Building a Positive Image: You and Your Body

Written by Melissa M. Brown, Psy.D, UPMC

Feeling insecure once in a while is normal.  But it should not be your norm.  Appreciating the body you have and refocusing toward positivity are steps you can take toward valuing yourself as a complex individual.

What if I asked you to name three things that you would change about your body? How quickly would you answer? And if I asked you to name three things you love about your body? Would you answer as quickly?

If you struggle with the positive answers, you are not alone.  American women have a much higher rate of distorted feelings about themselves than women from other countries and cultures.  In fact, in a survey by Body Image International, females in the U.S> had lower opinions about every body part they asked about.  And these same feelings extend from women to teens to adolescents – most of us struggle with our body image at different points in our lives. 

What is body image?

How do you see yourself and feel about your body when you look in the mirror? Your thoughts, perceptions and attitudes about your physical appearance are your “body image.” But your body image is more than how you feel about physical appearance, attractiveness and beauty.  How you perceive your body is your mental representation of yourself.  This “picture” can govern everything from your life plan to the plans you make each day.

While it may seem that we are making progress, our culture needs to continue to reshape what we see (think television and magazines) so that the majority of the models and actors represent the same diversity of bodies (among other attributes) that we have in real life.  As long as the “ideal” or “preferred” is portrayed as “thin” or some other unrealistic size or shape for most of us, we will continue to have unrealistic expectations about our own bodies. 

How does social media impact body image?

There are some social media “influencers” who use the platform to promote body positivity and self-acceptance.  Ashley Graham, Serena Williams, and Demi Lovato are just a few female celebrities who have taken a stand by posting un-retouched photos of themselves or challenging negative comments made to their social media accounts about their bodies.  As of yet, however, these actions are not counteracting the impacts of social media on most of us.

In fact, a study done by Rachel Cohen, PhD Candidate, UTS Graduate School of Health, in 2018 found “engaging in photo activities, (e.g. viewing friends’ photos or updating your own profile picture) on Facebook, was associated with concerns including greater “thin-ideal” internalization, self-objectification and body dissatisfaction.” The study also found that following appearance-focused accounts on Instagram, (i.e. health and fitness or celebrities like the Kardashians), was related to some negative body image outcomes and disordered eating.

So, if social media is showing more kinds of bodies, from thin to curvy to full-size, why do we still have a negative image of our own bodies?  As adolescents, we experience the height of self-consciousness and the need for peer validation. It’s normal in our growth and development.  But with the Internet as a new “peer,” the next question to ask is, “Is what I’m seeing real?” Air brushing, glittering light, posing, and filters are a few techniques that distort images and make what you see on social media quite different from reality.

What can I do to have a more positive body image?

Accept your body

  • Don’t body-share yourself. When you make harsh comments about your own body, it hurts your self-esteem.  That’s true whether you say it out loud or think it to yourself.  It hurts just as much as if someone else said it.  Be kind.  Respect yourself, even if you have things to work on.
  • Build a better habit. Do you have a habit of putting your body down? To break that bad habit, build a good one in its place.  Tell yourself what you like instead of what you don’t. Keep doing it until it is a habit.

Like your body

  • Find things to like about your looks. Do you like the way your hands move or what they create? What about your eyes or your smile? Tell yourself what you like and why.  If you aren’t sure, what do your friends tell you they like about you? Accept those things. Let yourself feel good.  There is a lot to like about you.
  • Focus on what your body can DO.  Celebrate all the things that your body does for you from breathing to dancing.  Your body is amazing. Think about all that it enables you to do. Be grateful.

Take care of your body

  • Eat healthy foods. Learn what foods are good for you, and how much is the right amount.  Eating right is about building strong bones, growing and having energy.  Being good to your body can help you feel good about yourself.
  • Move every day. Your body takes care of you. Take care of it and have fun.  What do you like to do to get moving? From walking, swimming, biking, hiking and so much more, movement is a gift. Moving also lifts our mood.  It can also disrupt negative thoughts and help us refocus.

How can adults help?

Adults can acknowledge their own insecurities and struggles.  In one study, 90% of teens who reported being unhappy with their body shape said their own mother had an “insecure body image.”  How adults talk about ourselves, how we look, our relationship with food, diet culture and our bodies, as well as how we speak about other women in the news and on social media can have a huge impact on how young people perceive themselves.

Adults should talk about social media. Having a conversation around social media and how it makes adolescents feel can have a big impact. Open, honest, frank discussions about social media and the potential impact it can have can help uncover any feelings of negativity (or positivity) it may be having on the well-being of young people.

Adults can encourage role models of all shapes and sizes. Many of the images we see in magazines and across various media platforms can give us a skewed view of what we should aspire to look like.  By highlighting different types of beauty, adults can help young people learn to recognize and overcome insecurities.

When should I talk with an adult?

Talk with a trusted adult after you have read this post.  Tell them you have negative feelings about your body and any concerns you may have.  Getting a different perspective and being reminded of how much you have to offer can help you feel confident and improve your self-esteem.

When we have negative thoughts and feelings about our bodies, these feelings may overflow into other areas of life.  If you think you may be depressed, tell someone right away. Other things to watch out for:

  • Constant comparison of your body with others
  • Feelings of guilt or shame about food
  • A fixation on losing weight or about specific parts of your body
  • Excessive exercise
  • Use of diet pills, diuretics, or laxatives
  • Periods of fasting, or extremely limited food intake
  • Changes in mood (irritability)

If you experience any of these, tell a parent, doctor, or therapist what you are going through.  Ask for help.  Body image and self-esteem can get better with help and care. 

Start on the path to positive body image

Getting to a positive body image is a journey that can take different lengths of time. Reading this article can be a first step from negative thoughts about your body toward positive body image.  Now you have an introduction to healthier ways of looking at your body.  If you think you need help to continue making changes, ask an adult.  The more you practice positive thought patterns, the closer you will be to loving the body you have and appreciating who you are as a whole.