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How to Boost Your Body Image

Changing the Way You See Yourself
Part 2 of 2

In Part 1, we looked at what body image is and what current standards of beauty influence body image for both men and women in our culture. Below, we’ll consider different ways of responding to those standards and propose a way that promotes the most physical and mental well-being.

Accepting Your Body

There are many people today who refuse to uphold cultural beauty standards as valid, and they try not to judge their bodies – or those of others – based on those standards. Many resources on positive body image teach that all bodies are beautiful, and that they come in different shapes and sizes naturally.

Because beauty is subjective, it can’t be “standardized” one way or the other. Any body can be seen as beautiful, and we encourage everyone to cultivate a positive view of their own beauty. While we generally put more emphasis on a person’s personality, intellect, character and choices than on their appearance, we understand that our bodies are an important part of our lives, and think it is perfectly healthy to appreciate physical beauty. Shifting the focus from things you don’t like about your body to things you do is a wonderful way to start improving body image.

Relying on your own perception of beauty instead of society’s is an important step to reclaiming your body, and it can go a long way in alleviating some of the mental and physical health issues associated with negative body image, which we’ll explore below. But we encourage you to go further. If the way you think about your body is limited to considerations of beauty (male or female), you’re still allowing the body to be treated primarily as an object for viewing or a status symbol, as appearance rather than function. In its own way, this can promote unhealthy behaviors. If all bodies are beautiful, and beauty is all that matters, then why not pig out on chips and cookies all day? Why exercise? We’re beautiful just the way we are, right? 

Below, we’ll look at destructive behaviors associated with a negative body image; this will highlight the importance of cultivating a perception of your own beauty. Afterward, we’ll show how this more positive way of thinking about your body can serve as a starting point for focusing on function rather than appearance, which in turn means making healthier choices.

Self-Loathing and Destructive Behaviors

One obvious response to the “ideal” body types we see around us is to compare our bodies to those types and try to approximate them. Since the standards are unrealistic for most of us (DoSomething.org reports that only about 5% of women naturally have the body type primarily represented in the media, for example), this can lead to unhealthy behaviors.

Eating disorders come in many forms. Generally, they involve an obsession around what and how much is eaten. The best-known disorders are anorexia – under-eating or not eating at all – and bulimia – forced vomiting after eating. These are the most extreme, though not the most common, types of disordered eating.

Disordered eating also manifests in subtler and much more common ways. People may skip meals or avoid eating for a day at a time here and there to lose weight quickly. The ANAD reports that more than half of female teenagers and almost one-third of male teenagers use unhealthy behaviors to control weight, such as skipping meals, smoking, taking laxatives and fasting. While these behaviors may be more occasional than bulimia and anorexia, their commonness speaks to the prevalence of body image issues among both young men and women, and they show how tempting destructive behaviors are when faced with cultural standards of beauty.

In addition to weight concerns, young men are susceptible to destructive behaviors in an effort to obtain a muscular physique, including overtraining and the temptation to use steroids. Overtraining can weaken the body’s immune system, cause extreme exhaustion and lead to high levels of stress and anxiety. (Young women who exercise excessively to lose weight are also at risk of these dangers.) Steroid use can stunt the body’s natural development and result in serious health risks, including heart problems, high cholesterol, liver abnormalities, infertility and psychological problems. Other side effects include severe acne, aggression and shrunken testicles.

Not everyone who buys into the standards of beauty in our culture (thinness, muscularity, etc.) tries to approximate them; some may have given up, while others simply know that they can’t healthily attain them. However, people who avoid harmful behaviors still may not accept their bodies; some people loathe their bodies for being different from the standards they can’t attain. While they may not adopt destructive dieting or training practices, they still suffer the effects of low self-esteem. Poor mental health can affect us on a physical level as well and inhibits our ability to live to our full potential.

People have a better chance of avoiding destructive behaviors if they cultivate a broader, more realistic sense of beauty, and learn to see it in themselves. But we want more than avoiding destructive behaviors: We believe in adopting healthy ones. That’s why we encourage readers to not only accept their bodies as they are based on appearance, but to take steps to make them healthier in terms of function.

Healthy is the New Skinny

It is not enough to say “I love my body.” How you treat your body is how you show your love and respect for your body.
Core Belief #1, Healthy is the New Skinny

Is there something in between accepting our bodies just the way they are and loathing them for what they are not? If so, then there is a standard by which we can judge our bodies – not a value judgment (good or bad) or a beauty judgment – that allows for self-improvement without falling prey to the unrealistic body image standards our culture promotes. We think there is such a standard, and that standard is health.

While you can see beauty at any size or shape, we also maintain that beauty should not be the only, or the primary, framework in which we think about our bodies. It allows us to avoid negative behaviors, and thus serves as a stepping stone for loving ourselves, but it’s not enough. We want to move away from treating the body as an object or a status symbol. We believe that we make the best choices for ourselves not only when we think we’re beautiful, but when we stop objectifying our bodies. The way to truly celebrate your body and cherish it is to treat it as the house of your heart and mind, as the instrument through and with which you experience the world. When you do so, you’re not focused first and foremost on its appearance, but on how well it functions – on what it allows you to do in the world.

