Healing from bad body image is never easy — and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight. Sadly, there’s no one step you can take to banish negative body image from your sight.
Instead, healing from poor body image is a constant uphill battle. Some people are fighting for a lifetime; others, for months or years. But what’s important is that you continue to fight, not only for yourself, but also for the legions of young women who will come after you.
Even if you don’t have kids (or don’t want them), it’s important to model positive body image for the next generation of girls and women who look up to us. Whether it’s our nieces, our Girl Scout troop, our daughters or our little sisters, showing young girls that we love ourselves gives them permission to say “screw it” to patriarchy and “heck yes” to body confidence instead!
Still, as a fellow ED-recovered person, I know that developing body confidence is easier said than done. It can feel challenging, or even impossible, to figure out where to start.
If you want to learn how to love yourself, both for other women and for your own sake, these simple (though not easy) body image exercises will help you grow your self-confidence and start loving and accepting your body — instead of simply putting up with putting yourself down!
1. Start with acceptance over unconditional love.
Ever heard of setting a SMART goal? The A in SMART stands for “attainable” for a reason: your goals need to be realistic (which just happens to be the R in SMART, too) in order for them to be achievable.
In my opinion, the best way to set an achievable goal is to start small — and the first step toward body love is always body acceptance. If you can’t ever see yourself loving your flaws, then this is the perfect first place to start if you want to develop better body image.
Rather than striving to love your body, then, try accepting your body first. Even if you can’t love everything you see in the mirror, you can at least accept that this is your body, right here and now, and decide to honor that. Even if you still have parts of yourself you want to change, you can still acknowledge that this is the body you have right now, and that you need to make peace with it.
Physical activity — not strenuous exercise, but rather mindful movement — can help you in this endeavor. I especially like slow-flow yoga for its emphasis on connecting body and breath. Yoga helps me feel more present in my body, which allows me to accept the body I’m in and acknowledge it for everything it can do.
2. Track and challenge your negative thoughts.
If you’ve ever tried Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, then you’ve probably kept a thought record before — or at least tried challenging some of your cognitive distortions with the help of your therapist. If not, here’s how it works: CBT believes that our thoughts influence our feelings and behaviors, keeping us stuck in negative situations (like an eating disorder mindset).
To develop better body image, then, CBT suggests we should change our thoughts in order to change the way we feel about our body. Before we can change our thoughts, however, we need to be aware of what our thoughts are.
First, try keeping track of your thoughts for a day and using a thought record to log any negative thoughts you experience about your body. A printable thought record like this one can help if you’re stuck on where to begin! Using a thought record, you can write down your negative thought, what you felt and what you did as a result, then replace your negative thought with a more positive one — more on that in the next paragraph.
Afterwards, determine where the errors in your thinking lie and challenge your negative thought’s validity. For example, if your negative thought is “I’m fat,” you might try to argue that your BMI is in the “normal” category, so you’re definitely not overweight. Or, you might say to yourself something like “even if I am fat, I am still worthy of love and happiness.”
Over time, challenging your thoughts will become easier and easier. The more you practice, the less your negative thoughts will be automatic — and the more you may find yourself thinking positive thoughts about yourself and your body. At the very least, however, strive for body neutrality: if you can’t think positive thoughts about your body, at least turn your thought into something neutral!
3. Distract yourself from negative emotions.
Does your negative body image seem to be triggered by negative emotions like sadness, anger or guilt? These emotions can drive us to engage in behaviors that aren’t good for us — like binge eating, restricting calories or over-exercising — because they’re the only coping strategies we’ve learned how to use.
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a type of therapy often used in the treatment of eating disorders and other mental illnesses, one of the major ways we’re taught to interrupt negative behaviors (what we call “urges”) is through the Distraction skill. Distraction, in this case, is not avoiding your negative emotions: it’s purposefully choosing to do something else instead of the negative behaviors your emotions are telling you to engage in, according to Bay Area DBT.
The key to successfully distracting yourself is learning to engage your five senses with your distracting activities. Below, I list some of my personal favorite distractions for Touch, Taste, Smell, Hear and Sight. Try printing out my list and checking next to any skills you could potentially see yourself using to distract from negative body thoughts.
Additionally, for more ideas, check out The Big List of Pleasurable Activities from The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook by clicking here!
__ Whack a Dammit Doll or pillow against a wall
__ Play with play dough or silly putty
__ Try a fidget cube like this one
__ Pet a dog or cat; if you don’t have one, volunteer at a shelter
__ Write down your feelings in a journal, focusing on the feeling of the pen in your hands
__ Savor a delicious chocolate truffle
__ Suck on a piece of hard candy
__ Chew gum
__ Grab a coffee or tea from your favorite shop
__ Chug a glass of water (this is my favorite for distracting from panic attacks)
__ Light a scented candle (I like this one from Bath and Body Works)
__ Soak in the tub with bubble bath
__ Buy yourself flowers
__ Visit your favorite beauty store to smell the perfumes
__ Bake your favorite dessert; enjoy the scent as it wafts through your kitchen
__ Blast your favorite song; sing along at the top of your lungs
__ Bury your head in a pillow and just scream
__ Listen to a guided meditation app
__ Repeat positive affirmations out loud
__ Say 10 things you love about your body while looking in the mirror
__ Watch Saturday Night Live skits on YouTube (I recommend Guy Who Just Bought a Boat)
__ Re-read your favorite book
__ Try some adult coloring pages
__ Play your favorite phone game (I play Choices and Episode Interactive)
__ Go for a walk (by yourself or with your dog) and notice the beauty of nature
4. Give your physical appearance a pick-me-up.
You might think that focusing on how you look on the outside is vain — but, as Rachel Hollis writes in her latest book Girl, Stop Apologizing, things like fashion, makeup and even plastic surgery can lend confidence.
Sometimes, looking the part gives you the little nudge you need to fake it until you make it! That’s how the concept of a “power outfit” came about: everyone loves to roll into a big meeting or important presentation wearing the clothes that make them feel most confident.
While I wouldn’t recommend blowing your entire monthly budget at Sephora, I agree with Rachel that splurging on your personal appearance from time to time is worth the money. Still, only you can decide what elements of your physical appearance worth spending on, based on your values and salary.
Personally, the little “extras” I pay for that make me feel confident in my appearance include a nice haircut and highlights once or twice a year (Ohioans: I highly recommend Moxie Salon in Westlake!), Drunk Elephant skincare products and clothes from Madewell. But for you, that might mean something completely different!
The one thing I promise you definitely DON’T need to pay for? Diet books and systems, gym memberships and classes and expensive weight loss supplements that don’t do what they promise. Because investing in your physical appearance doesn’t mean investing in diet culture — no matter how it feels, your body isn’t the problem.
Diet culture can ruin your confidence. But wearing clothes you love, makeup you love and a hairstyle you love? Those things can help you feel MORE confident.