Why Even Active, Healthy Women Struggle with Body Image—And How to Overcome Self-Destructive Thinking

Experts discuss steps every woman should take to improve body image, self-esteem, and overall well-being

According to a recent report from Brown University, negative body image is what’s described as “a widespread preoccupation.”

As we navigate through a culture that continues to place an emphasis on outward appearance, it’s an issue that continues to affect more people than ever, and women especially.

The university’s report made note of one study which found that 74.4 percent of normal-weight college women said they thought about their weight or appearance either “all of the time” or “frequently.”

“It’s something that women, and even girls starting out in sports in fifth grade, struggle with,” Dr. Michelle Olsen, Professor of Exercise Physiology in the Department of Physical Education and Exercise Science at Auburn University told ACSM trainer Melanie Cole in the latest episode of her RadioMD radio show, Train Your Body.

While discussing how women can improve their body image and self-esteem through exercise and healthy eating, Cole and Olsen explore why even fit and active women struggle with the issue and explain why addressing the problem from the inside out is the most effective approach.

Ultimately, they agree that poor body image, even for women who are fit, active, and healthy, is mostly a result of negative self-talk and an over emphasis on outward appearance.

“What we really need to do, and we talk about this a lot,” said Olsen, “But we need to quit focusing so much on the external, because we are going to age, we are going to change, there are some things that we just don’t have absolute control over.”

She explained that exercise is an important part of building a positive body image because it makes us feel good, literally.

“Let’s say you haven’t been doing anything and you go and you take up exercise, and you go for a walk and you lift some weights and you do your stretching,” Olsen explained. “There are all kinds of things on the inside that are happening to us physiologically. We just need to allow ourselves to step back and recognize that they make us feel good.”

One of the main points that Cole and Olsen emphasize is the fact that body image goes beyond our physical appearance.

Olsen said that the definition of body image includes both how you perceive the appearance of your body and also how you perceive your whole body to function. This is part of the reason why exercise plays an important role in how we feel about ourselves.  

“We need to get off the focus that movement and exercise is about appearance— it’s not,” said Olsen, noting that this is an issue especially for younger women. “Our bodies were built to move. We have muscles, we have bones, and we have joints. They are moving machines, they’re built to move.”

In addition to recognizing exercise less as a tool for improving our appearance or burning calories, and more as a tool for bettering our health and overall feelings of wellness, Olsen also suggests that to improve body image we need to rely on mirrors less.

“People who struggle with body image, they check themselves in the mirror three or four times more a day than a person who has a healthy body image, regardless of their weight or their age,” she said.

Olsen feels that mirrors are essentially an unnecessary form of feedback that typically cause more harm than good.

She asks the listener to image a world without mirrors, where the only feedback we received came from heart rate monitors and other measurements that described how our bodies feel.

All you would need to know in order to feel good about yourself was that your body was working correctly.

Olsen says that it’s this very idea that promotes positive body image, sharing the example of those who receive treatment for eating disorders.

“[During treatment] the mirrors are removed so that a person can learn that they can feel good about their body and that their body can function very well and become very fit without needing feedback from that one primary source, the mirror,” she said. “It’s just a source of feedback.”

Cole agreed with these sentiments, sharing a personal experience of her own.

“When I’m training people and they’re looking at themselves in the mirror and I catch a glimpse of my own self I wish I hadn’t,” she said. “Because there I am training them feeling strong and feeling in shape and I look in the mirror and go, ‘Ugh, I’m four foot ten. Eww.’ So I think the mirrors propagate this feeling of negativity that we might not have otherwise had.”

Here, we find out that it’s possible even for a healthy, active, and fit personal trainer with a successful career to have negative thoughts about her body—so if essentially everyone is subject to this type of destructive thinking, then what are some more things we can all do—no matter where we are on our fitness journey—to work on resolving the issue?

In addition to putting an end to negative self-talk and reducing “mirror time,” Cole emphasized the importance of improving your relationship with exercise.

Exercise to feel stronger and healthier, because you enjoy it, not because you’re trying to lose weight or get rid of body fat,” she said.

Olsen also suggested investing in fitness apparel that makes you feel good.

“Get the proper attire,” she said. “Get things that feel good on your body while you’re exercising to enhance that good feeling. It’s how you feel. You don’t have to be a thin person to wear fitness clothes. They come in all sizes.”

A few more key points from her advice included:

  • Making sure to eat healthy foods before exercising to maximize your energy levels and ultimately enhance the “feel good” outcome of your workout.
  • If you work with a trainer, really listen to their feedback when they say things like, “Wow, those were excellent bench presses” or “Wow, your posture and your form is excellent, I can see you’re getting stronger.
  • Remember that body image is all in your mind and that you feed it from the inside out.

To finish out the show Cole offered some final inspiring words of wisdom.

“Ladies, stop getting up in the morning and giving that negative self-talk,” she said. “Don’t look in the mirror so often, instead look inward and say, ‘I am awesome, and I feel great, and I am strong.’ Then keep up your exercise and healthy eating and you will actually look the way that you want to feel, and the way that you do feel.”