Toxic body image is surging within today’s social media culture and influence. And I’m sure you’ve struggled with your body image and appearance directly from an advertisement or influencer. I’ve openly shared how I battled negative body image and body dysmorphia throughout my life. And how they fueled binge eating and restrictive dieting to control my body.
It’s taken me years of hard work to find a middle ground where I’m not bouncing back and forth between these two extremes. Consequently, I’ve utilized six core principles throughout my recovery. Learning to stop comparison, break up with diet culture, re-think beauty, transition to body neutrality, abolish negative self-talk and utilize therapy are the tools that help me find confidence and joy in my body.
Stop Comparison To Heal Toxic Body Image
Living in a world where bodies are digitally enhanced and manipulated makes it challenging to feel adequate as we are. And it’s impossible to escape. We are bombarded with images of “perfect” human beings from social media, entertainment, and advertisements. However, despite knowing that it’s false, we still fall into the comparison trap and begin to feel bad about ourselves. That’s why confronting comparison is crucial and nipping it in the bud.
Find and Remove Triggers
The first step in ending comparison is identifying what triggers you to compare your body to others. For example, I struggled with social media, celebrity/influencer culture, friends, and family. And these may be similar triggers for you as well.
After identifying your triggers, the next step is to find ways to remove and avoid them. For example, if you compare yourself when scrolling Instagram, consider taking a break from it and disconnecting for a while. Additionally, you may consider doing an audit and unfollowing accounts that cause you to compare your body and trigger a toxic body image.
If you realize you’re obsessed with celebrity/influencer culture, disengage from it. Refrain from reading gossip magazines or immersing yourself in media and entertainment that cause you to compare your body and appearance to others.
However, if you’re struggling with comparing yourself to people within your social circles, such as friends and family, it can be challenging to disconnect from them. Instead, create healthy boundaries. For starters, avoid having discussions that focus on body and appearance, especially negative conversations. Additionally, ask them not to make comments about your body. These changes can decrease your need to compare your body to theirs and decrease comments on your body that can be triggering.
Once you remove the negative triggers, you can replace them with positive ones. You can focus on following body-positive and body-neutral accounts on social media sites. The main idea is to shift your focus from the body and find non-physical triggers that elicit pleasant happy feelings towards your body, such as hobbies or spending quality time with your friends and family.
Break up with Diet Culture
Diet culture had me wrapped around its little finger, which was why I had such a toxic body image. I believed the only way to be healthy was to assimilate to the thin yet athletic and muscular body type. And I spent many years chasing different diets, taking an insane number of supplements, and pushing myself to the edge with exercise to achieve this physical representation of health. Yet, I was never happy, regardless of how skinny or fit I was; it wasn’t enough. And I didn’t make any significant health gains. Many of the behaviors I participated in were the opposite of healthy.
Furthermore, the restrictive crash diets created a disordered relationship with food that impacts me today. Those diets promoted health and nutrition but used body shaming as motivation to keep me focused on the end goal, which was to achieve the perfect body just like they had. And while extremely difficult, it’s possible to break up with diet culture when you reframe your mindset.
Aim to Prioritize Wellness
Learning to break up with diet culture means rejecting the belief that health is equal to body aesthetics because it’s not. Instead, health is about the physiological function of the body. And while maintaining a healthy weight is indeed part of health and wellness, it doesn’t mean you have to be the skinniest or leanest to do so.
Rejecting the all-or-nothing mentality of diet culture can be tricky because it’s ingrained within us all. But learning to listen to your body intuitively, understanding the basics of how your body works, what nutrition is about, intuitive eating, and how to move your body for overall fitness properly. These create the foundation of health and wellness, focusing more on how your body functions and less on how your body looks.
Wellness involves the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and social aspects of our overall well-being. That’s why when working on a goal such as weight loss or transitioning to a healthy lifestyle, it’s better to focus on health and personal goals instead of aesthetic-based goals.
For example, creating a performance-based goal such as becoming a better runner so you can run a 5k or increase your strength increases the likelihood of sticking with your commitment to a healthier lifestyle.
Additionally, you may be motivated to make changes because you desire to feel comfortable in your body, improve specific health metrics such as lower blood pressure and cholesterol, or manage a chronic illness. These goals have a long-lasting payoff that usually means you’re able to create the healthy habits you need to maintain for a lifetime of health and wellness.
