In a world that constantly tells you what's attractive and what's not, it takes a great deal of self-confidence not to obsess over your body's perceived "flaws." And while many of us strive to achieve self-love, some days just feeling neutral about our bodies can seem unattainable.
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But everyone deserves to feel good about themselves. And those who enjoy body acceptance also experience less stress and better mental health.
So, though it may not always come easily, you owe it to yourself — and your body — to treat it with kindness and respect.
Here, experts explain why so many of us battle with unhealthy body image and share how you can start cultivating a healthy relationship with your body.
Why Do So Many People Struggle With Body Image?
How we feel about our bodies is influenced by many factors. Here are a few of the most impactful:
1. Personal Experience With Body Shaming
"Most of us have stories or experiences in our past, some stemming from childhood, that contribute to how we feel about our bodies," says Anne Poirier, a certified intuitive eating counselor and author of The Body Joyful.
- Being criticized for your weight ("Don't eat so much," "That dress is getting tight on you")
- Being called mean nicknames by other kids
- Being poked or pinched in the stomach
- Being picked last for a school team because of your size
- Being unable to fit into the "cool kid" clothes
- Being put on a diet or sent to 'fat camp' at an early age
These experiences plant seeds of belief that there's something "wrong" with your body, Poirier says. And once these seeds are planted, your inner critic begins to grow, seeking out every flaw, she adds.
"When body appearance is criticized, it can certainly have a negative, long-lasting impact [on self-esteem and self-worth]," agrees Nancy Farrell Allen, RDN, a dietitian specializing in eating disorders and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
And while bullying, teasing and fat shaming are especially damaging during youth, they can occur at any age, Farrell Allen says. Which just compounds the earlier trauma and negative feelings you might have about your body.
2. Messaging in the Media
"The impact of social media, airbrushing and photoshop is everywhere," Poirier says. You can't flip through a magazine, scroll through Instagram or watch a TV show without seeing images of "perfect bodies," i.e., people who are thin or muscular.
While beauty ideals have been in existence since the dawn of time (we can even see evidence in ancient cave or pyramid drawings), modern media made them widespread and, consequently, have shaped how millions of people think, says performance psychologist Haley Perlus, PhD.
The problem is, "we compare ourselves to others and set unrealistic standards," Farrell Allen says.
And, as if falling into the comparison trap isn't toxic enough, the perfect bodies that we compare ourselves to don't even exist in the real world.
"Many of these images aren't achievable in real life as they have been altered by smartphone apps," Perlus says. With a simple swipe, you can trim inches off a waist, hide cellulite or lengthen limbs.
But, obviously, you can't so easily modify your body in reality. "And this can all set you up with a feeling of defeat and hopelessness if you cannot fit into the illustrated ideal," Farrell Allen explains.
"So, unless you are someone who disregards social media or other images on the web, it can be difficult to accept your own body or body type if a preponderance of images [that promote thin ideals] are suggested as 'the norm,'" Perlus says.
3. Societal Biases
With all the social messaging around thin ideals, it's easy to see how this can lead to weight bias. And these systemic biases can infiltrate all facets of someone's life.
For example, people who live in larger bodies (even if they feel neutral or accepting about their body) may still have trouble purchasing clothes, getting paid what they are worth (there is data that suggests women in larger bodies get paid less than thinner people) or having a positive health care experience (due to negative assumptions that our culture propagates about larger bodies), Poirier says.
All this is to say, when the world treats you as "less than" because of your shape or size, it's extremely difficult to develop and sustain a healthy body image.
10 Ways to Nurture Your Relationship With Your Body
If someone has lived with years of negative thoughts about their body, they have created very strong pathways of belief, Poirier says. That means it'll take time and effort to shift their perspective. But it's totally possible.
Here's why: Our thoughts are "choice-able," Poirier says. Meaning, you can choose to see your body differently and offer it the respect, care and compassion it deserves. Here are a few ways to start doing just that:
1. Write a Body Gratitude List
Instead of focusing on what your body does (or doesn't) look like, concentrate on what it's capable of doing for you. This will help you build body gratitude, Poirier says.
And try to incorporate this gratitude practice into your everyday routine. "Take some time daily to thank your body for what it does," she says.
