Detail from Seated Female Nude (c1915-34) by Isaac Israels. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Are you unhappy with what you see in the mirror? Getting comfortable in your own skin can be hard work, but it’s worth it
by Charlotte H Markey
Detail from Seated Female Nude (c1915-34) by Isaac Israels. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
is professor of psychology and health sciences at Rutgers University-Camden in New Jersey. Her books include Body Positive: Understanding and Improving Body Image in Science and Practice (2018) and The Body Image Book for Girls: Love Yourself and Grow Up Fearless (2020).
Edited by Matt Huston
What do you see when you stare in the mirror? I don’t ask this as a philosophical question, more a literal one. Do you like the way you look? Do you immediately notice flaws – a nose you wish was smaller, a stomach you wish was flatter, legs you wish were longer or capable of running faster? The thoughts and feelings that you have about your physical appearance are the focus of body image research.
If you don’t feel uniformly positive about your appearance, you should know that you’re not alone. In a recent survey of people in the United States, 55 per cent of women and 42 per cent of men reported some measure of dissatisfaction with at least one element of their appearance. The degree to which people are concerned about their bodies ranges widely, from not liking one particular feature to a serious mental health condition called body dysmorphic disorder, in which people focus obsessively on their appearance. People with the disorder often limit their social interactions and frequently experience other mental health problems such as eating disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Body image concerns are not merely superficial, but can affect many aspects of people’s lives. Of course, this also means that developing a positive body image can have positive consequences for both mental and physical health and wellbeing. Consider my friend, Ann. Despite being a relatively slender person, she has spent much of her adulthood concerned about her body and weight. She vacillates between restrictive diets (for months or even years at a time) and ‘regular’ eating habits. She also worries about what she wears. Perhaps most disconcerting is the impact that her body dissatisfaction has on her relationships and mental health in general. Some days, she wants to avoid people or situations because of how she feels about herself, and she wrestles with depression and anxiety.
Body image researchers such as myself want to help people like Ann, but there’s no pill one can take to banish body dissatisfaction. It might seem counterintuitive, but changing your appearance is unlikely to permanently transform your body image. Consider what happens when you get a wonderful new haircut. At first, you feel like a better version of yourself, and others might comment on how great your hair looks. Then, a couple of weeks pass, and both you and the people around you get used to your new haircut; it ceases to make you feel as special. The same tends to happen as a result of any change to your physical appearance; the boost to your body image is likely to be short-lived. This is why improving the cognitive and emotional facets of your body image is important.
I have been a psychologist, professor and body image researcher for nearly 25 years. In this Guide, I offer evidence-based suggestions for improving your body image, whether you’re experiencing mild or more serious body dissatisfaction. (However, if you feel that you have serious body image concerns, I recommend seeking professional help from a therapist, and I provide additional resources below.) Some of these suggestions might be easier to embrace than others; we all live in an appearance-focused world. But adoption of these body image-improving strategies is likely to make you both happier and healthier. I encourage you to try them out on your path to developing a more satisfying relationship with your body.
Reflect on your values
We all grew up hearing about the importance of not judging a book by its cover. But we also all grew up in a world that values people’s appearances. If we were to totally ignore our appearance, never giving a thought to what we wear, we’d likely be viewed as eccentric or strange. We have a choice, however, in terms of how much to care and how much energy to spend on our appearance. We should try to live what we value.
Nichole Wood-Barcalow, a psychologist in Ohio who treats patients with body image and eating concerns and who co-authored the Positive Body Image Workbook (2021), suggests that we should take time to consider what it is, exactly, that we value. You can start by thinking about what you hope to achieve in your life. Maybe you’re aiming for professional success or maybe you most want to focus on your relationships with others. Consider what you want others to value about you. Are you a reliable friend or coworker? Are you fun to be around?
An appreciation of beauty or the adoration of others might be components of our value systems. However, maybe we value compassion, diversity and equality more? Although improvements have been made recently, the beauty and fashion industries have rarely promoted images and advertisements that embrace people of all different shapes, sizes, colours and ability statuses. It’s worth considering the extent to which we want to take our cues from industries that devalue so many of us. Further, it’s unlikely that the people we care about and enjoy are in our lives because of their physical appearance; we experience their beauty in a variety of ways.
Living our values can mean embracing our own and other people’s bodies as they are. This might begin with appreciating that some people naturally have relatively small bodies, and some naturally have larger bodies; people’s body sizes are not necessarily a direct indication of their habits or health. In other words, we all have a natural body size that we’re likely to hover around when we’re adequately nourishing ourselves and engaging in a healthy amount of physical activity. Not everyone will be slender – even when they maintain healthy habits.
The psychologist Renee Engeln in Illinois refers to our cultural obsession with our appearance as ‘beauty sickness’. It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate why we care about how we look. She suggests the problem is when we care about our looks more than other – arguably more important – aspects of our lives. If we spend too much time and mental energy focusing on our appearance, we might have less time and energy for hobbies, friends or family.
