Cultivating a positive body image can be challenging. We are often our own worst critics. When you look in the mirror, you may zero in on one area of your body that you wish was smaller, smoother or just plain different. But chances are you’re the only one being so hard on yourself. The people who love you aren’t looking at your thighs or your crow’s feet—they only see the person who always makes them laugh, the one who cooks magnificent meals and lights up the room with a smile.
Recognizing and celebrating the inner beauty that others see shining through rather than focusing on “fixing” your perceived flaws is an important step toward cultivating a positive body image. Removing the phrase, If only I looked like… from your vocabulary is another. “We all spend huge amounts of time comparing ourselves to others," says Ann Pardo, M.A., L.P.C., B.C.C., director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. But in the end, these comparisons often do little more than lead us further down a path of negative thinking, of striving for some unachievable body ideal. So, the next time you notice yourself engaging in self-criticism, consider using these suggestions to shift gears and change course.
Focus on You
With the daily barrage of “perfect” bodies we see in magazines and on television, comparisons are all but inevitable. But research shows doing just that can lead to a negative body image. Whenever you catch yourself playing the comparison game, consciously decide to stop. Let your logical brain take over: Remember that no one is perfect—the images you see in magazines have likely been airbrushed and retouched. And don't forget that everyone is unique; try not to use others as a reference point for who you should or can be.
Step Away From the Mirror
Constantly checking (and obsessing about) your appearance and perceived physical flaws also reinforces a negative body image. If you find yourself often sneaking a peek at your reflection, consider setting limits. Allow yourself to look in the mirror as you get ready to go out, but only once or twice. If you give yourself fewer opportunities to critique your appearance, you may find that you think less about your looks and spend more time thinking about other things.
Take an Integrative Approach
Self-esteem improves when you begin looking at yourself as the sum of all your parts, not just your looks. This “whole person” approach means not focusing on what you lack, but on everything you have to offer and that you do right. Every few days, jot down a different set of five positive attributes: personal strengths, abilities, achievements, things you admire about yourself and like about your looks, things you did or do well, and so on.
Exercise, Eat Well and Pursue Your Passions
Taking care of your health and allowing opportunities for personal fulfillment sends the message—both to others and to yourself—that you are worthy and valued, which helps increase self-esteem. Be sure, however, to think of workouts and your diet as a way to stay healthy, not a means to the perfect body. “Our culture is extremely misinformed about weight and body image,” Pardo says. “Very few people understand that mental and physical fitness are what really matter.”
Monitor and Tweak Your Self-Talk
Listen carefully to what you tell yourself. My skin is horrible. I am ugly. How did I get so fat? Some people are so used to putting themselves down they don’t even realize they do it. But it’s never too late to change the dialogue. Try this: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a close friend. Also remember that feelings aren’t facts; just because you may feel unattractive one day doesn’t mean you are. This isn’t easy, especially if you’ve been engaging in negative behaviors for years, but once you learn to recognize the negative self-talk, the next step is to alter it. Make an effort to put a positive spin on whatever you otherwise would have criticized.
Dwell on Solutions, Not Slip-Ups
Focusing too much on mistakes can deal your self-esteem a major blow, Pardo says. If you fall off the diet wagon, for example, don’t label yourself a failure and give up. Instead, consider that the diet you chose may not have been right for you. Explore what went wrong, but in the context of how you can change or do better next time. A mistake or failure is an isolated incident, not indicative of who you are.
Bottom line: “Living in joy and contentment is a much better goal than correctly following some diet based on vanity rather than on self-improvement for the greater good,” Pardo says. Be kind to yourself, and set your sights on happiness, not perfection.