Learn to Love Your Body

woman hugging herself
woman hugging herself

By Stacey Colino

Ask any woman you know how she feels about her body-no matter what her weight - and get ready for an earful. Odds are, she'll launch into a laundry list of what she doesn't like about her looks. For Kenda Smith, 36, the big problem is the tummy pooch from her second pregnancy. It's been two years and the bulge still won't go away. "My belly is so embarrassing," says Kenda, who lives in Worcester, MA. "It makes me feel sloppy and uncomfortable with myself." Sometimes she'd rather just stay home in baggy sweats than go out. And her self-consciousness is also taking a toll in the bedroom. "It's very hard for me to feel at ease getting intimate with my husband because of how I look," she admits. Photo by Getty Images
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Whether it's occasional or constant, nearly every woman struggles with the way she feels about her body. A Cornell University study found that 87% of normal-weight women wish they were a size smaller. Like Kenda, "the vast majority of women have what's called normative discontent-dissatisfaction with the size and/or shape of their bodies, even if it's just a wish for flatter abs or a rounder butt," says Laurie Mintz, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

In fact, tummy, hips and thighs top our most-hated list-and that's true whether we're 25 or 65, according to research published in the journal The New School Psychology Bulletin. What else is on that list of dislikes? Everything from the bump on your nose to your size 10 feet.

One thing all these complaints have in common: They can do a real number on your self-esteem. "When you hate such an integral part of who you are, it can have a profound effect on your confidence, even leading to depression and eating disorders," says Amy Flowers, PhD, a psychologist in Macon, GA. In effect, you start to believe what you think you see in the mirror. "You begin to like yourself less, which makes you feel uncomfortable in social situations, ill at ease sexually and a lot less assertive," explains Dr. Mintz.
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Why are we so hard on ourselves?

The reasons are as varied as women themselves, but experts agree that certain factors are more prevalent than others. Three key culprits:

What We Heard as Kids

Many of us carry the negative messages of childhood into adulthood. It's what Ann Kearney-Cooke, PhD, a Cincinnati psychologist, calls the hand-me-down factor: when a mom's bad attitude toward her body strongly influences the way a daughter feels about her own looks.

Melissa Brown Levine, 41, knows the effect well. Her mom frequently criticized her own body within earshot of Melissa. "It was really confusing for me because I always thought my mother was so beautiful," says Melissa, who lives in Hampton, GA. "How could someone who looked like her feel bad about her body?" When Melissa looked in the mirror as a teenager, she didn't see the normal-weight girl that she was. She saw a fat girl.

It wasn't until Melissa had a child of her own that she was finally able to let go of those negative body messages. "I felt a new sense of power about my body after I gave birth," she says. "That was the turning point when I started to accept who I am."

Girls are taught from a young age that their appearance is of paramount importance in our culture and that they should try to look a certain way, says Dr. Kearney-Cooke. But those same messages aren't given to boys. No wonder men don't beat themselves up about love handles: Just 13% of guys are dissatisfied with their body size, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research.

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What We See (and Hear) Now

"Poor body image also stems from advertising that is intended to make you dissatisfied with your app-earance," says Melanie A. Katzman, PhD, a clinical associate professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. If you feel inadequate about your looks, you're more apt to buy whatever fix the ads are selling, whether it's the latest diet plan, fitness program or fashion. "Making people uncomfortable with their bodies sells," says Dr. Katzman.

Add our celebrity-obsessed culture to the mix, and you have an even more potent recipe for body dissatisfaction. When we compare ourselves with women on the big and small screens, "we come up short and feel bad about ourselves," says Dr. Kearney-Cooke.

And Then There's Age

Getting older can make any of us anxious about our looks, and not just in our 60s-the self-scrutiny starts in our 40s and 50s, too. (Is that a gray hair? ) For C.J. Golden, 67, of Newtown, CT, all those birthdays added up to appearance panic. "I thought getting older meant getting uglier," she admits. For her, the normal signs of aging were more like "a list of woes-wrinkles, sagging arms."

Talking to friends who were fine with their aging bodies helped her let go of some anxiety. But the real turning point came when she read up on Taoism, which emphasizes acceptance of life's changes. "That helped me see that my 'flaws' weren't flaws, but signs of a life well lived," says C.J. "Now I think of my wrinkles as smile lines."

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Boost Your Body Confidence

"There isn't any group of women who can't get together and talk about the size of their thighs," says Dr. Katzman. However, all that "bonding" may only make matters worse. Consider: A whopping 93% of college women engage in "fat talk" and those who do so regularly are more dissatisfied with their bodies, according to a Northwestern University study.

So the next time you're commiserating with friends about your thunder thighs, stop. Instead, take these steps to boost your body esteem.

Get Real About Comparisons

If you can't quit playing the "Do I look as good as...?" game, at least compare apples with apples, advises Dr. Mintz. Avoid "upward" comparisons to celebrities (who could ever look like Angelina Jolie?). Focus on more realistic women, like your neighbor or other moms at the supermarket, and on the way they take care of themselves. "When you change your comparison standard to one that's more real, you'll find that you measure up a whole lot better than you thought," says Dr. Mintz.

Challenge Your Body

The confidence you get from physical activity helps you feel more connected to your body and proud of what it can do, says Dr. Flowers. As a young woman, Paula Maccabee, who is 5"1', spent years wishing she were taller. It wasn't until she took up tae kwon do in 2000 that she began to appreciate her own physical strength. Now a third-degree black belt, Paula, 55, who lives in St. Paul, MN, says that martial arts "has freed me from thinking about whether my body looks as good as someone else's."
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Befriend Your Reflection

Here's a new reason to spend time in front of the mirror: It can help you love what you see-but only if you gaze at yourself the right way. Rather than zeroing in on the body parts you don't like, shift your gaze. "If you hate the way your stomach looks, focus on an area you do like," says Dr. Mintz. Researchers at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, have found that this kind of "mirror exposure treatment"-deliberately looking at yourself without judgment-helps women learn to accept their bodies.

Keep Good Company

That's what Sharon Steuer, 65, of Smithtown, NY, did when she noticed that some of her pals were always body bashing. "I dropped those friends and started spending more time with people who are happy with their looks," says Sharon, who struggled with her own body image issues for years. "Being around them helps me stay focused on the positive."

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