All of us perceive how our bodies appear in different ways. Some people feel they are too fat, others lament being too thin. You may obsess about the size of your nose, while your best friend may wish her feet were smaller.
Our perception of how we look is known as body image. Some people are pleased with their body image. However, many more dislike one or more aspects of their physical appearance.
Such feelings are especially prevalent among women. One recent study by the University of Delaware found that high school girls tend to see themselves as 11 pounds overweight while high school boys perceive their current weight as being close to the ideal for their peer group.
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Poor body image can lead to significant problems, including depression, eating disorders or other health issues. It doesn't take much to alter our body image for the worse. For example, a recent study by the University of Missouri-Columbia found that women of all sizes felt more negative about their bodies after viewing the models in magazine ads.
Fortunately, there are ways to help boost your body image.
What You Can and Can't Change
Improving your body image is as simple as changing your mind about how you look. As most of us realize, this is much easier said than done.
However, that doesn't mean it is impossible to shift your feelings about your appearance. To start, it may help to realize that virtually everybody has hang-ups about some aspect of their bodies. Even the most successful and seemingly confident people privately fret about at least one of their physical attributes, including the women who model for magazine ads.
It is also important to recognize what you can and cannot change about your body. In some cases, it is relatively straightforward to change the aspect of your appearance that you dislike. For example, changing your eating habits and taking up an exercise program can shed pounds if you are unhappy with your weight.
In other cases, achieving physical change may be more difficult. If you dislike the shape of your nose, your only real options are to undergo plastic surgery to have it altered or to change your perspective on your nose.
For the things that you can change, focus on establishing goals and creating a plan for achieving them. If you want to shed pounds, think about ways to improve how you eat and start or intensify an exercise regimen. Think as concretely as possible about these goals, but without using negative self-talk.
For example, you may ask the following questions:
- What foods should I eliminate from my diet?
- Where can I learn about healthier menu items?
- What types of exercise activities do I enjoy?
It is crucial to set a timeframe for these changes, and to put into place methods of measuring your progress. The more specific you can get the better. Don't say, "I want to lose weight"; instead, say, "I want to lose 1 pound a week for the next three months."
Such specificity gives you a target to work toward and helps you track your progress. As you achieve these goals, you'll find your self-esteem growing and your body image will improve.
Shifting Your Attitude
Of course, there are always some things about your body that cannot be changed. We can never gain that extra 2 inches of height that we believe will make our lives perfect. And unless genetics are on our side, we can never get that "six-pack" look in our abdominals no matter how many crunches we perform.
It is important that you learn to accept these aspects of yourself as they are. Poor body image can have serious consequences – a recent study by three organizations (Bradley Hospital, Butler Hospital and Brown Medical School) found that poor body image contributes to depression, anxiety and suicidal feelings in adolescents.
Negative self-talk is the main source of poor body image. It is all too easy to obsess about the handful of things you don't like about your body and to forget about all the other aspects of your appearance, and your person, that you do like.
Comparing yourself to others – whether it's the slim girl next door or the airbrushed ideals presented by Hollywood and Madison Avenue – is sure to undermine your body image. Every person has a unique combination of genes that influences how they appear. Instead, try concentrating on positive aspects of your body and your life.
Although it may seem corny, talking to yourself about those positive things can help banish negative thoughts. Wish your fingers were more slender? Try not to focus on them. Instead, think about how much you like your blue eyes, or your long, auburn locks.
It also is important to remind yourself that your value reaches far beyond your physical appearance. Reflect on the positive things you have achieved during your day or in recent weeks. Think about the things for which you are grateful, from the love of your family to the warmth of the sun on a nice day.
Many experts suggest that taking a brief moment each day to consider at least three positive things about your life can substantially reduce negative emotions, including those related to body image.
Setting goals and using positive self-talk can go a long way toward turning around your feelings about your body. However, in some cases feelings of poor body image can become overwhelming. Fortunately, professional help is available.
Talk to your doctor if you feel depressed or anxious, or if you begin to develop signs of an eating disorder. Psychological counseling and attending support groups can help you to reframe your thoughts and to develop habits that foster a healthier body image.
The pattern of thinking negatively about your body did not occur overnight, and it will take some time to learn more positive thoughts and behaviors. But gradually, your body image will improve, leaving you to feel happier and more confident in your day-to-day life.