Body Image: How to Improve Your Body Image and Why It’s Important

At the outset of every year, we are bombarded with the words “New Year, New You!” calling to us from…

At the outset of every year, we are bombarded with the words “New Year, New You!” calling to us from all directions, from billboards, magazine covers, social media and TV commercials. Now, as spring approaches, this is a great time to reevaluate your goals and behaviors and perhaps make some changes to your routine in the pursuit of personal improvement — no matter what that means to you.

But, the underlying message is that the current you is somehow not acceptable or is falling short of some ideal for which we should all be striving. There is a subtle danger there, as it can lead to a never-ending pursuit of an unattainable and constantly shifting objective. Let’s face it — very few of us have any chance of looking like the models who appear beside those supposedly motivational messages. Perhaps most importantly, the constant striving for an unattainable goal can do real damage to our self-esteem and, in extreme cases, our physical and mental health.

[Read: Ways to Build Self-Esteem.]

What Is Body Image?

Body image refers to the way you think and feel about your body, as well as the things you do to try to change your appearance. A person with a positive body image is comfortable and confident in their body, while a person with a negative body image often struggles with feelings of shame, anxiety, self-consciousness and even a sense of being somehow fundamentally flawed in terms of the way they look.

Body image, like most other things, exists on a continuum. You may feel like you want to lose a bit of weight and get into better shape, so you might make changes in your life to pursue those goals. That is a healthy response to body dissatisfaction. On the other end of the continuum are those who are truly ashamed of the way they look and tie their appearance to their self-worth, and this can lead to things like eating disorders, exercise addiction and mental health concerns.

Almost everyone finds themselves moving along that continuum as they go through life. The goal should be to find healthy ways to improve your body image as you pursue weight loss or any other health and wellness goals. At the same time, you need to accept your current self and understand that falling short of a weight-loss goal, for example, does not make you a less valuable person — just as reaching that goal doesn’t necessarily make you a better one.

[SEE: Best Ways to Practice Self-Care.]

5 Strategies to Improve Your Body Image

— Frame exercise as a positive experience.

— List reasons for changing not tied to appearance.

— Find people who support you.

— Set goals not connected to appearance.

— Be kind to yourself.

Frame exercise as a positive experience.

The first, and perhaps most important, strategy is to stop beating yourself up with negative self-talk or berating yourself for every missed workout or sweet treat. Also, try to avoid thinking of exercise as something you do to “earn” your food or atone for previous lapses in healthy eating. Physical activity should always be framed as a positive experience, even if you’re struggling to get started. Pause to appreciate what your body can do now, even as you work to improve your physical fitness or appearance.

List reasons for changing not tied to appearance.

Second, list the reasons you want to make a lifestyle change that do not hinge on your appearance. For example, being physically active, in addition to burning fat and building muscle, can improve your mood, enhance your ability to perform activities throughout your day and enable you to take part in activities with your children or grandchildren. If you can connect positive behaviors to what you value most, then you’re on your way to reframing physical activity as being meaningful beyond the numbers on the scale or your appearance in the mirror.

Find people who support you.

Third, surround yourself with positive people (and, as mentioned above, this includes yourself). When you are making a lifestyle change, it’s important to be part of a community of like-minded people who will support you in your efforts and help pick you up when you slip.

[READ: How to Buddy Up for Better Health.]

Set goals not connected to appearance.

Fourth, set some goals that have nothing to do with appearance. Sometimes, focusing on the process of behavior change rather than on the outcomes can shift your thinking in a positive direction. For example, set a goal to walk a certain distance, cook dinner a certain number of times or attend a specific number of fitness classes each week. If you hit those “process goals,” then the progress will often take care of itself.

Be kind to yourself.

As the saying goes, treat yourself the way you would treat your best friend. It’s never easy to come to terms with your appearance or any other aspect of yourself when you know you’re not at your best. But, you would never call your best friend fat or lazy or tell them they look terrible in a certain outfit or that they don’t belong in the gym because they’re too heavy or out of shape. Instead, you’d encourage them, ask how you could help and push them to be their best.

It can be challenging, but sometimes finding the “new you” begins with accepting the “current you” and celebrating what you can accomplish today. This shift in mindset can be incredibly empowering.

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