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Build a Better Body Image -- No Dieting Required

6 ways to boost your body image and feel better about all of you.

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 21, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

If you're like most women, looking in the mirror -- particularly afull-length mirror -- is rarely the experience you want it to be. Unlikemost men, experts say, women are rarely satisfied with their appearance and arealways seeking a better body image.

"Research suggests that in general, women have slightly lowerself-esteem overall when compared to men. But when it comes to body image,there is an enormous gender gap, with women reporting an overwhelmingly greaterbody dissatisfaction when compared to men," says Denise Martz, PhD, aclinical health psychologist, and professor at Appalachian State University inNorth Carolina.

Martz, who recently designed and supervised a 2,000-woman body image surveyfor Slim-Fast, says women of all shapes and sizes are affected. 

"Seventy-eight percent of the women in our survey said they wished theycould wear a smaller size -- even the ones who were already a size 8," saysMartz.

Many believe this dissatisfaction with size and shape is linked to an evenmore serious problem: a lack of self-esteem.

"Unfortunately, in our culture, self-image and body image areinextricably entwined -- so it becomes extremely difficult to feel good aboutyourself when, every time you look in a mirror, you see only thenegatives," says Michelle May, MD, an Arizona family practice physician andfounder and director of Am I Hungry.com.

And many women find themselves unable to break this cycle, even though theyrealize it's wrong-headed.

"A large percentage of the surveyed women said it is possible for womento be a larger size and have self-esteem, but when it came to them personally,they said it's hard to feel good about themselves when they are a largersize," says Matx. "So what they are saying is that, in theory, weshould not equate self-worth with size, but when it comes to us personally, westill do."

So why do women feel this way -- and what can we do about it? The answers may surprise you. 

Body Image and the Media

When it comes to eroding women's self-esteem, the first finger of blamealmost universally points to the media. From sexy, leggy models in magazines,to ultra-thin celebs on the big and little screen -- even ads for healthy andlow-fat foods -- media images seem to play on our need to be glamorous andskinny.

"All of it sends just one message to women: That you are only acceptableif you look a certain way," says May.

Clinical psychologist Caroline Kaufman notes that this message hasfar-reaching effects -- even in places you'd never dream it would matter.

"In 2003, a pair of Harvard researchers noted how, when the Pacificisland of Fiji got cable TV in 1995 (Friends, Ally McBeal, MelrosePlace, etc.), rates of anorexia and bulimia skyrocketed," says Kaufman, an instructorat Columbus State Community College in Ohio.

Before that, she says, most Fijians preferred a fuller figure, and eatingdisorders were almost unheard of on the island.  But by 1998,she says that girls who watched these shows at least three times a week were50% more likely to have a distorted body image.

Ironically, Martz points out, many of the images women use to judgethemselves aren't even real -- from the airbrushed bodies of lingerie models todigitally enhanced publicity photos of anchorwomen. 

Psychologist and weightmanagement expert Abby Aronowitz, PhD, says that while the media do have aneffect on how women see themselves, far more dangerous are the product promisesbehind some of these glamorous campaigns.

"Companies use perfect bodies to point up our own body imagedissatisfaction in order to sell us products to change that dissatisfaction.But when the dietdoesn't work, or the cream wears off or the lingerie doesn't give you the bustline of your dreams, you feel like you have failed -- and that's when ourself-esteem really plummets," says Aronowitz, author of Your FinalDiet.

Women and Body Image: The Culture Phenomenon

Given the fact that media messages are aimed at men as well women, why arewomen seemingly so much more susceptible?  For many, the answer harkensback to evolution -- or at least to our days in the baby stroller.

"Some would say women are hardwired to put more emphasis on their looks,that in terms of evolution, the value of attractiveness was programmed intowomen's DNA, necessary to help them get a mate, and ultimately, the protectionthat union provided," says Martz. 

Fast-forward a few thousand years, and May points out that from our days inthe stroller, little boys are valued for their strength and intelligence, whilegirls are doted on for their looks.

"It's not uncommon for people to compliment a baby boy by saying 'He'sso strong, so smart,' while they compliment a baby girl by saying 'She's socute, so adorable.'  That kind of thinking becomes ingrained in ourheads," says May.

That said, many experts agree that nothing in our culture or history canhurt a woman's self-worth as much as something many of us do in front of themirror every day -- negative self-talk.

"Self-denigration is the most damaging thing we can do to ourself-esteem because it is so personal," says Aronowitz. "With rejectionof the body, a sense of identity and worth is vehementlyattacked." 

And, she says, women don't just denigrate themselves privately. It's also agroup sport. 

"What I think women don't realize is that when they turn to their bestfriend and say 'My cellulite is really gross' they are also saying 'Yourcellulite is really gross.' So putting themselves down is not only insultingpersonally, it's also insulting to other women," says Aronowitz.

6 Ways to Boost Body Image Without Losing a Pound

While losing weight may give a temporary boost to your self-esteem, linkingself-worth to a dress size is never going to have a long-lasting effect,experts say. What can make a difference is changing the way you seewhat's already there in the mirror.

Ironically, doing so often translates into making the kind of self-carechanges that can also lead to improvements in the way you look.

"When your self-esteem is high, you care more about yourself, so doingthings that are good for you, like eating a healthier diet or exercisingregularly, also comes much easier, and we are more successful at it. And thatoften means we end up looking and feeling better," says Martz.

To help you get started thinking about yourself in a more positive light,our experts say, put away the scale, ignore those size tags, and focus on thefollowing.

  1. Stop negative self-talk immediately. While you still may not likewhat you see in the mirror, Martz says, learning to describe yourself withneutral, objective phrases can help stop the cycle of poor self-esteem.So, instead of saying to yourself "I have really ugly thighs," think"My thighs could use some work."
  2. Find and focus on the things you like about your looks. It's bestnot to link your looks to your self-esteem, but with body image so intimatelyentwined with self-image, that can be hard to do. The next best thing is tofind something about your image you really like. "It can be great hair,great nails, terrific teeth. Find the things about yourself you can saysomething good about, and every time you look in the mirror, go there first andsay something positive to yourself," says Martz.
  3. Treat yourself with the same kindness and respect you show your bestfriend. "Would you respect and care about a person who says about youwhat you are saying about yourself? If the answer is no, then begin treatingyourself at least as well as you are treating others in your life," saysMay.
  4. Say what you mean. Sometimes, hating your thighs is all aboutwanting thinner thighs. But sometimes, Kaufman says, negative body thoughts area way of expressing discontent over other issues in your life. Learn to decodethese messages, she says.
  5. Dress the part. If you're putting off buying new clothes until youlike your body better -- don't.  Whether you're bursting at the seams induds that are too tight or swimming in oversized clothing to hide your body,you are eroding your self-esteem. "Buy what fits you, and look the verybest you can. It sends a powerful message to yourself that you are worthit," says Aronowitz. 
  6. Recognize that people naturally come in different shapes and sizes, andcherish your body's uniqueness. And, Martz says, remember this: "Only2% of the world's women fall into the supermodel category. That leaves a lot ofroom for the rest of us!"

Show Sources

SOURCES: Denise Martz, PhD, professor of psychology, Appalachian State University, North Carolina. Michelle May, MD, founder and director, AmIHungry.com web site. Abby Aronowitz, PhD, director, SelfHelpDirectives.com; author, Your Final Diet. The Slim-Fast Survey in conjunction with TSC, a division of Yankelovich. Becker, A. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, December 2004; vol 28: No. 4.

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