How to Cultivate a Healthy Body Image

The notion of an ideal body has evolved over the years, but it has never managed to truly break free from the view that equates being thin with being beautiful. We see more and more women embrace who they are and defy societal norms. And yet, they are often met with so much backlash which only reinforces a negative, and frankly unhealthy, view of the perfect body is. As summer rolls around and the swimsuits are being broken out, there is a natural anxiety that comes with showing a little more skin. Should I wear a suit that emphasizes my curves or hides them? Should I get something with a push-up bra to convince people I am not flat-chested? How do I find one that even fits me properly? And, what is probably the hardest question to answer, how do I not care what others think and just be who I am? Body image is something that I have struggled with for as long as I can remember. I have no intention to sugarcoat it as it does not necessarily have an easy fix. But, I believe it is something that can subside over time. Here are some lessons I have learned as well as some observations I made that I hope will help anyone going through something similar.

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1.     Calorie counting can be a dangerous habit

While exercising regularly and eating a balanced diet are all great ways to obtain a healthy lifestyle and are great for you in the long run, it is a venture that can be easily taken to an extreme. The intent is perfectly innocent, but it is one of those things that becomes obsessive. Monitoring the intake of each meal and feeling guilty when you indulge in something high in sugar or fat creates an unhealthy cycle. The harsh reality of the fact is that the number of calories that most people set as their limit is often inaccurate. However, if calorie counting does give you some peace of mind, try not to make it an exact science. Do not weigh your food or constantly check the nutrition facts. Just estimate so you get a more general sense. Also, give yourself some leeway on that final number. Indulgences are fine as long as they are done in moderation. It is important to remember that we need more than we might intuitively think to be healthy and look the way we want.

2.     Your brain loves to play tricks on you

As a neuroscience major, one thing I can definitively say is that the brain is extremely complicated and can oftentimes distort reality. This is evident in things we feel anxious about. The brain magnifies our fears and causes us to see ourselves in a way that is not completely accurate. Severe body dysmorphia is the most extreme example as sufferers often see themselves as overweight and resort to unhealthy measures to correct this. However, many people deal with this on a lower level. It may be helpful to come up with a way to remind yourself that what you see in the mirror is probably not what the rest of the world sees. You are your own worst critic and any perceived flaws are nowhere near as bad as they seem.

3.     Building Confidence is a Process

Confidence may or may not come naturally to all of us. It also looks different on every person. Some of us feel the most confident in that tight red dress, while others feel the same way in sweats. There is no one right solution because confidence is completely subjective. You should never try to push yourself too far out of your comfort zone especially when dealing with insecurity. It is a process and should be taken incrementally. Even if you simply look in the mirror and think “Not bad” each day, you are doing wonders for your self- esteem and are making monumental steps towards gaining some confidence. Do what feels right to you and be comfortable in your own body in whatever way that means for you.

4.     It is all about you

In the beach scenario, it is natural to look out at the people and immediately make comparisons. She looks thinner than me. Why can’t I have abs like that? How can she be so comfortable in her own skin while I am too embarrassed to take off my cover-up? But, it is not about them. Oftentimes, people emit a larger level of confidence than they actually have. Everyone has their own insecurities and you are not alone in that. Some people are just better at hiding it. So, do not get caught up in the comparison spiral. Ask yourself: is this healthy? Are you going to feel better about yourself by thinking of yourself as less than? If you want to change the way you look that is totally fine. Just do it for yourself and not for anyone else.   

The notion of “loving yourself”, while good advice, is a bit too simplistic when actually ridding yourself of a negative body image. Those two words are not going to erase the years of looking at your reflection and wishing it was different. We build habits and, like anything else, those are difficult to break. But, while the brain can be our worst enemy, it is also resilient. Your neurons can be trained to fire in a different, more positive way. Self-acceptance and the happiness that follows that can only come from within. It just takes time and I promise you that is time well spent.