7 Ways to Improve Body Image

Contributed by Cecilia Jennings


With so much emphasis placed on how we look we can be continually bombarded by society’s depiction of the ideal body image – social media, clothing websites, magazines, TV shows (*Love Island*) - it is no surprise many of us are struggling with negative body image beliefs (1).


What is body image?

Body image can be defined as an individual’s perception of their physical self and the subsequent thoughts and feelings which result from this perception (2). Body image can be broken down into four components:

  1. Perceptual body image is how you see your body, and this may not be an accurate representation of your actual appearance (known as body dysmorphia (3)). For example, an individual may perceive themselves as being overweight, when in fact they are underweight.

  2. Secondly, affective body image refers to the feelings you possess about your body, sometimes giving rise to satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

  3. Thirdly, cognitive body image refers to your thoughts about your body. For example, some people feel being slimmer or more toned will make themselves feel better.

  4. Lastly, behavioural body image refers to the behaviours undertaken – such as excessive exercise or social withdrawal - as a result of body image perception, thoughts and feelings.


Why is body image dissatisfaction an issue?

Body image dissatisfaction often drives engagement in unhealthy behaviours such as dieting or compulsive exercise in an attempt to manipulate body shape (4). Largely, these are unsuccessful because our genes are the greatest determinant of our body shape and subsequent feelings of failure, shame and disappointment can precipitate low self-esteem. Body image dissatisfaction has repeatedly been shown to predict poorer quality of life and poorer mental health (5). Recurrent negative thoughts about one’s body predisposes an individual to increased risk of disordered eating, and in turn, developing an eating disorder.


What is body acceptance and why is it so important?

Body acceptance is defined as accepting one’s body the way it is, even though you might not feel satisfied with every aspect of it (6). Body neutrality is a similar concept, whilst the ‘body positivity’ movement seeks to empower individuals to feel happy in their body, whatever weight or size (7). This movement is becoming increasingly controversial, with critics claiming it promotes unhealthy behaviours and ignores the health risks of obesity. Ultimately, working towards a more positive body image facilitates acceptance, appreciation and respect of our body. Body acceptance is coupled with improved self-esteem; it is associated with a certain resilience in navigating the challenges and aesthetic societal pressures confronted in everyday life (8).


How can a negative body image be improved?

Here are 7 tips to help improve body image and work towards body acceptance:

  1. Avoid comparison - Remember that every single body is unique, and that society’s image of the ‘ideal’ body is constantly changing.

  2. Keep in mind what really matters - What attracts you to other people? Is it how they look? Or is it their personality, their manner, their way of being? That you can laugh together? Focus on enhancing those qualities about yourself.

  3. Focus on functionality - Thank your body for being the vehicle which allows you to walk, to move, to stretch, to cycle, to have a good boogie…

  4. Use social media mindfully - Remember that the content you see online often is not regulated, nor accurate. Curate a feed which surrounds you with positive content to make you feel safe, happy and calm. Or you might even want to consider a social media detox for a couple of weeks.

  5. Be kind to yourself - If experiencing negative thoughts about one’s body, think of the advice that you would give to a friend and the tone in which you would speak to them. Treat yourself with that same respect.

  6. Focus on goals other than food and exercise - Instead of spending time worrying about your body shape, why not instead channel that energy into learning a new skill for 15 minutes per day, reading a book a month, or perhaps phoning a friend you’ve not spoken to for a while?

  7. Think ahead to how you envisage your future – be that career goals, relationships, family aspirations… to what extent do these plans rest on your image?


It can be incredibly hard to internalise the advice we give to others. However, we all have a relationship with our bodies, so let’s make that a positive one. Focus on achievable, healthy goals, be kind to yourself and keep sight of what really matters. If you are struggling, or know someone who is struggling, with body image, it is important to seek help from a qualified healthcare professional.


Cecilia Jennings



Follow Cecilia on instagram @_cecilias_table for more nutrition tips and recipe inspiration.

References:

[1] Tiggemann M, Hayden S, Brown Z, Veldhuis J. The effect of Instagram ‘likes’ on women’s social comparison and body dissatisfaction. Body Image. 2018 Sep;26:90–7.

[2] National Eating Disorders Collaboration. Body Image. 2021. Available from: https://nedc.com.au/eating-disorders/eating-disorders-explained/body-image/

[3] Body Dysmorphic Disorder | Multidisciplinary specialist eating disorder service for children and young people. Available from: https://www.thebridgeservice.co.uk

[4] Rounsefell K, Gibson S, McLean S, Blair M, Molenaar A, Brennan L, et al. Social media, body image and food choices in healthy young adults: A mixed methods systematic review. Nutr Diet. 2020 Feb;77(1):19–40.

[5] Walker DC, White EK, Srinivasan VJ. A meta-analysis of the relationships between body checking, body image avoidance, body image dissatisfaction, mood, and disordered eating. Int J Eat Disord. 2018 Aug;51(8):745–70.

[6] Griffiths S. Body Acceptance. In: Zeigler-Hill V, Shackelford TK, editors. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Cham: Springer International Publishing; 2017. p. 1–3. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_486-1

[7] Beintner I, Emmerich OLM, Vollert B, Taylor CB, Jacobi C. Promoting positive body image and intuitive eating in women with overweight and obesity via an online intervention: Results from a pilot feasibility study. Eat Behav. 2019 Aug;34:101307.

[8] Pennesi J-L, Wade TD. Imagery rescripting and cognitive dissonance: A randomized controlled trial of two brief online interventions for women at risk of developing an eating disorder. Int J Eat Disord. 2018 May;51(5):439–48.

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