The Complete Guide to Better Body Image
Hi, friend. If you’ve found yourself here on a page titled ‘The Complete Guide to Better Body Image,’ we’re going to assume that you’re not feeling 100% at peace with your body right now.
And we get it. Everyone here on Team Wellness Lately has been there in our own way. But we’re also excited for you, because there is hope.
We know first hand how to pull yourself out of deep dissatisfaction, self-consciousness and obsession about your body. We’ve done it ourselves and we’ve helped many others in our intuitive eating coaching program do it as well. And the best news is that doing so does not even remotely involve sticking to a diet, losing weight or changing your body at all.
If you don’t believe us just yet, we get that too. We all used to firmly reject the idea that we needed better body image. We believed we needed better bodies. But that wasn’t true at all.
What we hope to impart on you today is that body image is in your mind, not on the scale. It’s not about your body, it’s what you’re telling yourself about your body that makes you feel a certain way. And so that’s where the work begins.
Why Body Image is So Important
The reason we feel it’s crucial to work on body image is because a poor body image is the number one underlying cause of women’s fraught relationships with food. If we’d never been dissatisfied with our bodies to begin with, we likely wouldn’t have tried to control our food intake and we’d have never gotten trapped in the painful diet-binge cycle that is sucking up so much of our life force.
We struggle with food because we believe our bodies are wrong.
People with negative body image have a higher chance of developing a life-threatening eating disorder. They’re also more likely to suffer from feelings of depression, isolation, low self-esteem and obsessions with weight loss. Which all greatly impact the quality of our lives.
In order to heal on a deeper, more holistic level, we believe you must work on body image at the same time as healing your relationship with food through Intuitive Eating.
In this Complete Guide to Better Body Image we’ve compiled all the best information we have found to help you do just that. Keeping in mind that body image is not a static destination (it is a fluid and dynamic relationship with your self-perception throughout life that has good days and bad days), we’re hoping to guide you toward a sustainable positive body image in your own life.
We want to help you end the battle with food and your body so you can feel at home in your own skin and go be the woman you really want to be in this world. After all, your life is waiting.
Read the complete guide to intuitive eating straight through, or click below to jump to the sections you want to read!
- What is Body Image Exactly
- What is the Difference between Self-Esteem, Self-Worth, Confidence and Body Image?
- How Body Image Relates to Self-Esteem, Self-Worth and Confidence
- What Causes Poor Body Image?
- How to Improve Body Image
- How to Build a Positive Body Image
- Why a Positive Body Image Matters
- How to Raise Kids with Positive Body Image
- Where to Go From Here
- Books on Body Image
- Websites on Body Image
- Podcasts on Body Image
- Wellness Lately’s Free Body Image Resources
- Wellness Lately’s Body Image Courses + Programs
What is Body Image Exactly?
Before we dive in, let’s discuss what body image actually is. Body image is your self-perception regarding appearance. It’s how you see yourself when you look in the mirror. It’s what you believe about your appearance, made up of memories, beliefs, assumptions and generalizations. It’s how you feel about the way you look, including your height, weight, shape and overall attractiveness.
It is entirely subjective. We can either have a terrible, painful body image that holds us back, a relatively neutral body image that just is, or a positive body image that contributes to feeling at peace in your body, and to a generally healthy self-esteem.
Positive body image is a multifaceted construct. The definition proposed by one of our favorite researchers, Dr. Tracy Tylka (yes, we have favorite researchers: nerd alert) is:
An overarching love and respect for the body that allows individuals to (a) appreciate the unique beauty of their body and the functions that it performs for them; (b) accept and even admire their body, including those aspects that are inconsistent with idealized images;(c) feel beautiful, comfortable, confident, and happy with their body, which is often reflected as an outer radiance, or a “glow;” (d) emphasize their body’s assets rather than dwell on their imperfections; and (e) interpret incoming information in a body-protective manner whereby most positive information is internalized and most negative information is rejected or reframed. (Wood-Barcalow et al., 2010, p.112)
What is the Difference between Self-Esteem, Self-Worth, Confidence and Body Image?
Body image is a hot topic these days and there are a few terms that get tossed around, used interchangeably and mixed up out there. We feel it’s important to parse them apart first so that we can truly get to work.
Self-esteem is your general, overarching opinion of yourself and your worth as a person. It’s a combination of a lifetime of internalizing messages about yourself and about groups you identify with. Healthy self-esteem means that you generally feel pretty good about yourself and think of yourself as a good person, worthy of respect, love and being treated well. Poor self-esteem typically means that you do not think very highly of yourself. You’ve overly critical and tend to focus on perceived flaws and weaknesses. You likely downplay the positive and amplify the negative. Whether positive or negative, self-esteem affects everything we do.