Practise body gratitude
Do you ever look in the mirror and feel grateful instead of critical? What would happen if you started to focus on the parts of yourself that you enjoy? Research suggests that expressing appreciation for our bodies can actually improve body image.
So where do you start? When your critical inner voice starts to emerge with a thought such as I wish my nose were smaller, reply to it with I love my hair. For most people, the critical inner voice can be fairly easily distracted. This might feel silly at first, but if you create a list of the parts of your body that you like – or, at least, can appreciate – it will become more natural to automatically quiet your inner critic. So spend some time thinking about and listing the physical features that you do genuinely like, and put this list to good use.
You can also aim to get into a routine, such as expressing gratitude about your body every night when you brush your teeth. The key is to pair your gratitude exercise with another behaviour that you’re already in the habit of practising daily. This way, the habitual behaviour serves as a reminder to stick with the gratitude exercise.
Focus on functionality
Our bodies are much more than a façade; they serve vital functions that allow us to live our lives and experience our worlds. Focusing more on what a body does as opposed to just how it looks can be a useful step toward body positivity.
Body functionality is a term used to describe the many physical functions of our bodies: breathing, sleeping, walking, singing, dancing, engaging with other people and anything else a body can do. Although many people feel dissatisfied with their bodies or even ‘at war with’ them, our bodies aren’t deliberately trying to hold us back from living our lives. One way to reorient ourselves toward our body’s capabilities is through writing and reflection. In one study, women were asked to write statements about 10 functions of their bodies and how those functions contributed to their wellbeing. The women who took part in this simple exercise showed improvements on measures of body image during the study.
Try concentrating on your own body functionality – and even making a list of the ways that your body serves you well. Referring back to your list later might boost your positive feelings about your body following any initial improvement.
Engage in protective filtering
An important part of developing a positive body image is navigating the array of external influences that are apt to make you feel dissatisfied with your body. I am going to focus here on managing your consumption of media that can trigger body dissatisfaction. The bottom line, however, is that you can benefit from becoming more aware of how a variety of different people and environments make you feel, and then reacting to those feelings in protective ways.
Body image researchers refer to the avoidance of negative body image influences as ‘protective filtering’. This is not the same as maladaptive avoidance of anxiety-inducing situations or phobic behaviour; you can function in a psychologically healthy manner while still avoiding certain celebrities on social media. Some forms of media can be avoided more completely than others. For example, you might decide against watching television shows such as Next Top Model or The Bachelor, which feature women in objectified roles with a focus on their appearance. You can decline to buy or flick through magazines that are replete with articles and ads displaying emaciated women or selling beauty products.
Social media poses particular challenges and opportunities when it comes to your body image. Because most forms of social media feature content that’s curated based on your own interests and usage, you can shape your social media world to be protective. This might require unfollowing influencers, celebrities and possibly even friends who embody values contrary to your development of a positive body image. Instead of engaging with those on social media who focus extensively on their own appearance – and cosmetics or clothing that they feel enhance it – you could engage with body positivity activists, mental health professionals and others who offer tools and advice to aid you in your journey toward self-acceptance.
Media has a negative effect on body image largely because it provides endless opportunities to compare ourselves with others. Psychologists believe that it’s natural for us to compare ourselves with other people; it’s one way to gauge how we are doing when there aren’t other, objective metrics available to us. And, when it comes to assessing our own appearance, there aren’t really objective measures. The problem is that we tend to feel badly about ourselves and our bodies when we think we don’t measure up.
We might be especially likely to feel badly when we compare ourselves with celebrities and social media personalities. It’s important to be aware of how these comparisons make us feel and do our best to avoid them. It’s also helpful to remember that it’s essentially (most) celebrities’ and influencers’ job to look good. And they have a lot of help – from hair stylists to lighting to photo editing specialists – so the people we see in the media rarely look in real life the way we see them. And even if some of them do, it’s worth recognising that another’s beauty doesn’t detract from your own.
Reframe your goals for exercise and eating
The health habits that you maintain can affect your body image, but how you think about your habits is also important. Let me provide an example. If you go for a run, but you think of it as obligatory or as punishment (for eating? for living?), you’re unlikely to enjoy that run. But if you think of running as something you do to help yourself feel good, improve your health and take care of yourself, you might actually enjoy running more and find it easier to sustain this behaviour. Further, this mindset will likely support your positive body image as opposed to detracting from it. One of my former students, Allie, recently shared that she had changed her mindset about exercise: ‘I decided I just needed to move every day and not worry about how “intense” my workouts are.’
There is a fairly extensive psychological literature on goal setting and achievement that suggests that when we frame goals in terms of things we want to do (called approach goals) versus things we want to avoid (called avoidance goals), it’s typically easier to achieve our goals. A number of explanations have been offered for this, but one is that it can be difficult to avoid certain thoughts or behaviours entirely, making avoidance goals less satisfactory and less easily achieved. How is this relevant to body image? It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to avoid all the behaviours that contribute to body dissatisfaction. If our goal is to completely avoid foods we deem unhealthy, then we’re likely doomed to fail. But if our goal is to eat foods that are nutritious, such as one or two pieces of fruit per day, we stand a better chance of meeting that goal. When we meet goals that are important to us, we feel a sense of pride that can motivate us to continue on a psychologically and physically healthy path.
