Worries about weight and appearance begin in childhood. Girls as young as six talk about wanting to be skinnier. Boys in middle school take supplements and even steroids to develop more muscular bodies.
The pressure to look a certain way is often reinforced through marketing and advertising, and through the carefully selected images popular on social media. A growing number of influencers try to demonstrate how lighting or posture can change how their bodies looks in photos, while ads and mainstream images are becoming more inclusive. Even so, there still remains unrealistic expectations and the underlying messages we’re faced with is that our bodies are simply “not good enough.”
UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, cites extensive research showing just how much influence images can have on our own perceptions. Seeing images of models in mainstream magazines and ads – even just briefly - can lead to increased feelings of depression, stress, shame and insecurity.
“It is difficult to get through an average day viewing these images, let alone begin to comprehend the impact exposure to hundreds of thousands of images over a lifetime can have. The constant message we’re being sent is ‘You don’t measure up,’” says Mirgain.
Mirgain notes that problems with eating disorders have increased over 400 percent since the year 1970. And while it’s often perceived to be an issue affecting females, one in three individuals struggling with an eating disorder are male. Developing a positive body image and healthy mental attitude toward our bodies is crucial to our health and wellbeing.
While it seems like accepting our bodies for how they look should be an easy thing, Mirgain notes that it takes patience and doesn’t mean we’ll never feel inadequate or uncomfortable.
“Accepting our bodies doesn’t mean that we’re always satisfied or comfortable with how we look or feel. It’s only natural to experience insecurities or doubts,” she says. “But we can hopefully reach a point where we experience positive feelings more than negative ones.
Tips to help develop a positive attitude about your body
To help, Mirgain offers a few tips:
Focus on the function of your body, not its form. Rather than focusing on how our body looks, Mirgain suggests focusing on what it enables you to do. “Your body shows up for you every day, no matter how you treat it or the way you feel about it,” says Mirgain. Think about the ways your body lets you experience the activities you enjoy or how it has carried you even through tough times.
Appreciate your body. Mirgain suggests standing in front of a mirror for several minutes. It can be uncomfortable at first, but the goal is to work up to at least five minutes. “As you stand in front the mirror, simply notice where your eyes go and what thoughts arise. It’s easy to find things you don’t like, focus on finding things you do,” Mirgain says. “Through practice, you can learn to love what you see.”
Be body positive around others. We often don’t realize how our negative words about our body affect other people. “Be aware of what you are saying about your body and how it can affect friends, family and kids. Don’t comment negatively about your body or other people’s,” says Mirgain.
Connect your mind, body and spirit. There are several small steps we can take to help change our attitudes explains Mirgain:
Keep a list of the top 10 things you like about yourself
Move in a way that feels good to you, like dancing
Buy a swimsuit and wear it proudly
Clean out the closet and get rid of clothes that make you feel uncomfortable
Take care of your body. Health is a direction we travel in every day through the choices we make about our food and ways we support our wellbeing. Make healthy food choices, get rest, take a break to recharge. Small steps can make a big difference.
Fall in love with your body. Mirgain suggests thinking about the relationship we have with our bodies. As with any relationship, a positive one can improve our sense of wellbeing. She shares what an inspiration her mother has been, “I have never heard her say anything negative about her body. She’s always been positive about my body encouraging me to focus on keeping it healthy with regular exercise and nutritious foods. She’s a role model of what it means to age gracefully as a woman who cultivates deep appreciation for her body through all the years.”
Get professional help. Individuals experiencing disordered eating or who may struggle with trying to develop a more positive sense of self should consider seeking professional help, suggests Mirgain.