by A.J. Hanley
It was in a Pilates class, nearly 15 years ago, that I began to make peace with my body. While in Plank, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Normally, my inner mean girl would get right to work, pinpointing real and imagined trouble spots—everything from my “ginormous belly” and “flat butt” to my “spaghetti arms.” But this time, she fell silent. I was relieved to see my form was on point—spine straight, core and shoulders engaged. I noted some curves in my arms and that my abs, while not completely chiseled, had more definition than they did the last time I looked. I found myself gazing at my reflection with something that resembled, well, admiration. It was a new feeling, but I liked it.
While this aha moment didn’t “cure” my decade-long battle with bulimia (that was what therapy sessions and 12-step meetings were for), it was significant to my recovery. My body wasn’t the enemy, I was starting to realize; it was my teammate. If I treated it kindly, focusing on its strengths rather than its weaknesses, it would help support me in my exercise sessions—and in life.
Unfortunately, that critical voice can be really hard to quell. Research confirms what most of us already know: that about 80 percent of women looking in the mirror are unhappy with the size and shape of their bodies, particularly their hips, waists and thighs. And feeling fat isn’t a feminist issue: A recent large-scale study from Chapman University in California revealed that up to 40 percent of men feel dissatisfied with their overall physical appearance, weight, and/or muscle tone and size.
This self-loathing can be detrimental to your health. “Negative body image is one of the stronger predictors of developing an eating disorder,” says Denise Martz, PhD, a clinical professor of psychology at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. In the U.S., some 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder at some time in their life, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
But even if the distorted thinking doesn’t develop into a full-blown eating disorder, it can have a dramatic effect on your mental well-being. Research shows that poor body image can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. It can also take a toll on your personal relationships, professional success and even your ability to enjoy everyday activities.
So why are we so hard on ourselves? Body image is affected by a combination of environmental and societal influences, including family, social pressure and ideals set forth by the media. “We live in a culture that magnifies physical appearance to a ridiculous standard that’s often unrealistic,” says Martz. “I think a more interesting question is how some people have a healthy body image despite our culture and all of the influences. It often takes conscious effort.”
To this end, we asked the experts for proven confidence-boosting moves. Whether you’re a card-carrying member of the “I hate my body” club or simply down on your appearance from time to time, these strategies will not only help you embrace your shape, but feel healthier and happier every day.
1. CUT THE FAT CHAT
We’ve all done it: participated in the seemingly innocuous conversations about the size of our thighs or how disgusted we feel about ourselves after last night’s ice cream splurge. In a survey published in 2011 in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, more than 90 percent of college women reported engaging in fat talk—despite the fact that only 9 percent were actually overweight. Clearly, this type of back-and-forth banter (“My hips are huuuuge!” “No, you look great!”) has become a socially acceptable way to bond.
In a study published a year later in the journal Sex Roles, those same researchers, Renee Engeln from Northwestern University and Rachel Hannah Salk from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, confirmed that fat talk is both contagious and harmful, leading to feelings of body dissatisfaction, guilt and disordered eating.
“As with anything we say in our head and repeat in conversation, we may start identifying with the harsh words,” according to Martz, who says the first step toward nixing the behavior is to simply be aware of it. When you’re in a group setting, change the subject as soon as the body-bashing begins or agree in advance to make your get-togethers fat-talk-free.
2. GET PHYSICAL
My experience in Pilates class makes a lot of sense, says Tamara Newell, an L.A.-based Pilates instructor who also suffered from an eating disorder. “It takes a lot of concentration to do Pilates exercises properly. If you’re really focused on the alignment of your body, you don’t have the mental space to think about your physical appearance.” Pilates also discourages self-judgment—a characteristic researchers have attributed to the healthier attitudes in those who practice yoga. “Plus, as people progress through the method, it starts to require more upper-body strength, building in this whole other level of body confidence,” Newell says.
But doing any type of exercise can help, according to a 2009 University of Florida study published in the Journal of Health Psychology. The research found that even people who didn’t hit any fitness milestones like burning fat or getting stronger still felt as positively about their bodies as people who were much fitter. The study also showed that people who exercise more frequently have a better body image. For one thing, working out can help you appreciate all your body can do—for example, walking, running, dancing, doing Teasers—instead of just focusing on how it looks.