How to develop a positive body image
Our bodies are pretty amazing. They work constantly behind the scenes to keep us breathing, moving and well. But with all this impressive stuff happening out of sight—as well as a misguided nudge from our body-obsessed society —it’s become all too easy for us to get caught up in berating our appearance. “Recent statistics show that around 60 per cent of women are dissatisfied with their bodies, and those stats are increasing for men, too, whose bodies are being more objectified through the media, just as women’s bodies always have been,” says Dr Vivienne Lewis, clinical psychologist at the University of Canberra. While media and social media are big culprits in our negative body image culture, so is the way we talk about ourselves in front of our friends and family. “Practices that perpetuate body shame like ‘fat talk’ and ‘diet talk’ are often participated in socially, and tend to be contagious once people start to talk in those ways,” says Sarah McMahon, psychologist. On a more positive note, we have the power to be kinder towards ourselves, in turn creating a ripple effect of body positivity for those around us.
Change negative self-talk
The first step to accepting and embracing your body is to become more aware of your internal dialogue. As you’re standing in the shower or in front of the mirror getting ready in the morning, start to become aware of what sort of judgements you have about your appearance.
“I ask people whether they’d say those things to their best friend and most say ‘no way!’ because they wouldn’t have any friends if they did,” says Dr Emma Johnston, clinical psychologist.
To help short-circuit critical thoughts, Johnston advises treating them like ads during your favourite TV show. “Ads have the same sensory input as a show and are sometimes even louder, yet we have the ability to tune our mind out during the ads then pay attention again when the show starts,” she explains. “Imagine if you could do that with any negative body image self talk, teaching your brain to tune it out.”
Shift the dialogue
As well as changing your internal self-talk, be mindful of how you speak about your body in front of others. If you’re constantly putting yourself down or talking about food and exercise in restrictive terms, your friends and family are likely to internalise that body negativity and scrutinise their own appearance.
According to a Canadian study, women are more likely to report body image concerns when their friends regularly discuss weight loss, dieting and appearance. And concerningly, a Deakin University study of 135 Australian women aged 18 to 40 found that 27 per cent of all social interactions among participants involved ‘fat talk’.
You can be a positive role model by refraining from being self-deprecating and trying not to engage in negative body talk with friends. “You can keep yourselves accountable as a friendship group and say ‘let’s make a choice to stop talking this way for our own sake and for women’s sake’,” says Johnston. “It’s about introducing your friends to a new paradigm away from ‘weight equates with health’ to ‘health equates with health’.”
For WW member Mandi Adams, teaming up with her best friend to swap daily self-love texts was a game-changer. “We were sick of bullying ourselves, so we started saying one nice thing about ourselves and about each other daily on Snapchat,” she recalls. “It’s turned into daily gratitudes now, and it sets us up for a really good day.”
Look for the positives
One of the fastest ways to shift how you feel about your body is to consider all the amazing things it can do. “Think about the function of your body rather than its aesthetics—how it fends off illness, helps you complete everyday tasks and enables you to do the things you enjoy,” says Lewis.
Our so-called ‘imperfections’—for instance the physical changes we notice after having a baby—are in fact our body’s way of telling the story of our life. “Celebrate those things, because they indicate what you’ve been through and what you’ve achieved,” urges Lewis.
For friends or family struggling with poor self-image, support them by reminding them of all their great attributes. “You can tell them all the things you like about them, and ask them what you could do together that will make them feel good,” suggests Lewis.
We often assume that we have to be ‘strict’ with ourselves when it comes to food, exercise and appearance, punishing ourselves for any perceived flaws or slipups. However, treating ourselves kindly, gently and compassionately is better for our well-being in the long–term.
“We think we need to be mean to ourselves to feel more motivated, but a lot of research shows that shaming doesn’t help us engage in health-giving behaviours, it’s actually when we’re feeling good about ourselves that we’re more likely to treat ourselves well,” says McMahon.
Case in point: a 2015 review that linked self-compassion with health-promoting behaviours, including healthy eating habits, exercise, sleep and stress management.
Be social media savvy
If you had a hunch that all that scrolling through social media wasn’t exactly helping your self-worth, you weren’t wrong. Research shows that ‘problematic’ or ‘dependent’ social media use may be related to body image and self-esteem issues, with one Australian study finding as little as half an hour trawling Instagram per day can cause women to fixate on appearance, and the more frequently they view ‘fitspirational images’, the worse their body image.
Reclaim your right to feel good about your body by doing a social media cull of anything that drags you down. “I stopped following accounts that made me feel ‘less than’, and it was really cleansing,” reflects Mandi. “Now I follow accounts that make me feel good and inspire me to be a better person.”
Adds McMahon, “Messages around body diversity are much more helpful for us to follow.” Inspire body positivity among friends in your social network by not editing images of yourself that you post. Instead show the real you—curves, freckles, wrinkles and all—with pride.
Raise body-confident kids
Parents are a child’s number one role model, so it makes sense that your child’s body image will be largely derived from what you do and say. “Parents have a particular responsibility because we know there’s trans-generational contributors to body image, ranging from things that are spoken to behaviours and even unspoken rules. For instance, ‘mum eats less food than everyone else’ or ‘girls have to have smaller portion sizes’,” reflects McMahon.
Be a good role model by speaking positively about people’s bodies (and your own), celebrating body diversity and the fact that everyone is different, and avoiding assigning judgements to foods (i.e. ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’). If your child is teased about their appearance, empower them. “Talk about how sometimes people say unkind things to hurt our feelings, but it doesn’t make it true,” advises Lewis.
Above all, practice body love and acceptance yourself, and you—and everyone around you—will benefit.