Body image is a general term that describes how we feel about our bodies in a given cultural context. Read more: Building Blocks of Body Image - How We Learn About Beauty and the Cost of Poor Body Image. When we have poor body image, we can feel a deep and painful urgency to change our bodies - we believe we have to look a certain way to find happiness, to be worthy, or to attain valued goals. If we can learn to separate our sense of worth from how we look, we become capable of growth that truly nourishes us.
How’s your body image?
To improve body image, we need to assess our relationships with our bodies. Here are some prompts for reflection - take a few minutes and write down your reactions.
- The aspects of my body I most want to change are ____________________.
- I have put the following efforts into making those changes (consider time, money, and emotional energy you’ve put into changing your body): ____________________.
- If I can’t change these aspects of my body, I worry that I’ll always ____________________ or never ____________________.
By answering these questions, we gain clarity about what drives our efforts to change our bodies. When we name why it feels so important to lose weight, straighten our hair, or eradicate our wrinkles, we may feel the first tremors of compassion for ourselves. It hurts to dislike or hate aspects of our bodies! It also hurts to feel like the current state of our bodies is a barrier to having relationships, careers, or life experiences that are important to us.
The more conscious we become of the connection between rejection-based efforts at body change and emotional discomfort, the more motivated we become to improve our relationships with our bodies (2).
A spectrum of change
One of my clients with a long history of disordered eating once said “I don’t want to be thinner, I want to not want to be thinner.” I was ecstatic! The single most important shift we can make in our relationships with our bodies is to recognize that our bodies are not the problem - the unrealistic, oppressive standards of beauty that we equate to worth are the problem (3). But how do we make the major leap from body rejection to body love? The short answer is: we don’t, at least not all at once. We can instead take a more graduated path marked by three steps: be still, be respectful, and befriend.
Being still when we have negative judgments about our bodies is a way of turning towards the truth of how we feel. Instead of trying to force ourselves into a loving relationship with our bodies, we start by acknowledging those aspects of our bodies that we don’t like and commit to NOT acting on negative beliefs. If you would typically respond to a thought about your hips being too big with a plan to workout later, take a step back from that thought, notice it, and commit to taking NO action to change your hips. (Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you’ll never work out again - we just want to experiment with moving our bodies from a place of kindness rather than criticism). By deciding to be still when we have an urge to change ourselves, we develop a tolerance for body shaming thoughts, making those thoughts less powerful and compelling.
As we gain some resilience to tolerate our negative body thoughts without acting on them, we can move into the next phase of change, which is respect. Consider all the things your body does for you, all the experiences you wouldn’t have if you didn’t have a body. Our bodies are capable of amazing things! If this line of inquiry puts you in touch with painful experiences you’ve had that relate to your body, consider shifting responsibility. If you were bullied for a physical feature, for example, is that your body’s fault, or the bully’s fault? No matter how unkind you or others may have been to your body, your body has stayed with you, and that is pretty incredible.
Respecting our bodies also includes honoring our limits. Practice resting when your body is tired, eating when your body is hungry, and soothing your senses when you’re distressed. Meeting these basic needs communicates kindness toward our bodies, and helps to increase the ratio of positive to negative interactions we have with our bodies.
Befriend your body
We befriend our bodies using the same strategies we use to befriend people (or animals). Friendship requires care, vulnerability, honesty, and forgiveness. Care establishes connection; vulnerability keeps that connection authentic and supportive; honesty communicates respect and allows for growth; and forgiveness makes room for our inevitable shortcomings. Have a daily check in with your body - acknowledge successes and setbacks, offer comfort when it’s needed, and explore what it’s like to encounter your body as friend rather than foe.
More tools for improving body image
- Wear clothes that feel good on your body - Rather than focus on what minimizes your waist, makes you look taller, or hides some aspect of your body you don’t like, try putting your clothes on and not looking at yourself. Engage your tactile sense and experience what you like or don’t like about how your clothes feel (4).
- Assess your social media - Unfollow accounts that push one type of beauty, that emphasize changing yourself, or that otherwise put you at odds with your own body. Fill your feed with images of people in all sorts of bodies having full, meaningful, and happy lives.
- Address body talk - Our peer groups have a big impact on how we experience our bodies (5). If your friends and family frequently talk about ways they are trying to lose weight or minimize “flaws”, consider bringing that to their attention. Ask if they would be willing to commit to talking about other topics besides changing their bodies. If that feels too direct, try changing the subject when bodies become the topic of conversation.
- Get angry about sexism, racism, and ableism - Our beliefs about beauty are directly linked to systems of oppression that devalue women, people of color, and folks with disabilities. Anger isn’t a state we want to stay in, but it’s useful fuel for burning away whatever resistance we may have to accepting our bodies. The Representation Project (5) provides a great overview of how the media plays a central role in perpetuating oppressive standards of beauty.
- Notice how you judge other bodies - Body image is a community issue (6). We won’t get far in befriending our bodies if we are actively critical of other people’s bodies. Notice how you react to bodies that don’t fit social standards of beauty. When you feel disgust, pity, or an urge to judge, challenge yourself to connect with the humanity of the body you’re judging. Try thinking “Here is a person, just like me, who wants to be happy.” Or ask yourself “Is their body my business?”
- Write yourself a permission slip to do what you want without changing your body first - If you’ve been putting off applying for a new job, planning a vacation, or otherwise putting your life on hold until something about your body changes, that ends now! Imagine yourself one year from now, five years from now - will it feel more satisfying to have taken a leap or to have held back in the service of negative body judgments?
Body image is a tender subject for many of us, but the Fitness Blender community is here to offer encouragement and support. How’s your relationship with your body? What have you found challenging or helpful in befriending your body?
Written for Fitness Blender by Candice C, PhD
Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Supervisor
- Pearson, A., Macera, M. H., & Follette, V. (2010). Acceptance and commitment therapy for body image dissatisfaction: A practitioner's guide to using mindfulness, acceptance, and values-based behavior change strategies. New Harbinger Publications.
- Cash, T. F., & Pruzinsky, T. (Eds.). (2004). Body image: A handbook of theory, research, and clinical practice. Guilford press.
- National Eating Disorders Association. (2021, February 4). 10 Steps to Positive Body Image.
- Research. (2021, August 3). The Representation Project.
- Wasylkiw, L., & Butler, N. A. (2014). Body talk among undergraduate women: Why conversations about exercise and weight loss differentially predict body appreciation. Journal of Health Psychology, 19(8), 1013-1024.
- Taylor, S. R., & Oluo, I. (2021). The Body Is Not an Apology, Second Edition: The Power of Radical Self-Love (2nd ed.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.