You can love your appearance without loving your body – without treating it well. When you work toward greater health, you are actively loving your body by treating it right. You’re not trying to reach an unattainable goal; you’re attaining a goal in the moment you eat a healthy meal or perform exercise to strengthen your body.

It’s important to note that healthy behaviors are beneficial to everyone, regardless of size or shape. Slender people aren’t healthy if they don’t exercise and eat well. Also, healthy eating and exercise might not always lead to weight loss, or the weight loss may come very slowly; this does not mean that healthy behaviors aren’t worth sticking with. Weight and health are certainly connected, but people are more likely to stick to the positive changes they make if they focus more on the behaviors themselves rather than a weight goal. You’re more than your size; every cell in your body benefits from proper nutrition and physical activity levels.

We encourage you to cultivate a positive body image both in terms of appearance and function. You can appreciate your appearance at the same time as working toward or maintaining health. Now, what can you do to promote those two types of positive body image – first, by overcoming cultural pressures around the “ideal” body type, and, second, by improving your health?

Action Plans

1. Changing how you think and feel about your body:

  • View Photoshop galleries/videos: There are several websites dedicated to exposing the drastic alterations that media images undergo, and videos of the alterations in action. These sites and videos are a useful reminder that the images we see are unrealistic, and that there is no reason to compare ourselves to them. This video portrays a young man being digitally altered to appear more muscular. Also, check out the fantastic video series entitled The Photoshop Effect, in which fitness expert Sarah Dussault experiences just how much her extremely strong and healthy body would need to be changed to be “magazine-worthy.” 
  • Change how you talk about clothes. Clothing is made for people, not the other way around. If an article of clothing doesn’t fit you, it’s not because you’re too fat, your thighs are too big, your chest is too small, etc. – it’s because the article of clothing is too big or small. Simply changing how we describe clothing in reference to our bodies in this way can remind us that there’s not necessarily a problem with our bodies if they don’t fit a certain size or cut of clothing. 
  • Change how you talk about your body. It’s time to kick words like “saddlebags” to the curb, and any other grossly objectifying terms for parts of our bodies. Drop the negative self-talk – “I’m fat,” “My ___ is too big/small,” etc. Question these negative thoughts and, next time you feel compelled to say something negative about your body, challenge yourself to say something positive instead. 
  • Change how much you talk about your body’s appearance. You may find that you and your friends spend a lot of time on “body talk.” It can be helpful to find other things to talk about. Try telling your friends that you’re tired of talking about how you look and want to discuss other things – interests, goals, etc.
  • Make a list of the things your body allows you to do. This activity encourages you to shift your focus from your body’s appearance to its performance. Your list may include your senses, certain ways you move, body language, athletic abilities, artistic capabilities and more.

2. Changing what you do with your body:

The steps above can help you think and feel better about your body, but we encourage people to use this positive perspective as a stepping stone for making sure their behaviors concerning their bodies – the fourth component of body image – are improved as well. We recommend the following actions for showing your body all your love:

  • Start exercising. Our 2-part article series on exercise is designed to help young people begin and stick to an exercise plan. Check out Part 1 to learn all the benefits that exercise offers, and Part 2 for practical tips on how to exercise regularly. Pick an exercise method and start tomorrow.
  • Lay off the soda. Our article series, The Sweet Life, outlines the many dangers associated with high sugar intake, and soda is a primary source of sugar in the American diet.
  • Ditch the bags and boxes. Any time you have the option to eat something fresh or homemade as opposed to food that comes premade in a bag or box, choose the fresh/homemade option.
  • Get nutrition-literate. Check out ChooseMyPlate, a nutrition education website from the federal government. There, you’ll learn what a healthy plate looks like, how to analyze nutrition labels and more.
  • Shift goals from weight and clothing size targets to fitness targets. Rather than aiming for a certain clothing size or number on a scale, set yourself a reasonable fitness goal. For example, you may want to be able to run a mile within a few months. Setting a goal will help you stay motivated and stick to the healthy changes you’re making in life; it’ll also help you become aware of how far you’ve come once you’ve attained the goal. Get a “baseline” reading of what your body is capable of now, and set a realistic goal based on that.

The information in this series on body image was intended to help you, as a young person, understand that “ideal” bodies represented in the media are unrealistic, and that your body is more than an object to look at. By becoming aware of cultural pressures and thinking about bodies in a different way, you can improve your body image – both in terms of its appearance and its performance – and, in turn, improve your self-esteem. 

Written by Amée LaTour

- OTHER PARTS OF THIS SERIES -

Part 1:
What is Body Image?
Changing the Way You See Yourself

Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved

Good habits formed at youth make all of the difference in life. Aristotle