Developing positive body image — or feeling positive about your body, regardless of what it looks like at the moment — is key to health, happiness, progress, and empowerment. When you’re feeling especially self-conscious, it’s hard to focus on much else or make healthy choices for yourself.
With the vast majority of women feeling negative about their bodies and regularly preoccupied with their appearance, we have some serious work to do on this front. You could tackle hundreds of pages of our doctoral research to gather our findings, or you could read our short summary of more than a decade of body image research right here! And if you need more help getting to positive body image, check out our amazing new program for individuals ages 14+, tested, and proven effective in our dissertations.
These are our 5 steps for redefining beauty and health for yourself, along with a practical game plan for each.
Recognize the many messages directed toward women about beauty, and how many of our thoughts and actions revolve around appearance. Today, beauty has become something perpetually out of reach for women with the help of profit-driven, digitally altered media messages that present one narrow ideal: tall, young, thin, white but tan skin (or light skin for women of color), and blemish/wrinkle/pore-free. These same messages teach women that our value is in our beauty above all else, so pursuing these ideals becomes a lifelong struggle. But here’s the truth: your reflection does not define your worth!
It might seem counter-intuitive to redefine beauty by taking the focus off of beauty, but it works! Recognize the number of appearance-based messages directed at us by going on a media fast. Take 3 days, a week, or even a month to avoid as much media as you possibly can – TV, movies, blogs, magazines, and even social media (which means deleting those apps from your phone!).
Without this stream of idealized images and messages trying to sell you things, you become more sensitive to those that are unrealistic or that trigger body anxiety for you. You can then use that awareness to unsubscribe, unlike, unfollow, turn off, and turn away from that media that distorts your ideas about beauty and worth and stop you from building a positive body image.
Reflect on what impact narrow beauty ideals have had on your life. Our culture relies heavily on objectification – or presenting women as idealized body parts to be consumed rather than as humans – in all types of media. This leads girls and women to self-objectify by constantly – and often unconsciously – monitoring our bodies for what they look like to others as we go about our days. This preoccupation with what we look like, even when we’re all alone, leads to feelings of low self-worth and harmful ways of coping like disordered eating, opting out of social activities and exercise, self-harm, and dangerous and expensive cosmetic surgery.
Take inventory of your beauty habits and routine, including the time, energy and money you spend on your appearance. Reflect on whether any of that time, effort, or money could be better spent on another activity or contribution to the world. Consider where your thoughts are as you go about your regular life: are you picturing what you look like while trying to exercise or grocery shop or ride the bus? Reflect on the fact that you are capable of much more than looking hot. How would life be different if thinking about appearance didn’t take up so much of our mental bandwidth?
Redefine your ideas of beauty and health for yourself in more empowering ways. One powerful way to decrease self-consciousness and love your body is through your own physical power. Your body is an instrument to be used for your benefit, and not an ornament to be admired! Value your body for what it can do rather than what it looks like.