Real Talk: Experts Share Advice for Improving Your Body Image

Industry professionals explain how you can work towards creating a better body image

In Episode 2 of WBUR’s “Dear Sugar” podcast, host Cheryl Strayed (also the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Wild, which is now a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon) answers the question of a listener who wrote in to ask for advice about her self-esteem and body image after having endured a verbally abusive relationship.

At one point Strayed says, “I haven’t ever met a woman that hasn’t struggled with feeling OK about her body, and her beauty, and her size.”

Why isn’t this statement more shocking?

Well, probably mostly because it’s true.

For example, in 2011 Glamour magazine surveyed more than 300 women about their bodies and 97 percent of respondents said they had at least one “I hate my body” moment every day.

Clearly this is a common issue, and especially for women (although men struggle with it,too). But why is body image such a common and complicated struggle and, aside from recognizing that Photoshopped media is the norm now, what can we do to improve the way we see ourselves?

Most experts that I asked said the first step in developing a better image of yourself and your body is to work towards acceptance.

Jennifer Erickson, MS, a National Certified Counselor says that you have to start by learning to love and accept yourself the way you are right now. “We should not be afraid to treat ourselves with kindness,” she said.

Of course, practicing acceptance is much easier said than done, right?

Strayed summed it up perfectly in her podcast when she said, ““I think the least important thing about a person is how they look, and I spend a lot of time, and money, and brain energy, and spirit energy worrying about how I look. It’s a sorrow. It’s a conundrum. It’s really hard. It’s a hard thing in my life.”

This is a wildly successful, brilliant best-selling author admitting that maintaining a positive body image isn’t easy, so accepting the fact that it’s going to be a challenge is probably also a  good place to start.

But where do you go from there?

Jennifer Lombardi, MFT, fitness trainer, and executive director of Eating Recovery Center of California offers the following important steps.

  • Change your self-talk: “Many of us are guilty of ‘Fat Talk’, a term used to describe females engaging in denigrating conversation about their bodies,” Lombardi said. “When women say to each other: ‘My arms are big,’ or ‘I'm huge,’ or ‘My legs are fat,’ these words exaggerate the meaning of weight loss and can lead to serious consequences for individuals prone to eating disorders. America's obsession with thinness is what continues to drive this conversation and it's an important issue women are dealing with every day.”
  • Practice self-care: “Take care of yourself first and invest your time in doing things that bring out the best and healthiest version of you, such as starting up a new exercise routine or class and taking on healthier eating habits,” Lombardi said. “Take some alone time away from the kids or away from work to reboot yourself.” She also mentioned that taking care of your mental health is equally as important. “Nurture your soul by doing little things like taking a walk to just enjoy the scenery, trying a new art class with friends, or even treating yourself to a spa day to make sure your mind is equally well taken care of,” she added.
  • Quiet the perfectionist in you: “Be happy with yourself just the way you are,” Lombardi said. “We often get caught up in what weight we want to be and what size we want to shrink down to, but that can often lead to a long period of unhappiness. Enjoy the adventure and don't center your happiness on your weight.”
  • Separate your self-worth from the scale: On a similar note, Lombardi said that you can’t let a number determine how you feel.  “Make sure to appreciate yourself regardless of what the scale reads.”

To build on these ideas, Charmaine Jones, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who shares nutrition and wellness tips on her blog, offers the following advice.

“Accept that a ‘perfect’ body sometimes is not attainable, important, or healthful,” she said.

It might sound cliché, but she reminds us that we have to acknowledge the fact that beauty is more than skin deep.

“Focus on unique skills, talents, creativity and individuality,” she said. “And focus on the whole self, not body parts such as the stomach, thighs, or face—look at the whole self and find positives to offset negative feelings.”

On a note similar to placing your focus on skills and talents, Laura Williams, founder of Girls Gone Sporty and an ACSM-HFS certified fitness professional explains how exercise and fitness can help to improve your body image.

“Activity itself is a confidence-booster and can help contribute to a positive body image,” she said.  “Particularly strength training or pursuing a new form of fitness—something that pushes your own boundaries and challenges the expectations you have for yourself.”

She explained that when you reach a new milestone and feel like you’re getting better, your actions can help to reaffirm your self-worth.

“You start feeling more confident and more resilient,” she added.

She also said that her online boot camp incorporates a mental focus because she wants to show her clients that the brain is often their biggest obstacle.

“Or [it can be] their biggest advocate,” she said. “When you actively retrain your brain to think positively about exercise, physical activity, and body image, you're more likely to face all of life's challenges with an ‘I think I can’ attitude, rather than naysaying negativity, whether about your own body image or your ability to succeed at a particular challenge.”

In her podcast discussion, Strayed offers advice that mimics what Lombardi, Jones, and Williams all suggest. But perhaps the fact that she admits it’s something she continually has to work on is the most important part of her point.

“I have really struggled, and I had to really talk to myself,” she starts. “Right before Wild premiered I went into the bathroom and I looked myself in the mirror and I said ‘You are not allowed to think anything negative about your body, your weight, or your looks anymore. If you think those things, push them out of your mind.’ And I have done that. This doesn’t mean I feel great about myself, it just means I decided that I couldn’t do it. Because I knew I was about to enter this Hollywood red carpet deal. If I allowed myself to be self-loathing, something in me would fall apart.”