If you're like most women, looking in the mirror -- particularly a full-length mirror -- is rarely the experience you want it to be. Unlike most men, experts say, women are rarely satisfied with their appearance and are always seeking a better body image.
"Research suggests that in general, women have slightly lower self-esteem overall when compared to men. But when it comes to body image, there is an enormous gender gap, with women reporting an overwhelmingly greater body dissatisfaction when compared to men," says Denise Martz, PhD, a clinical health psychologist, and professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.
Martz, who recently designed and supervised a 2,000-woman body image survey for Slim-Fast, says women of all shapes and sizes are affected.
"Seventy-eight percent of the women in our survey said they wished they could wear a smaller size -- even the ones who were already a size 8," says Martz.
Many believe this dissatisfaction with size and shape is linked to an even more serious problem: a lack of self-esteem.
"Unfortunately, in our culture, self-image and body image are inextricably entwined -- so it becomes extremely difficult to feel good about yourself when, every time you look in a mirror, you see only the negatives," says Michelle May, MD, an Arizona family practice physician and founder and director of Am I Hungry.com.
And many women find themselves unable to break this cycle, even though they realize it's wrong-headed.
"A large percentage of the surveyed women said it is possible for women to 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 larger size," says Matx. "So what they are saying is that, in theory, we should not equate self-worth with size, but when it comes to us personally, we still 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 blame almost 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 and low-fat foods -- media images seem to play on our need to be glamorous and skinny.
"All of it sends just one message to women: That you are only acceptable if you look a certain way," says May.
Clinical psychologist Caroline Kaufman notes that this message has far-reaching effects -- even in places you'd never dream it would matter.
"In 2003, a pair of Harvard researchers noted how, when the Pacific island of Fiji got cable TV in 1995 (Friends, Ally McBeal, Melrose Place, etc.), rates of anorexia and bulimia skyrocketed," says Kaufman, an instructor at Columbus State Community College in Ohio.
Before that, she says, most Fijians preferred a fuller figure, and eating disorders were almost unheard of on the island. Â But by 1998, she says that girls who watched these shows at least three times a week were 50% more likely to have a distorted body image.
Ironically, Martz points out, many of the images women use to judge themselves aren't even real -- from the airbrushed bodies of lingerie models to digitally enhanced publicity photos of anchorwomen.
Psychologist and weight management expert Abby Aronowitz, PhD, says that while the media do have an effect on how women see themselves, far more dangerous are the product promises behind some of these glamorous campaigns.
"Companies use perfect bodies to point up our own body image dissatisfaction in order to sell us products to change that dissatisfaction. But when the diet doesn't work, or the cream wears off or the lingerie doesn't give you the bust line of your dreams, you feel like you have failed -- and that's when our self-esteem really plummets," says Aronowitz, author of Your Final Diet.
Women and Body Image: The Culture Phenomenon
Given the fact that media messages are aimed at men as well women, why are women seemingly so much more susceptible? For many, the answer harkens back 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 into women's DNA, necessary to help them get a mate, and ultimately, the protection that union provided," says Martz.
Fast-forward a few thousand years, and May points out that from our days in the stroller, little boys are valued for their strength and intelligence, while girls are doted on for their looks.
"It's not uncommon for people to compliment a baby boy by saying 'He's so strong, so smart,' while they compliment a baby girl by saying 'She's so cute, so adorable.' That kind of thinking becomes ingrained in our heads," says May.
That said, many experts agree that nothing in our culture or history can hurt a woman's self-worth as much as something many of us do in front of the mirror every day -- negative self-talk.
"Self-denigration is the most damaging thing we can do to our self-esteem because it is so personal," says Aronowitz. "With rejection of the body, a sense of identity and worth is vehemently attacked."
And, she says, women don't just denigrate themselves privately. It's also a group sport.
"What I think women don't realize is that when they turn to their best friend and say 'My cellulite is really gross' they are also saying 'Your cellulite is really gross.' So putting themselves down is not only insulting personally, 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, linking self-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 see what's already there in the mirror.
Ironically, doing so often translates into making the kind of self-care changes that can also lead to improvements in the way you look.
"When your self-esteem is high, you care more about yourself, so doing things that are good for you, like eating a healthier diet or exercising regularly, also comes much easier, and we are more successful at it. And that often 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 the following.
- Stop negative self-talk immediately. While you still may not like what you see in the mirror, Martz says, learning to describe yourself with neutral, 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."
- Find and focus on the things you like about your looks. It's best not to link your looks to your self-esteem, but with body image so intimately entwined with self-image, that can be hard to do. The next best thing is to find something about your image you really like. "It can be great hair, great nails, terrific teeth. Find the things about yourself you can say something good about, and every time you look in the mirror, go there first and say something positive to yourself," says Martz.
- Treat yourself with the same kindness and respect you show your best friend. "Would you respect and care about a person who says about you what you are saying about yourself? If the answer is no, then begin treating yourself at least as well as you are treating others in your life," says May.
- Say what you mean. Sometimes, hating your thighs is all about wanting thinner thighs. But sometimes, Kaufman says, negative body thoughts are a way of expressing discontent over other issues in your life. Learn to decode these messages, she says.
- Dress the part. If you're putting off buying new clothes until you like your body better -- don't. Whether you're bursting at the seams in duds 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 very best you can. It sends a powerful message to yourself that you are worth it," says Aronowitz.
- Recognize that people naturally come in different shapes and sizes, and cherish your body's uniqueness. And, Martz says, remember this: "Only 2% of the world's women fall into the supermodel category. That leaves a lot of room for the rest of us!"