Positive Body Image

By Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D.

"If only I had long legs like my sister .... I wish I could still fit into those size-10 clothes that are hanging in my closet .... If only I could lose just 10 pounds from around my middle."

Most people have such thoughts every now and then. It's no wonder we experience discontent with our bodies: Look at movie stars and models. Who could ever match this fat-free standard? Not too many of us! And look at how we live: Half of all Americans really are overweight. We do have cause for concern.

Some people, mostly women but some men too, spend a great deal of time and energy worrying about their physical shape and size. Chronic body dissatisfaction can be exhausting and demoralizing. It can also escalate into full-blown eating disorders and depression. If this is the case for you, get help.

Even garden-variety body dissatisfaction can get in the way of your life. The resulting low self-esteem can interfere with good intentions to exercise and eat nutritiously, as plans to improve self-care often fall apart when you feel stressed or negative about yourself. Here are some tips for improving the way you feel about your body and yourself so that you can get on with your life, doing the best you can with what you've got.

Focus on Fitness, not Fatness

If you need to lose some weight, focus on improving your lifestyle rather than attaining a specific weight goal. Your lifestyle is really the only thing under your control. A healthful lifestyle will eventually help you reach the best achievable weight for you -- a weight you can maintain in good health. Avoid restrictive diets, since they lead to food cravings, failure and guilt.

Develop an Enjoyable Exercise Program

Exercise for the right reasons: To be healthy and feel good. Exercise builds self-confidence and appreciation for your body's power, endurance and strength. Sports can help you appreciate your body's skill and agility. Exercise helps you relax and feel good about your life. And, of course, as a byproduct of your enjoyment, exercise can help you look better. Exercise helps control weight and improve muscle definition.

Just Say No to Negative Thoughts

If you catch yourself thinking negative thoughts about your body, talk back. For example, let's say you hear yourself thinking, "My legs are so fat! I wish I looked like that model on the poster." Argue back, "My legs are strong and they played a great game of tennis yesterday. I'm lucky to have the good health I need to do all of the wonderful things I do!"

Don't Blame Life's Problems on Your Appearance

Sometimes worrying about appearance diverts us from the real issues at hand. Let's say you hear yourself saying, "If only I were thinner, I would have a better job." Argue back, "My job is not a function of my size, and losing weight will not get me a better job." Then go on to address the problems you are facing at work, and try to come up with some creative solutions.

Limit Your Exposure to Mass Media

The media inundate us with unrealistic "body models." We soak up these impressions at both conscious and subconscious levels. Choose carefully what you decide to view. If you have teens and preteens, teach them to analyze the messages they see in magazine and television advertisements.

Be a Good Role Model

Avoid conversations about how imperfect your body is or about the latest diet craze. Don't gossip about who needs to lose weight. Be aware of making judgments based on a person's appearance. Compliment people on something besides how they look.

Get a Life

Sarcasm aside, we feel good about ourselves when we accomplish something of value. Rewarding hobbies and community service help us feel productive and connected to others.

Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D., is associate professor of Exercise and Sport Studies at Smith College, Northampton, Mass. Vol. 15, No. 4, p.32. Copyright March 1999, Fitness Management Magazine, Los Angeles, Calif.