves. Consider the following options to help improve body image.

  • Feeling good about yourself is not about who is the prettiest, skinniest, most toned, most handsome, or whatever-unless you make it about that. Instead of comparing yourself to others and competing with them about frivolous issues, turn your attention to your own personal development. Focus on the other positive qualities you have that have nothing to do with your appearance. Expand the ways you can feel good about yourself by giving yourself credit for your talents, skills, abilities, desires, passions, interests, personality traits, and so forth. You can also count the other blessings you have in your life and gain perspective on what it is that is most important to you in your life instead of relying on others to tell you what you "should" find most important.
  • Look at the messages you are giving yourself. Are you your own worst critic? If so, identify the negative ways that you speak to yourself and make a decision to replace that self-talk with more realistic, loving, and positive statements.
  • Throw out the bathroom scale. Do not become obsessed with a number on a scale. It does not tell you the absolute truth about your weight because weight fluctuates daily due to water content, hormonal changes, diet and exercise, and other factors. Plus, you are much more than a number on a scale. If you base your worth on just a number you will disregard the more important things about yourself-your unique talents, qualities, skills, beliefs, and characteristics.
  • Be assertive with those who are critical to you about your body and seek out supportive relationships with peers and others who accept you for who you are.
  • Loving your body means taking care of it. Find a method of exercise that you enjoy and do it regularly-with the purpose being healthy and active instead of losing weight or working off calories. Eat foods that are nutritious and that fuel your body. Eat when you are hungry and find other ways besides food to cope with difficult emotions. Allow for occasional indulgences that give your body a chance to savor something delicious. Give your body ample rest so that it can refuel and re-energize itself after doing all of the things it does for you. Avoid or limit potentially harmful substances such as alcohol, nicotine, drugs, caffeine, etc. Wear sunscreen. Have the recommended medical check-ups for your age so that you can maintain your body and head off problems. Pamper your body-get a massage or pedicure, use a nicely scented lotion or fragrance, or wear silk pajamas just because they feel wonderful.
  • For a change, focus on what you actually do like about your body. You may like a specific body part of feature of your body. Or you may choose to focus on the functional things you love about your body instead of the decorative ones-in other words, you may focus on how your body allows you to breathe, dance, sing, listen to music, taste great food, give a hug, and get you through your day. If you see your body as an instrument instead of as an ornament, you greatly multiply the possibilities for loving it.
  • Take all people seriously-for what they say, feel, and do rather than for how they look. Be accepting of all people and you will feel more accepting of yourself.
  • Act "as if" you have body confidence. Walk with your head held high. Enjoy wearing things you like and that are comfortable versus what you think you "should" wear because of your body shape or size. Eventually, the acting will become reality and you will feel that confidence from the inside out.
  • Take on a new perspective. Ask yourself: how much time and energy am I devoting to being critical about my body? Is there a better way to spend that time and energy? When you find yourself being overly critical of your body, gently redirect yourself by reminding yourself that there are so many better things you could be doing than hating you body.
  • Every day thank your body for allowing you to have the life you have-to breathe, to think, to laugh, to study, to see a beautiful sunrise, to listen to a friend, to feel someone's touch, to taste your favorite foods, to speak your mind. Your body allows you to experience the world!
  • Do not let your appearance limit your life. No matter what you look like, you have the right to go swimming or dancing, to eat in public, to go to the doctor, to date and flirt, to wear trendy clothes, and so on. If you give yourself permission to do the things you love to do you will get through any self-consciousness and most likely enjoy the activity more than you expect. And, if others do not like what you are doing, remember that is their own limited thinking and that you do not have to base your decisions on their limitations.
  • Your physical wellness is only one aspect of your overall wellness. Are you balancing out all of your wellness needs by also considering your spiritual, social, intellectual, and emotional needs?
  • Consider a broader definition of attractiveness than the media standards portray. By accepting the beauty in all people you will be better able to accept your own.
  • If you are still unsure how or where to start, talk to a professional. MSU offers a variety of services including personal counseling through the Counseling Center, medical care through Health Services, and educational programming from a variety of campus offices.