Five Ways to Improve Body Image

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As an eating disorders expert, it is important for me to first note that not all eating disorders stem from or even include the symptom of negative body image.  In fact, with my younger clients, I frequently find that body image issues resolve once the individual is weight-restored and eating appropriately.  However, with my older clients with both clinical and sub-clinical eating disordered eating, I find that body image issues frequently persist after other symptoms improve.

  Furthermore, the persistence of negative body image may present a vulnerability for relapse.  Thus, I work with many of my adult clients to address and improve body image and will share some of the strategies I employ here. 

1. Keep a body gratitude journal

If your daily routine includes self-deprecating comments about your body, this is likely making you feel worse.  In order to come to a more balanced perspective, it is important to start to shift your attention and notice and appreciate good things about your body.  One way to achieve this is to keep a body gratitude journal.  Try to write something daily that is positive about your body.  You can include things like, “I had a good hair day,” “My legs allowed me to hike up the canyon,” and “My arms allowed me to hug my child.”  It will likely be hard at first, but will get easier with practice. 

2. Follow body-positive blogs

We are all barraged on a daily basis with images and messages importing thinness and/or the attainment of an ideal physique.

  To counteract these messages, it is important to find messages that support body acceptance and the inclusion of a range of bodies.  I encourage clients to read body-positive blogs and follow body positive role models.  Some of my current favorite posts to share with clients are:  Body Image Booster:  A Powerful Reminder by Margarita Tartakovsky and What the Dying Regret by Kerry Egan.

  Clients can even create body positive Pinterest boards.  It’s also a good idea to stop following social media sites that promote the thin or fit ideal. 

3. Buy clothes that fit now

Many clients resist buying clothes that fit and either wear shapeless clothes or dangle themselves the reward of shopping or fitting into old clothes “when they lose the weight.”  This is misguided because it increases misery in the present and ultimately is not shown to increase motivation.  By contrast, I suggest buying at least a few basic items that fit now and that make you feel good.  Clients always report that this leads them to feel more confident and reduces anxiety and self-disparagement when getting dressed.  

4. Stop body checking and challenge avoidance

Body checking and avoidance have been implicated in the persistence of eating disorders.  Body checking is the repeated checking of one’s shape and weight and takes a variety of forms from repeated weighing, measuring (with a tape measure or by touch), or obsessive checking in the mirror.

  Avoidance can involve the complete covering up, refusing to wear appropriate clothes for the situation (wearing a hoody in the summer, refusing to wear shorts or a sleeveless top on a summer day, refusal to swim because of anxiety over wearing a swim suit) or complete avoidance of doctors who might weigh them.  Body checking and avoidance only perpetuate anxiety.  Therefore the goal should be moderation.  Those who obsessively check should stop, and those who avoid should practice exposure.  If checking is an issue, try keeping track of the number of times you check and then try to gradually cut that back.  Exposure can also be gradual.  For example, one client I worked with first wore sleeveless shirts around the apartment for increasing lengths of time before she eventually ventured outside with them.

5. Act out against the thin ideal

Some of the most effective eating disorder prevention programs are based on the principle of cognitive dissonance. Individuals are encouraged to actively resist cultural pressures toward the thin ideal, by engaging in activities such as writing a letter to a peer or young girl, encouraging her to embrace a more diverse range of beauty or writing a letter to a company that has engaged in fat shaming or thin-centric behaviors. 

There are numerous movements suggesting people should aim to love their bodies.  This may not be possible.  A more reasonable goal for some might be to work toward appreciating and accepting their bodies.  Body image is not likely to improve without effort, and the activities above need to be performed over time. Improving body image is an appropriate goal for therapy, whether or not an individual is experiencing disordered eating. If employing these strategies independently is not helping over time and body image is having a negative effect on overall well-being or daily functioning, don’t hesitate to seek help from a professional.  


The Body Project

Cash, T.F. (2008). The Body Image Workbook: An 8-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks (2nd ed.). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Fairburn, C. G. Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Eating Disorders. New York: Guilford Press, 2008.

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