Self-worth is the more general recognition that you are a valuable human being deserving of love, respect and dignity, regardless of how you evaluate your traits. Your self-esteem could be in the gutter, but you still hold the notion that you have innate worth as a human being.
Confidence is your belief in your ability to do things. It’s more about your abilities and achievements than who you are as a person. You may feel confident in your ability to draw but have low, overall self-esteem. And vice versa, you may generally feel good about who you are as a person but lack confidence when it comes to your tech skills. Confidence is generally more specific. And you can build it with practice and learning. Having confidence in your overall ability to generally figure things out and cope with life is called ‘global confidence.’ Which can be described as a ‘generally confident person.’
How Body Image Relates to Self-Esteem, Self-Worth and Confidence
Body image is the portion of your overall self-esteem that relates to your appearance. It contributes to how you generally feel about yourself as a person. And it too, is based on all of the messages you’ve internalized over your lifetime. It is believed that body image makes up, on average, about one-third of a person’s self-esteem. But for some, perhaps for you, that number is much higher.
What we’ve found here at Wellness Lately is that those who struggle with body image, especially women who are obsessed with food and dieting, tend to disproportionately emphasize the importance of appearance when it comes to their overall self-esteem. This is the biggest issue. (Please put a pin in that idea for now, because it’s important. We’ll come back to it in a minute.)
Body image is complex and personal. It’s made up of all the internalized messages we’ve built up over a lifetime of living in our bodies. There are many contributing factors to a negative body image but, here are a few big ones:
- Diet culture in general
- Being teased or bullied based on your appearance growing up
- Being raised in a household in which there was a heavy emphasis placed on the importance of appearance and a particular ideal body size or shape
- The body dissatisfaction and dieting behaviors of those who raised us
- Peer pressure resulting from diet culture
- Trauma and abuse
- Media and advertising that promote a particular weight, shape, or appearance ideal
- Misguided public health campaigns emphasizing weight loss
- Weight stigma, racism, ableism, healthism, ageism and other systems of oppression and the way they intersect in a person’s life
We’ve never worked with a woman that didn’t struggle with poor body image. And when we review this list it’s incredibly easy to see why that is.
How to Improve Body Image
Now, we can’t discuss improving body image without also discussing body positivity. Body positivity is a piping hot topic these days. The mainstream media and many well-meaning body positive ‘influencers’ would have you believe that the antidote to poor body image is body positivity.
First of all, and this is really important to understand, body positivity was a social justice movement created for folx in marginalized bodies to demand dignity, respect and representation in a world that would erase them, not for straight size white women (like us) to feel better about how they look.
Here’s the actually definition from Wikipedia:
A social movement initially created to empower and shed light on marginalized bodies not shown in the media, whilst challenging the ways in which society presents and views the physical body. The movement advocates the acceptance of all bodies regardless of physical ability, size, gender, race, or appearance. However emphasis is placed on individuals who are older, non-white, plus size, non-CIS, or have a physical disability to have their voices heard in the mainstream media
The movement has been co-opted and contorted by the mainstream media and in that form, is of use to no one.
If you search for hashtag body positivity, you’ll likely see a plentiful number of straight size, cis, able-bodied, young white women posting pics of cellulite and belly rolls celebrating their ability to accept themselves. What’s worse, is that many times this is accompanied by a before and after photo, implying that the before body is wrong or at least less valued than the after.
This misses the point entirely.
It also causes harm by encouraging straight sized, able bodied, cis, white women who haven’t been oppressed or discriminated against, to crowd into a safe space that wasn’t created for them, that they don’t need, and that shrinks the space available for those it was created for, drowning out their voices.
Now, none of this is to say that straight size white women don’t suffer from body image issues. They absolutely do. That pain is valid and worth working to overcome.
Body positivity just isn’t the way to do it.
Second, we don’t believe that the co-opted version of body positivity is helpful in a practical sense, because it doesn’t provide tangible ways to build positive body image. It just reminds us of another perceived shortcoming. Because now not only are we ashamed of the way we look, but we are ashamed of being ashamed of the way we look, for not being more woke and confident about the whole thing. It’s all very meta and confusing.
It’s essentially saying “learn to love how you look so that you can feel better about yourself.” We think this is misguided. You’re not going to build a true positive body image by placing further emphasis on your looks in general or by posting selfies in your underpants alongside empty declarations of body positivity.
