Developing positive body image — or feeling positively 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 negatively 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.
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.Game Plan:
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 ideals 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.
Skip appearance-related goals or numbers-based goals like weight or measurements and instead set a fitness goal. Base this goal on physical activity milemarkers in order to prioritize how you feel and what your body can do, rather than just what it looks like. Run or swim or bike or walk faster or for longer than ever before. Do a certain number of crunches, new fitness classes, weight-lifting regimens – whatever you can do and enjoy doing consistently. Recruit others to join you and experience the endorphins and rush of adrenaline together as your health improves in the process!
Resist harmful messages in order to take your power back. We have more power than we realize in this fight against objectifying ideals and redefining beauty on our own terms. Resistance to harmful ideas about beauty is a continuous process, but these tips can be exercised daily!
Along with making conscious media choices, you can vote with your dollars by only spending your money at stores and restaurants that don’t use degrading images and messages. Speak up within your circles of influence about messages that distort our ideas about women and beauty. Resist making appearance-based comments about strangers, celebrities, family members, and even yourself. Instead, use your words for good by making simple statements about the ways beauty is one-dimensional in media or the obvious Photoshopping of female faces and bodies. Those words can have a major impact on those around you who are numb to the normal-seeming devaluation of women all around us.
Our studies found one bright light at the end of the dark body shame tunnel: body image resilience, which is the ability to harness and use skills to bounce back from difficult disruptions in your life and become stronger than you could have been without those experiences. Disruptions can be anything – a hurtful comment about your body, weight loss/gain, a break-up, a health issue or injury, etc. Disruptions provide opportunities for growth that are not possible without pain. You always respond to any disruption, so why not respond in ways that will make you feel better about yourself, rather than with harmful coping mechanisms (like abusing alcohol or drugs, cutting, starving, bingeing, purging, or otherwise attempting to hide or fix your body in response to feeling shame). Several skills, including the ones mentioned above and in the list below, can help women rise with resilience in response to painful body image disruptions. These skills fit into four categories of power you can use in your game plan.
Social Power: Cultivate this by breaking the silence surrounding negative body image. Unite with other women, be vulnerable, and share your pain to let others help you carry the burden while you help carry theirs.
Mental Power: Harness this by critically considering the ways cultural ideals and media messages can warp how we see our own beauty and worth. Conscious awareness of these degrading messages is the only way to actively resist them.
Spiritual Power: Access this by meditation, prayer, solitude, yoga, etc., to tap into the truth that your life has meaning and purpose beyond living as a decoration for the world.
Physical Power: Gain a more powerful sense of control and self-worth by using your body as an instrument rather than an ornament to be admired.
Let’s recap your path to positive body image, at whatever pace you choose to tackle these steps.RECOGNIZE the many messages directed toward women about beauty, and how many of our thoughts and actions revolve around appearance. Put this into action with a media fast!
- REFLECT on what impact narrow beauty ideals have had on your life and take inventory of the time, money and energy you dedicate to appearance concerns.
- REDEFINE beauty and health for yourself in more empowering ways by consciously focusing on how you feel and what your body can do. Set fitness and activity goals and skip the weight and appearance goals!
- RESIST harmful messages in order to take your power back by turning away from the messages that spark body anxiety, speaking up about harmful media and talking to friends and family about more than their outward beauty.
- RISE with RESILIENCE by responding to shame-inducing disruptions in ways that exercise your mental, social, spiritual, and physical power, rather than distracting, hiding, or fixing yourself to cope with difficult experiences.
You are more than a body and are capable of so much more than looking hot. Companies profit from convincing you otherwise while peers, family and friends — often unknowingly — uphold and circulate those same profit-driven ideals about beauty, health and women’s value in the ways they speak and act. By implementing these 5 steps, you will be actively redefining beauty and health for yourself on a mindful and conscious level that prioritizes your own reality, feelings and experiences. READY, SET, GO!
Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.