Body image is something that many people struggle with. Body image can be positive, neutral, or negative, and at different points in your life, you may have experienced all three. Shifts from positive to neutral to negative can happen as we age, in response to specific circumstances, with the approach of events, or the change in seasons. Our society tells us that certain types of bodies are “good” and “desirable” and other types are “bad” or “undesirable.” This, too, can shape our view of our bodies.
As summer approaches, we may hear dialogue like “It’s time to get a bikini-body ready!” This can be a major point of discomfort for many people and elicit feelings of insecurity, discomfort, or lead to negative self-talk statements specifically related to body image. In this article, I hope to provide you with some ways to cope with negative body image by helping you shift your perspective and by giving you tools to manage negative self-talk and self-criticism.
What is Self-Talk?
Self-talk is what we tell ourselves: the good, the bad, and everything in between. Self-talk can be positive, negative, or neutral. For example, you make a mistake and your first response is to reprimand yourself: “How could you do something so stupid? That was so embarrassing. Everyone is going to think poorly of me now!” This is negative self-talk. A neutral statement in this scenario may sound like “Oops, I made a mistake.” A positive self-talk response might be “Everyone makes mistakes. It’s not a big deal that I did.”
As humans, we experience self-talk throughout the day. We might not even realize that these thoughts are occurring, let alone identify whether they are neutral, positive, or negative. This is an opportunity to take a moment and identify what form of self-talk you tend to lean towards. None of them are wrong; however, it can be helpful to notice the differences in impact of positive, neutral, and negative self-talk statements. Is one more harmful than the other? Is one more helpful? (Cohen & Sherman, 2014)
What is Negative Body Image?
Negative body image is a derogatory view of our bodies. This can stem from many places: from messaging you heard growing up, from social media, from societal pressures. It can sound like “I’m ugly,” “I’m too fat to wear that,” or “no one will love me because of the way I look.” Negative body image can be related to body shape and size or to other parts of your body that you feel insecure about (Cohen & Sherman, 2014). Negative body image can be harmful because it can impact the way that we view ourselves, our self-worth, and our self-esteem. It can prevent us from engaging in social obligations, from wearing certain things, from doing things that we may have otherwise done, and influence many other limitations. Negative body image can impact us in ways that we may not explicitly realize.
Using Neutral Self-talk/Positive Self-talk to Cope With Negative Body Image
There are many ways to practice using neutral or positive self-talk statements. Positive statements can include giving yourself a compliment about things you do like about your body. If you are struggling with insecurity related to some aspect of your body, instead of fixating on that component, shift your focus to something that you do like about yourself or your body. At this point you might be thinking, “What if there is nothing that I like about myself?!” This is where neutral body statements could potentially be helpful. One way to formulate a neutral body statement is by commenting on the function of that body part instead of its appearance. Instead of saying, “I hate my arms, they’re so flabby,” you can shift your focus to the function of your arms: “I’m grateful for my arms because they help me hug my loved ones.” Our bodies are capable of so much, so focusing on the things that your body is capable of or things that it helps you do can be a helpful way to reframe and engage in neutral self-talk statements.
Utilizing Affirmations to Engage in Positive Self-talk.
One way to engage in positive self-talk is to utilize affirmations. Affirmations are positive statements that you tell yourself. The hope is that these positive thoughts and statements will bolster self-worth and lead to self-empowerment. Positive affirmations might include: “My body is not the most important thing about me,” “I’m thankful for my body’s strength,” “I love and accept my body as it is,” “I can trust my body,” and so many others. “I am” is an available resource that provides daily affirmations. You can use the app to schedule any number of positive notifications to receive throughout the day so it is an easy way to make space for a few moments of reflection (Cohen & Sherman, 2014).
Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Cope With Negative Body Image
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, otherwise known as ACT, is a treatment modality that focuses on your values. What are values? Values are principles that are important in your life. Our values are typically what shape our lives and motivate our behaviors. They differ from goals. Sometimes negative body image can interfere with our values. For example, nature and sunshine might be important to you and lead you to want to go to the beach. Thoughts about wearing a bathing suit and subsequent judgments and negative thoughts about your body may interfere with these plans leading to thoughts of avoidance like, “I should just skip this so I don’t have to worry about wearing a bathing suit.” Negative body image can override your true wishes and deeper values and prevent you from engaging in an activity that you would otherwise enjoy (Givehki et al., 2018). Identifying and examining your values is a process and may be most effective when done with the support of a therapist who has experience and specialized training in ACT.
Body image is something that so many people struggle with, and it is something that may not necessarily “go away.” However, by working on managing some of our thoughts related to body image, we can reduce the way negative body image thoughts impact our self-worth, self-esteem, and behaviors. We can start by working with a therapist that specializes in body image or ACT to begin identifying and changing negative self-perceptions about our physical self and focusing on what is truly meaningful. We can practice using positive and neutral self-talk statements by being intentional about the language that we use to address our bodies and begin to highlight all that our bodies do for us. One of my favorite TEDTalks by Lindsey Kite highlights some helpful ways that we can engage in body positivity and begin to view our bodies “as instruments instead of ornaments.” We can also begin to utilize positive affirmations by coming up with our own or using resources that focus on body positivity. My hope is that the information here will provide you with support on your journey toward self-love and body positivity and empower you to move beyond self-criticism and fully participate in a life worth living.
Cohen, G. L., & Sherman, D. K. (2014). The Psychology of Change: Self-affirmation and Social Psychological Intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 65(1), 333–371. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115137
Givehki, R., Afshar, H., Goli, F., Eduard Scheidt, C., Omidi, A., & Davoudi, M. (2018). Effect of acceptance and commitment therapy on body image flexibility and body awareness in patients with psychosomatic disorders: A randomized clinical trial. Electronic Physician, 10(7), 7008–7016. https://doi.org/10.19082/7008
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