The key is to reframe our behaviours in ways that make healthy ones sustainable. Punishing or shaming ourselves for not doing all the ‘right’ things is rarely an effective approach to health (mental or physical) and can reinforce negative body image. Easing ourselves into healthy habits can be more effective for achieving enduring change. A woman I work with, Christie, told me that she used a gradual approach a few years ago to become more physically active. She started out exercising two days a week for about 20 minutes per day, and slowly worked her way up to 40 minutes about six times per week. Most importantly, she told me, ‘don’t worry if one day you run out of time to exercise or just don’t have a good workout. Some days are like that.’
Some body image scholars and activists have suggested that aiming for a positive body image can keep you overly focused on your appearance. In other words, for some people, trying to feel good about how they look might involve too much thinking about their appearance. If this resonates with you, then you might want to aim for ‘body neutrality’. Whereas the goal of body positivity is to feel good about your body, the goal of body neutrality is to just not really think about your body. For some people, body neutrality might be a stop on the way to a positive body image. For others, body neutrality is a satisfactory endpoint.
A body-neutral perspective allows for any and all people to be beautiful because the focus is on inner beauty and not physical beauty. It reduces the pressure to try to feel positively about or love aspects of your body that you currently might not. Instead of trying to convince yourself that you love your entire physical self, you can make a decision to not care as much about every aspect of your physical appearance.
Body neutrality can be comparable to not caring that you’re not a gifted musician, nor a talented athlete, nor a charismatic public speaker. If you don’t expect these things of yourself and don’t care that you don’t possess these qualities, you’ll spend less time and energy thinking about them. For example, aside from sometimes saying: ‘I wish I had learned to play an instrument as a child,’ I don’t ever yearn to be more musically inclined or able. The difference between these skills and your appearance, of course, is that you can (most likely) avoid playing music, sports or public speaking, but you can’t avoid having an appearance.
If you’re interested in adopting a more body-neutral mentality, you might want to start with affirmations that emphasise self-acceptance. When I’m having a bad body-image day (yes, it can still happen to me), I call up one of my personal mantras: ‘I am a middle-aged woman, professor, wife, mother of two teenagers – and I am doing OK. No one I really care about cares much about how I look.’ My self-affirmations are not necessarily about the aspects of my appearance that I like, but a reminder to myself that my appearance is not what I or others most value about me.
I don’t believe any of us need to love our bodies every second of every day to be happy. But we do need to value and respect our bodies. We should view the process of body image discovery as a journey and, above all, seek to take care of ourselves – body and mind.
For direct support in improving your body image, consider meeting with a counsellor who has experience treating eating disorders and body image concerns. Most eating disorders awareness and treatment organisations – such as NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association in the US; Beat Eating Disorders in the UK, and the Butterfly Foundation in Australia – offer resources to help you connect with a qualified professional. If your concerns focus primarily on your relationship with food, you might want to seek a registered dietician who has what’s known as a ‘Health at Every Size’ (HAES) orientation.
The book More Than a Body: Your Body Is an Instrument, Not an Ornament (2020) by Lexie Kite and Lindsay Kite is full of inspiration for women looking to improve their body image. Their website contains information about their online courses, blog and speaking events. Lindsay Kite’s TEDx talk ‘Body Positivity or Body Obsession? Learning to See More and Be More’ (2017) features a description of her personal and professional journey toward body image resilience.
The book Beauty Sick (2017) by Renee Engeln provides a feminist view of body image and appearance concerns. The corresponding website contains information and a link to the author’s discussion of her work.
The Australian scholar Scott Griffiths is a world-renowned body image researcher. His TEDx talk ‘Muscle Dysmorphia: The Male Eating Disorder’ (2017) features a discussion of eating disorders and body image concerns among men.
If you’re interested in working on protective filtering, you might want to consider unfollowing some influencers and celebrities on social media and instead following body-positive social media influencers from this list I compiled.
In her book MeaningFULL: 23 Life-Changing Stories of Conquering Dieting, Weight, and Body Image Issues, Alli Spotts-De Lazzer, a therapist in California, compiles inspiring accounts of everyday people who have found a way to move past their own body dissatisfaction and create richer lives for themselves.
The book Positive Body Image Workbook: A Clinical and Self-Improvement Guide (2021) by Nichole Wood-Barcalow, Tracy Tylka and Casey Judge provides information, exercises and a review of all of the critical topics in positive body image scholarship and research.
I’ve written extensively about body image for Psychology Today and the US News and World Report. I’ve also written The Body Image Book for Girls: Love Yourself and Grow Up Fearless (2020) and Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys (forthcoming). Although the target audiences for these books are tweens and teens, they contain accessible information about body image for any age.