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How to Improve Your Body Image

Hating the way you look can make weight loss more difficult.

Key points

  • Having a poor body image is associated with problems including binge eating, social anxiety, and poor self-esteem.
  • Liking your body, even with its flaws will NOT decrease your motivations to lose weight.
  • The genes you inherit will determine where fat accumulates on your body

If you look in the mirror before you take a shower, what do you see, and more importantly, what do you think? Do your eyes fix on parts of your body that you don’t like? Do you think they’re ugly or “gross”? Having a poor body image is discouraging and counterproductive.

Negative feelings about one’s body are associated with a variety of psychological problems including binge eating, social anxiety, sexual dysfunction, and poor self-concept. Even if they don’t cause a mental disorder, negative thoughts can drag you down, ruin your day and make weight loss harder. One study of a behavioral weight loss program found that participants who were most dissatisfied with their weight and shape were less likely to lose weight.

When I’ve discussed improving body image with people struggling with their weight I often hear: “If I didn’t hate my body I’d lose my motivation to lose weight.” This is rarely true; there are many possible motivations. You might want to improve your health, reduce the risk of various illnesses, resume a fun activity that excess weight prevented, play with your kids or grandkids. You can like your body, even with its flaws, and still be motivated to get fit and lose weight. In contrast, hating your body is demoralizing and only drains the energy needed for healthy habit change.

Here are a few things you can do to improve your body image:

First, understand the genetic determinants of fat distribution. You have some control over the amount of fat in your body but you have no control over where the fat will accumulate. The genes that you’ve inherited will control where the fat is stored. You could have a BMI in the normal range and still not have the shape you’d ideally like.

Instead of demoralizing terms like “gross” or put-downs like “thunder thighs” use neutral terms like large, big, or heavy to describe body parts. Pay attention to your thinking about your body. Notice when you have a negative thought about a body part and say the thought out loud. Doesn’t it sound harsh? What would you say to a close friend who expressed similar negative thoughts about her body? Wouldn’t you say something kinder? Surely, you deserve as much kindness when you think about your own body.

Focus on a feature that you do like. Perhaps you have a nice smile, pretty eyes, or other attributes that you take for granted.

Don’t let dissatisfaction with your body interfere with your participation in activities you enjoyed previously. Even if you’re feeling a little self-conscious at first, go ahead and get out on the dance floor, put on a swimsuit and jump into the pool. Ride your bike wearing looser shorts on a warm day. Your body, even with its imperfections, can be a source of pleasure.

More from Edward Abramson Ph.D.
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