10 Strategies for Better Body Image
Do you ever catch a momentary reflection of yourself, or see a photo, and feel absolutely awful about your appearance? Does this “motivate” you to get more serious about your workouts and nutrition?
If so, I have bad news for you. Research (for example, by Kelly McGonigal in her wonderful book “The Willpower Instinct”) clearly shows that we do a better job of sticking with new habits and exercising self-control when we already feel good about ourselves. Poor body image may inspire a brief bout of high commitment to habit change (lasting days or even weeks), but ultimately, self-acceptance and self-compassion are stronger drivers of long-term lifestyle transformation.
In this spirit, I often coach clients to intentionally embrace a stronger self image right away, at the start of the process, rather than waiting for weight loss or other external results to generate better feelings.
Before I get into the strategies, however, I want to make three clear points about body image:
First, you do not have to lose a certain amount of weight, fit into a particular outfit, or conform to a specific ideal of beauty in order to feel better about yourself. Body image issues can strike at any level of leanness (or in any size of jeans). It is a mental health issue, not a fitness issue.
Next, body image is incredibly fluid – it can change from day to day, based on our general state of mental health and the triggers that pop up in our environment when we’re feeling vulnerable. It’s fickle!
Finally, keep in mind that “body image” is less of a feeling, and more of a habit. It’s a “habitual feeling” – a mental/emotional state that becomes ingrained the more we spend time in that headspace. But just like other habits, we have the power to change.
… And sometimes, that change can happen quicker than you would expect!
Now, here are 10 strategies that I encourage for boosting a positive body image in conjunction with improving your fitness and nutrition, or even working on weight loss:
Strategy #1: Unfollow social media accounts (especially fitness accounts) that persistently invite negative self-comparison.
If you’re prone to body image issues, even accounts that have a positive, inspirational tone may be unhealthy to consume. When it comes to social media, we’re “comparing our insides to other people’s outsides.” We are seeing ideal representations of people – not interacting with them in real life. This mismatch can create thought distortions that are incredibly unhelpful. Plus, we don’t always know what someone is doing to achieve or maintain their physique – it’s possible that unhealthy/unbalanced behaviors are involved.
Strategy #2: Buy clothes that fit – especially exercise clothes.
So many of my clients, when I first start working with them, are waiting to buy new clothes until they hit weight loss milestones. Instead, I highly encourage clients to buy clothes that fit and feel good now. This is especially true of exercise clothes – yes, I know that athleisure can be an investment, but being comfortable will help you to be more active and to enjoy exercise more! And if you lose weight, it’s ok – you can buy more when you’re ready.
Strategy #3: Spend less time assessing your body.
It’s normal to glance in a mirror when you see your reflection, or to check on your appearance at various points in the day. It’s also not necessarily unhealthy to check in with your weight or take measurements. But sometimes, if you’re struggling with body image issues, the “normal” level of taking stock of yourself can become overwhelming and compulsive. For example, weighing more than once a day, or doing lots of “body checking” in mirrors, can make your appearance take on an exaggerated importance in your perception. It can be helpful to notice if you’re changing your behaviors based on body checks (i.e., you eat less on a day when you think you look heavier), and to talk with someone about it. Unfortunately doing “body checks” is very common on fitness “influencer” accounts (it’s often done in conjunction with a “What I Eat in a Day” reel), but it’s not a healthy behavior.
Strategy #4: Do higher-intensity exercise for the endorphins.
This is one of those strategies that yields almost immediate change in mental health. Regular exercise that is sometimes higher-intensity (note: not all the time) can dramatically boost a sense of overall wellbeing. The endorphins that are released as a normal part of vigorous exercise help to improve mood and reduce feelings of stress. Because body image issues are on the spectrum of mental health (and not a weight issue), anything that improves mental health will improve body image as well. I often find that clients first seek out my services for weight loss, but convert to enjoying the workouts because they feel so much better in general.
Strategy #5: Practice reframing negative body talk into neutral body talk – including your language around exercise or nutrition.
For example, I never use the language like “flaws” or “problem areas” unless I am being sarcastic. It’s not that we put our heads in the sand and ignore our appearance or our health. But reframing means that we “catch” ourselves using judgment-loaded phrases, and make an effort to mentally rehearse a different way of verbalizing our observations that is more neutral. Then, the new way of thinking becomes the dominant mental narrative. For example, calling a food “fattening” is a judgment. It changes our relationship with that food to think of it that way. Calling cellulite a “flaw” distorts our perception of what normal bodies look like. Body neutrality, even more than body positivity, is a powerful tool for transforming your relationship with food, exercise, and your body, and it starts with these mental reframes.