So if the co-opted, mainstream version of body positivity has just never felt true for you, the reasons above are likely why. But have no fear, there is research-backed, actionable guidance out there to overcome poor body image. So let’s get into that now.
How to Build a Positive Body Image
So if body positivity is not the answer, what is? Well, a handful of things. And remember, body image is incredibly personal and dynamic so there’s no checklist to rip through. It’s not a boot camp you graduate from. It’s an ongoing relationship you’re in with your own self-perception and the emphasis and importance you place on your appearance. Some of the advice to follow will resonate more with you more than others. Follow your gut and see what hits home for you.
1.) Body Neutrality
Remember I said to put a pin in the idea that those who struggle with food and their body place a disproportionate emphasis on their body image as it relates to their overall self-esteem? We’re gonna talk about that again now.
Body neutrality is the belief that how you look is just not as important as we’ve been led to believe.
Shocking, I know. Especially if you’re a woman who’s been battling food and her body in an effort to improve her appearance at all costs.
Body neutrality says: how you look is the least interesting and important thing about you. You don’t have to love how you look in order to feel good about yourself.
Our goal is to help you stop thinking so much about how you look in the first place, because there are much more important and meaningful things to think about.
Body neutrality shifts our focus to the fact that we don’t actually have to love how we look in order to live a full, confident, meaningful life that includes lots of joy and connection. Believing we are beautiful and embracing our cellulite is not actually a prerequisite for being happy. Sure, body image is a piece of our overall self-esteem but, we get to decide what emphasis we place on it.
What would it be like to not worry so much about being beautiful in the first place?
We realize this is no easy task. It’s a massive shift in perception. A very different goal to align our actions with. But the goal is not to convince ourselves that we are beautiful just the way we are. The goal is to not give so many fucks about how we look. It’s not nearly as important as the world has made us believe.
2.) Cultural Criticism
To heal our relationship with our bodies we have to understand the origins of our omnipresent quest for thinness.
As Dr. Michelle M. Lelwica, Professor of Religion at Concordia College and author of The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers Behind Women’s Obsession with Food and Weight, says “We live in a culture that encourages women to devote themselves to chasing after an extremely narrow body ideal, one that’s simply not realistic for most of our bodies. Rather than recognize and critique the damaging messages we received from society, we berate and shame ourselves/our bodies for not living up to the ideal. And because the thin ideal has become associated not only with beauty, health, wealth, but virtue, pursuing it becomes a profound source of meaning and value for many women, giving them a sense of purpose that’s lacking in the rest of their lives. So you might say, that from my perspective, just beneath the surface of women’s frantic pursuit of thinness there’s a deeper quest for meaning and connection, for a feeling of acceptance and being loved.”
Our culture, through the myth that thinness equals happiness and virtue, drills it into us from the womb that achieving thinness is our salvation.
We have to awaken to this reality and begin to examine the widespread cultural messaging that contributes to the alienation so many of us feel toward our bodies. Dive under the shiny facades of women’s magazines in the checkout line to parse apart what those covers are actually telling us. We tend to underestimate the impact that a lifetime of subconscious programming through the media has done to us.
Dr. Lelwica adds “Cultural criticism involves thinking critically about the images we see, understanding what they are really telling us, and asking who benefits from the message they convey. Who benefits when we believe we need to do whatever it takes to make our bodies thinner in order to be healthy, beautiful and loved? Cultural criticism also involves noticing the more subtle ways that media and consumer culture encourages us to relate to our bodies, for example, through the combative language used to describe the relationship. A colonial-like paradigm pervades both consumer culture’s approach to weight and a number of other health-related issues. In addition to the rally cry to fight fat, burn calories, and battle the bulge, we were encouraged to defy aging, combat illness, triumph over disability, and so forth. No wonder so many of us learn to see and treat our bodies as if they were enemies. Cultural criticism enables us to look deeply at the images and language of consumer and media culture so we can clearly see – and challenge – the messages we are being encouraged to believe. We can’t challenge what we don’t even see!”
Once we shift our perception of the messaging swirling around us, we can begin to think for ourselves and defend ourselves in the future from these harmful lies. We can begin to excavate our own truth about our bodies and where we want to derive our self-worth and happiness.
3.) Uncovering and Changing Personal Beliefs + Stories
Our subconscious mind is our fundamental operating system. The deeply ingrained beliefs that we hold there dictate our thoughts, which guide our emotions, which impact our behavior and create the outcomes in our life. The culture discussed above undoubtedly has an impact on our collective beliefs and stories but, this step is where it gets personal.