Perlus agrees: "If you just climbed five flights of stairs, completed a yoga class, carried a heavy baby in your arms or did vigorous housework, thank and appreciate your body for all the different functions it is capable of carrying out."
2. Ask Your Body What It Needs
We spend so much time criticizing, comparing and judging our bodies that we often neglect — or flat out reject — its basics needs.
Ask your body: Are you hungry, thirsty or tired? "Listening to your body's signals begins the process of paying attention to (i.e., befriending) your body rather than disconnecting or ignoring it," Poirier says.
3. Nix the Negative Self-Talk
"Self-criticizing is not self-care," Farrell Allen says. Indeed, it's impossible to develop a healthy relationship with your body when your inner critic is constantly judging.
So, the next time you have a negative thought about your appearance, counter that with kindness, compassion and respect, Poirier says. This can feel very unnatural — or even uncomfortable — at first, especially if you're accustomed to hearing a harmful, degrading inner voice, she adds. Unfortunately, seeing yourself in only this narrow perspective makes it difficult to see anything else.
But with time and practice, you can slowly start substituting negative self-talk for self-compassion.
That's because our thoughts are changeable and moldable thanks to our brain's neuroplasticity (i.e., your brain's ability to change and adapt in response to your behavior), Poirier says. So, the more you start treating your body with respect, care and compassion, the more your brain will catch on and create new neural pathways to promote this type of thinking.
"When scrolling, if you see image after image that makes you feel bad about yourself or beat yourself up, find others that support, uplift, encourage, inspire and empower you instead," Poirier says.
You might even need to unfollow certain accounts or take a temporary break from social media altogether if you notice it's negatively affecting your body image or mental health, Perlus says.
5. Stop Checking the Scale
While some people feel motivated by stepping on the scale every day, for others, this practice can produce feelings of distress. For example, if you're unhappy with the number you see, it can sour your mood and make you feel bad about your body.
And this can be especially harmful for those with a history of eating disorders. That's why Farrell Allen advises people against weighing themselves daily. If you must track your weight, do so once or twice a week at most, she says.
6. Reflect on What You Like About Yourself
This can be a physical trait like your radiant smile or your soft skin. But even better if you shift the focus from your appearance to the deeper qualities that make you who you are, Perlus says.
"Think about the talents you have, your intelligence, your creativity," Perlus says. "Are you a good mom or daughter? Do you excel at work? Are you philanthropic?"
Remind yourself of this terrific tapestry of characteristics that you embody.
7. Wear Clothes That Complement Your Body
How often have you worn an outfit that felt uncomfortable because you were attempting to fit into a certain clothing size or style? Instead of doing this, dress in clothes that make you feel confident and celebrate your body, Poirier says.
"This helps increase self-confidence, self-worth and self-esteem," she says.
8. Move Your Body Every Day
Doing physical activity that feels good is a form of self -care, Farrell Allen says. Not only is regular movement good for your overall physical health, but it also releases feel-good endorphins, which help to improve mood and build confidence.
Certain movement practices in particular — like intuitive exercise, which involves connecting and communicating with your body to understand its needs on any given day — can be a powerful tool on your journey to body acceptance.
Think of it like this: Doing movements that you love — rather than exercising because you should — can help shift your mentality from one that punishes your body to one that embraces it.
9. Find the Right Tribe
We've all heard the saying, "you are the company you keep." Well, it's true: The people you choose to spend time with can have a major effect on your body image.
"If your friends eat only a few pieces of kale a day and their conversations are centered around workouts, caloric consumption and dress size, you are in the wrong friend group to develop body-positive thinking," Perlus says.
"[Instead], cultivate friends of different shapes and sizes who aren't focused solely on their bodies and who accept themselves and others no matter what their dress size is," she says.
10. Talk to a Therapist
For most of us, nurturing a positive relationship with our bodies is a lifelong journey. That's because we all have varying degrees of trauma, guilt, fear and self-doubt, which can contribute to a negative self-image, Farrell Allen says.
And with so many personal and systemic barriers to block the path to body positivity (or even body neutrality), sometimes seeking professional guidance along the way is what we need.
If you're struggling with self-love, work with a therapist who can help you learn how to process, express and navigate these complicated feelings around body image, Farrell Allen says.