Strategy #6: On “bad feeling” days, wait a day, or 7-10 days, and see how you feel later.
One of the downsides of poor body image is that it can cause impulsive decisions about changes in diet and exercise. Real body composition change is a gradual process that requires patience, healthy habits, and – to some degree – psychological change and mental rewiring. But the fast, chaotic changes that we make when we feel bad about ourselves are counterproductive. If a client checks in with a feeling of panic – either about weight or appearance – I often encourage her not to change anything for awhile. It can be extremely helpful to let your menstrual cycle take its course, or to get through a patch of bad sleep, before assessing fitness and nutrition habits. Often, what you are doing is working just fine, and the feeling of dissatisfaction is like a little storm that – once you weather it – blows over. The downside to making fast, reactive changes is that you are abandoning your actual plan, and not letting it work its magic over time.
Strategy #7: Choose exercise goals that emphasize physical performance and satisfaction, rather than changes in body composition or appearance.
When I think about advertising that I frequently see for workouts, gyms, or exercise classes, phrases like “fat-burning” or “calorie-torching” or “tightening” come to mind. Fortunately, I see this less and less often, but it’s still prevalent. I often encourage clients to choose exercise goals that they enjoy that are also skill-based or performance-based, so that there can be satisfaction in achievement rather than in appearance. Because of this, I am a big fan of short-distance races like 5K’s, or resistance training with heavier weights. I’m also inspired by clients who tackle ambitious hikes or endurance events. As a runner, I can attest that there’s almost no better natural high than crossing a finish line with a new PR. Also, while I’m not a yoga instructor, I also highly endorse yoga classes because they encourage people to build skills – to do things they didn’t think they were capable of.
Strategy #8: Instead of isolating, spend time in real-life environments where you see other people’s bodies in action, like the gym, the pool, or the beach.
When it comes to fitness, we are spending more and more of our time online, especially on social media and YouTube. I am definitely guilty for being part of this trend, as a 100% online personal trainer who also sells DIY programs that can be done at home. But even if you work out at home, it can really improve body image to spend time in environments where you are seeing other people’s bodies in person, instead of only via curated images or videos online. If you go to the gym, the beach, or the pool, what becomes immediately apparent is how different people’s bodies are, and how awkward bodies can also be. Being in a real-life environment where you see other people’s bodies doing normal things can remove the pressure to “measure up” to what we see online (and what becomes, in our imagination, “healthy”). Post-pandemic, it’s been easy to get more isolated, but it can be wonderful for body image issues to get out there and get awkward.
Strategy #9: Make a concerted effort to stop engaging in body talk with friends or family members – talking about other people’s bodies, or your own.
This can be a really tough one, because it may affect your social relationships, but if your friend group (or family) frequently discusses weight, diets, or people’s bodies (even celebrities), it can be enormously helpful to short-circuit these conversations. Of course, this will look different based on the nature of your relationship with the other people, but this is the moment to be the change. I am a personal trainer and I talk about nutrition, weight, health, and workouts with people literally all day, but I don’t talk about it socially. And if I feel someone is egging on a conversation – even about how “healthy” something is – I opt out. Awkward silences are fine. Taking the oxygen out of a conversation is very effective. Keep in mind that when people gossip about other people’s bodies, they’re often harsh about themselves, as well. Even if it creates a lull in the conversation, not taking the bait and talking about someone’s weight loss or appearance is a gift to the other person, too, because you are effectively saying, “I do not judge people based on their appearance, or changes in their appearance.” This frees everyone.
Strategy #10: Talk with a counselor about the triggers that cause body image issues to crop up for you. Or if you’re not quite ready to talk with someone, read a book like “Body Neutral” by Jessi Kneeland.
Many of the tips that I’ve given sound “DIY” in nature, but ultimately, it’s a great idea to engage the help of a professional if you feel that body image issues disrupt your daily life (or do so at certain periods). As I’ve said several times in this post, poor body image can often correlate with other downturns in mental health, and it’s helpful to get the objectivity and structure of someone who is trained to help you systematically improve your mental health (unlike a friend who will tell you, “No, you look great! You don’t need to lose weight!”). I often talk about therapy with my clients. But I also understand that people don’t take that next step to professional help for a variety of reasons – overwhelm, finances, unfamiliarity, stigma, etc. So if you want to start changing your thinking about your body, don’t sign up for a diet or exercise program – instead, read a book like Jessi Kneeland’s “Body Neutral”, Geneen Roth’s “Appetites“, or the workbook “Retrain Your Brain” by Seth J. Gillihan. Engage with the root of the problem, not the surface issue.
Are these 10 tips helpful for you? Anything you would add?