We each have unique beliefs instilled in us from those who raised us, who we are surrounded by, our own history related to food and body and the unique trauma of all forms that we’ve experienced.
In order to improve our body image, we have to dive in and figure out what these limiting, subconscious beliefs actually are, so that we can challenge and change them.
We adopt most subconscious beliefs before we’re grown adults capable of critical thinking on our own terms. We believe our arms are too big because we were told our arms were too big. We believe dieting is what all women do because we saw all women dieting. We believe that thin equals healthy and happy and is the ultimate moral obligation because that’s what we were told. (Insert your own stuff here.) In order to move toward a more positive body image we have to uncover, challenge and change our shitty body beliefs. We have to replace them with empowering beliefs of our own choosing as rational, intelligent adults.
4.) Body Appreciation
Building a positive body image is complex and personal but, one of the core components is the practice of body appreciation. Meaning, you focus on appreciating your body for its function regardless of what you believe about how it looks. Your arms allow you to hug people you love. Your eyes allow you to see a beautiful sunset. Your feet carry you all around the world. Your heart beats without you having to ask it. Your body is the only vessel you have to experience your life and for that you can appreciate it and practice gratitude for it.
Sounds cheesy and self-help-y and eye-roll-y, we know. But it works. The more we focus on appreciating our bodies for all that they do for us, the less dissatisfaction we will feel with them.
5.) Body Acceptance + Respect
The second definition of the word ‘accept’ in the dictionary is “to believe or come to recognize as valid and correct.” If we want to build a positive body image, we must accept our bodies for how they are today, see them as valid and correct in this moment. You cannot feel at home in a body you view as temporary. We have to accept it and respect it for where it is at this moment.
The cool thing about this is that you don’t have to think something is beautiful to accept and respect it. You just have to recognize it as valid and meet its basic needs. And sure, accepting and respecting might not sound as sexy as unconditional love or embracing your curves or loving your cellulite or whatever but, to us, it’s far more practical. It bridges the gap between body hate and body love when the distance just seems too far.
Why This Matters
Building a positive body image is about so much more than just accepting or liking what you see in the mirror. Body image is a natural part of everyone’s self-esteem. And self-esteem has a massive impact on all of our lives.
Here at Wellness Lately, we’ve been held back ourselves, and have seen many others held back as well, by waiting on the weight.
Our culture leads women to believe that the most important thing about us is the way that we look. That our happiness, safety, security and access to resources and love, all delicately hinge on our ability to meet the unrealistic standards of beauty that have been set for us. Many of us devote a disproportionate amount of our time, energy, mind space and resources to our quest to meet them and there is a massive opportunity cost associated with that.
We lose access to our self-trust, voices, confidence and power, not to mention our precious time here on Earth, along the way.
Imagine what the world could look like if all of the amazing, intelligent, compassionate, selfless, strong women you know in your own life were always standing confidently in their power.
What if we all woke up one day and decided that we didn’t need to waste time ‘battling the bulge’ or ‘defying aging’? What if we all woke up one day and realized that not only were we absolutely fine just the way we were in this moment, but that we always have been. That our value here on Earth is not derived from how we look, but in who we are as people.
All of those who profit off of these lies would be stripped of their power and ours would return.
It’s our hope that we can help build an army of these confident, powerful women and casually move on to take over the world and protect future generations from this bullshit as well.
How to Raise Kids with Positive Body Image
Honestly, the best way we’ve found to protect kids from poor body image is to work on ourselves. We teach by modeling. We have a great blog article about this here. And lots of great resources below but here are some other helpful suggestions:
Read the list of negative contributing factors above and do an audit of your own habits, behaviors and beliefs. You may not be able to control diet culture or things like systemic racism and ableism, but are you perpetuating those things at home? Are you dieting yourself? Criticizing yourself or others based on appearance or weight? Do you set expectations for ideal body shape or size in your home? The best way to help children is to work through our own stuff first. You can book a free Breakthrough Session with us if you want some help.
- Encourage values in your home that are not related to appearance, such as honesty, worth ethic, kindness, etc.
- Appreciate children for their strengths and abilities and characteristics unrelated to appearance and weight.
- Discuss diet culture and unrealistic beauty standards, help them to learn media literacy and culture criticism at an early age.
- Focus on the fundamental basics of self-care and health-affirming habits vs. restriction or dieting: good sleep habits, joyful movement, hydration, varied nutrition, fresh air, connection, stress management and healthy emotional coping skills.
