Positive Body Image

See also: Dieting for Weight Loss

We are bombarded every day with images of perfection: perfect lives, perfect bodies, perfect children, all held up for inspection via social media.

These images are hard to live up to, so perhaps it is no wonder that charities warn that mental health problems are rising, especially among young people.

It is, however, possible to take steps to protect yourself against the onslaught of perfection.

One valuable weapon to develop is a positive body image, an acceptance of your body and both its good and bad points. This helps you to become confident and comfortable in your own skin.

What is Body Image?

Body image is how you see yourself physically, both when you think about yourself, and when you look in a mirror.

Body image is affected by:

  • How you feel about your body, including height, weight and shape;

  • Your beliefs about your appearance, which may include views about the ‘right’ appearance; and

  • How your physical body feels to you as you move.

Body image is also affected by stereotypes and beliefs, including those of the people around you as well as your own.

Having a positive body image does not mean that you think everything about your body is perfect.

After all, nobody is perfect, not even supermodels

Instead, positive body image means accepting your body for what it is, celebrating your natural shape and size, and how your body performs.

People with positive body image understand that personal appearance has very little to do with ability or character. They are confident and comfortable with themselves, and do not waste time worrying about their body.

Developing a Positive Body Image

Developing a positive body image, or helping someone else to do so, requires three key skills or characteristics:

1. Good self-esteem

Body image is closely linked to self-esteem, which is how you feel about your abilities, and can be best thought of as your ‘inner voice’.

Those with low self-esteem may also have a more negative image of their bodies, because they have a generally low opinion of themselves and their abilities. Both are also linked to self-confidence.

Improving your self-esteem requires building up your view of yourself. It means taking control of your inner dialogue, and ensuring that it becomes more positive. Instead of focusing on what might go wrong, it is important to focus on what is already good.

2. A positive attitude

The second element, a positive attitude, is closely linked to self-esteem.

Positive thinking is the idea that you can change your life by thinking more positively. If this sounds a bit fluffy and non-scientific, consider the placebo effect, a well-known example of the power of positive thinking.

The Placebo Effect

The placebo effect is a phenomenon often seen in clinical trials and other tests of new medicines. Clinical trials usually involve three groups of patients: one given the new medicine, a second given something that looks like the new medicine but has no effect (a placebo), and the third given no medicine at all.

Doctors often notice that the patients given the non-effective medicine show signs of improvement. This has been documented over and over again. There is no clinical reason for this improvement (the medicine that they are being given cannot cause these effects, because it contains no active ingredients). The only conclusion is that these patients improve because they believe they are being given something that will make them better.

This is the placebo effect, and shows the power of the mind.

Three very practical ways to help you to avoid developing negative views of your body, and help you to think more positively are:

1. Try to avoid perfectionism.
Nobody is perfect, and trying to be perfect in any sphere is only going to lead to problems in the long term. Good enough actually is good enough.

2. Don't make comparisons.
It is easy to fall into the trap of comparing your life or your body with others, and thinking that yours is inferior in some way. Social media makes this especially likely, because most people are presenting carefully-curated images of their lives, designed to look better than the reality. Avoid comparisons, and try to simply celebrate others’ successes as well as your own.

3. Avoid the temptation to criticise or judge.
It is always easy to criticise. Unfortunately, being highly critical is a bit of a habit, and once you start to use this approach with others, it tends to rebound on you. A sense of justice is good, but you also need to give everyone, including yourself, a break from time to time. Not rushing to judge is likely to make you kinder and pleasanter to be around.

Our pages on Compassion and Justice and Fairness may be helpful in developing this skill.

3. Emotional awareness and self-control, sometimes called emotional stability

Finally, to manage your views about your body, you need to be aware and in control of your emotions.

There will be times when you see or hear things that will upset you, and affect your view of your body. At these times, you need to be able to understand what you are feeling, and why, to help you manage and master those feelings, and avoid them affecting your body image on a permanent basis.

There is more about this in our pages on Self-Awareness and Self-Control.

Some activities to help develop better body image:

If you are struggling to develop a more positive image of your body, you may find some of these activities help.

  1. Make a list of all the things that your body helps you to do, from the essentials like breathing through to taking exercise, and getting you to places you want to go, or to see people you love. Remind yourself of all the things that you couldn’t do without your body, and celebrate it for what it does for you.

  2. Make a list of ten things that you really like about yourself (not related to your appearance), and remind yourself that your appearance does not affect who you are.

  3. Surround yourself with positive people – people who feel good about themselves, and who help you to do the same. If you spend your time with people who are constantly doing themselves and you down, then you will start to feel that it is true. Positive thinking is catching, but so is a negative attitude.

  4. Wear clothes that you like, and that make you feel confident. Confidence shines through in how you stand and move, and is hugely attractive.

  5. Look after yourself. Give yourself a treat by going somewhere nice, or spending time doing something you love. Remember to value yourself, and celebrate you.

The bottom line…

A poor or negative body image can be the starting point for serious mental illnesses, including eating disorders such as anorexia, as well as anxiety and depression (and if you think you may be suffering from one of these conditions, you should seek professional help). Building and maintaining a positive body image is therefore important.

Learning to accept yourself and your body—or even just to give yourself a break every now and then—is one of the most important personal skills for the mind.