5 Steps to Better Body Image

Article posted in: Lifestyle
woman looking at herself in the mirror with a red dress on

Are you a 91 percenter?

Statistics compiled from various sources, including the Department of Health and Human Services and National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, say that’s the percentage of women who aren’t happy with their bodies.

Men aren’t immune from poor body image, defined as the way you perceive your body and how you think others see you. A 2013 study found that 95 percent of college age men are “dissatisfied with their bodies at some level” and another found that 90 percent of men in the general population have negative opinions about their looks.

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You might be thinking, well, if it motivates them to take positive action—like dieting and exercising—why is that such a bad thing?

The truth is, while that’s exactly what happens to some people, for others it’s a recipe for weight gain, not loss. That was the surprising finding of a 2015 study done at the University of Minnesota. When they looked at the 2,500 teenaged girls in Project EAT, a research project tracking teens on their attitudes about eating, exercise and weight for almost 20 years, the researchers found that overweight teens with poor body images added three more points to their body mass indexes over a 10-year period. The possible reason, the researchers speculated: Teens who hate their bodies are more likely to turn to less effective weight loss fads in a desperate attempt to lose weight.

A number of other, earlier studies, found similar results. On the other hand, a recent meta-analysis of 11 good medical studies that looked at the effects of weight loss on body image found that losing weight can help improve body image. This can make maintaining weight loss much more certain.

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How do you achieve at least a passable good self-image so you can stick to your weight loss and exercise goals and come out smiling and happier with yourself on the other side?

Here are five, scientifically proven ways:

1. Use your body.
A study done at the University of Florida found that exercising alone—even before you get slim and fit—can convince you that you look better. There are dozens of studies that tout the emotional benefits of exercise—it tackles both depression and anxiety—and many also looked at body image. The University of Florida researchers analyzed those that explored the link between exercise and body image, and found that even those who exercised below the bare minimum (30 minutes a day, five days a week, according to American College of Sports Medicine) got the benefit.

2. Get real.
The media promotes a body ideal that, realistically, occurs in only about five percent of people. The average American woman is only about 5’4” and weighs 166 pounds. She’s never going to look like the average model, who is 5’10 and weighs 107 pounds, according to a study from Loyola University focusing on the effects of media photos on body image, published in 2005 the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. Don’t compare yourself to someone you can never become. And practice a little self-compassion. A University of Waterloo (Canada) study found that women who accept their imperfections have a better body image no matter what their size. They’re also better able to handle the problems and setbacks that are part of just being alive.

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3. List all the other things you like about yourself.
List five to 10 good qualities that you have, suggest Michael Levine PhD and Linda Smolak, PhD, of the National Eating Disorders Association. They recommend that you repeat them to yourself any time you start to feel bad about the way you look.

4. Take good care of yourself.
Don’t let your feelings about your body keep you from doing what you like to do, say Levine and Smolak in their article, “10 ‘Will Powers’ for Improving Body Image.” That means dancing and swimming if those are things you enjoy. And surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself, they suggest. That way you’re less likely to base your feelings about yourself on how you think you look.

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5. Remind yourself that thin doesn’t equal happy.
You may feel happier when you’ve lost weight, but don’t assume that it’s all that will make you happy. Thin=happy is a myth. Proof: A 16-year study of thousands of people done by Bristol University in the UK found that thinner people were at higher risk of serious depression and even suicide than their overweight counterparts. Why? Happiness isn’t limited to satisfaction with your size and shape. According to a raft of positive psychology research, the best recipe for being happy is setting and achieving goals (yes, like weight loss), having good relationships, feeling grateful, helping others, keeping an optimistic attitude, even having a pet. (Have a pet? You need to read this article right now: 8 Reasons Your Pet is Good for Your Health.)