- Model and teach intuitive eating skills as early as possible.
- Value and respect all bodies
- Learn and implement Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility when it comes to eating habits.
Where to Go From Here
Healing a fraught relationship with food requires healing our relationship to our bodies in tandem. The urge to shrink through dieting originates in our collective belief that being thin is our salvation, as insidiously instructed by our culture.
Real change in this area of life can only be sustained when we approach it through this paradigm. We don’t need body positivity as it’s been co-opted by mainstream media. We don’t need more photos of women in their underwear, or of cellulite or of belly rolls. We need to stop analyzing so many photos of women to begin with.
We have to examine and criticize our culture, weed out and replace our deeply ingrained, limiting personal beliefs and practice respecting and appreciating our bodies while deemphasizing the importance of conforming to the unrealistic, manufactured standards of beauty that have been set for us.
When we do this, in conjunction with shifting how we relate to food through Intuitive Eating, we heal the damage of diet culture on a deeper level and build lasting resilience to its effects on our well-being in the future.
If you are struggling in your relationship with food and your body and seeking peace in your own skin, we’re here for you. We offer free, Intuitive Eating Breakthrough Sessions to anyone who wants one. In this 45 minute phone session we’ll dive deep into exactly what’s not working for you in terms of food and your body, what you’re missing in order to fix it and a step-by-step plan to start your own healing journey today.
Life’s too short to feel like shit in your own skin and spend your entire day obsessing about food. Book a free Intuitive Eating Breakthrough Session and get going on improving your own body image today.
Body Image Resources
- Body Kindness: Transform your health from the inside out — and never say diet again, Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN
- The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America, Virginia Sole-Smith
- This Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love, Sonya Renee Taylor
- Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive our Obsession with Weight – and What We Can Do About It, Harriet Brown
- The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, Naomi Wolf
- Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life, Kelsey Miller
- The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brene Brown
- Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, FAND
- Intuitive Eating Workbook: Ten Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food, Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, FAND
- Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, Lindo Bacon, PhD
- Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out or Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight, Lindo Bacon, PhD and Lucy Aphramor, PhD, RDN
- Beyond Beautiful: A Practical Guide to Being Happy, Confident and You in a Looks-Obsessed World, Anuschka Rees
- The Body Image Workbook: An Eight-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks, Thomas Cash, PhD
- The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers Behind Women’s Obsession with Food and Weight, Michelle M. Lelwica
- Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls: A Handbook for Unapologetic Living, Jes Baker
- Eating in the Light of the Moon: How Women Can Transform Their Relationship with Food Through Myths, Metaphors and Storytelling, Anita A. Johnston, PhD
- Fat Girls in Black Bodies: Creating Communities of Our Own, Joy Arlene Renee Cox, PhD
- Beautiful You: A Daily Guide to Radical Self-Acceptance, by Rosie Molinary
- The Romance Diet: Body Image and the Wars We Wage On Ourselves, Destiny Allison
- Open Your Heart: Learn to Love Your Life and Love Yourself, Gemma Cairney
- When I Loved Myself Enough, Kim McMillen with Allison McMillen
- Wellness Lately Podcast with Bridget Shannon & Dana Barron
- Sunny Side Up Nutrition with Anna Lutz, MPH, RD, LDN, CEDRD-S
- Fresh Out the Cocoon with Joy Cox, PhD
- Food Psych with Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN
- Every Body with Daria Matza
- Fat Girls Club with Jessica Torres & Liesl Binx
- Going Beyond the Food with Stephanie Dodier
- Body Kindness with Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN
- Trust Your Body Project with Whitney Catalano
- The Body Love Project with Jessi Haggerty, RDN
- Yes& Body Politics with Tresla and Guru Shabd
- Real Health Radio from Seven Health
- Fearless Rebel Radio with Summer Innanen
- Free Video Series: How to Stop Hating Your Body
- Free Master Class: 5 Simple Shifts to End Binge Eating
- Wellness Lately’s Free Breakthrough Sessions
- Wellness Lately’s Food Freedom + Intuitive Eating Support Group
- Wellness Lately’s Food Freedom Blog
- Wellness Lately Podcast
Wellness Lately’s Courses + Programs:
We hope the complete guide to better body image is helpful as you begin the process of unlearning all of dieting’s rules and restrictions, and start embracing your body’s innate wisdom in order to feel your best and end the battle with food once and for all. Remember this is a practice, and takes some time. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us anytime with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram at @wellness_lately!