For so long, I believed in the manufactured beauty displayed to me via media and entertainment. But it’s impossible to keep up with because these standards are unrealistic and constantly changing.
Furthermore, what one must do to achieve the perfect body is daunting and expensive for the average person. Celebrities and influences alike struggle with toxic body image. They are often weight conscious and insecure regarding their appearance.
Additionally, they require the help of beauty teams and stylists to maintain their image and look. Sometimes they resort to surgically altering their bodies and use filters and photoshop to meet societal beauty standards. So, when you think about it, the beauty we are taught to aspire to doesn’t exist if the same celebrities and influencers that we look up to have to resort to these extremes to achieve the look.
The more I’ve come to understand this, the more I’ve been able to accept myself and know that my body and appearance are unique to me, and I’m enough as is. I don’t need to assimilate to a societal ideal to be good enough.
Choose to Challenge Beauty Standards
Instead of accepting what society says is beautiful, perhaps question why only one form of beauty is acceptable. There are millions of unique and notable people on earth.
Make it a point to surround yourself with people of different ethnicities, skin tones, gender, body sizes, and age groups. You’ll find the beauty that exists within ordinary people. So many quirks from unique personality traits and striking features make a person beautiful. When you expand your idea of beauty, you’ll see it not just in others but also yourself.
Transition to Body Neutrality
Adapting to a body-neutral mindset was hard. After living with a toxic body image for so long, I didn’t know how to avoid comparing and fixating on my body’s imperfections. So, it wasn’t easy to learn how to accept my body.
However, the more I focused on understanding my body biologically and physiologically, the more fascinated I became with it. It became easier for me to acknowledge all my body does for me. I can breathe, taste, touch, see, hear, and interact with the world around me, which is a simple luxury to forget.
The more you look internally and find hobbies you enjoy, honor your feelings and emotions, take note of your likes and dislikes, and live to experience every moment of life, the less you’ll focus on your body.
Instead of building your self-image on how your body looks, you’ll realize your identity is about who you are. For example, your personality, unique traits, and quirks are exclusive to you. And they have nothing to do with your body or physical appearance. So, take comfort knowing that you’re beautifully and wonderfully made.
Explore Your Personal Style
The most fun thing I’ve done on my path to healing my toxic body image has been to experiment with creating my personal style. I found that paying attention to how clothes fit my body and how I felt wearing those clothes mattered. That’s why I believe in having clothes altered to accommodate your unique shape because it’s rare to have clothes fit perfectly when you buy them. Plus, bodies change over time; it’s natural and normal.
Another thing I began to do was observe what I liked to wear. Sometimes I’d buy clothes to look like someone else, fit a future body, or because I thought they looked pretty. But I wasn’t buying it because I liked it and would wear it. However, the more intentional I became about what pieces I invested in and being honest about my reasons for wanting them, the less I bought and the more I purchased clothes that I wear, enjoy, and feel confident in.
You can do the same too! Start purging the clothes that don’t serve you anymore and analyze your pieces. What stands out to you about them? Are they a particular style, color, or brand? Then begin to build your wardrobe around them. You can even consider creating a color palette for your new wardrobe to increase the versatility of your pieces if you want to keep your closet minimal.
Another idea is to elevate your loungewear and intimates. Become intentional about choosing pieces that are comfortable and beautiful. You’ll feel much better about your body as you lounge around at home when you have stylish, comfy wear that flatters you.
Abolish Negative Self-talk
You may not realize it, but you have a million little conversations with yourself in your head all day. These little convos or thoughts have the power to influence your mood and perception of yourself and the world around you. That’s why speaking trash to yourself will affect a toxic body image.
Negative self-talk commonly occurs when exposed to a trigger, such as scrolling through social media and seeing someone with a perfect body. Or having someone make comments on your body that make you feel insecure. You say things like, “I’m never good enough.” “My body is gross.” “I wish I could wear the clothes that she does. She looks so perfect. I’ll never be able to look that good.”
Saying these things to yourself makes you feel bad about your body and reinforces the belief that something is wrong with you.
Create and Enforce Boundaries
Creating boundaries can help you overcome toxic body image and end negative self-talk. The first thing you’ll do is identify what triggers you to think negatively about yourself.
Analyzing your thoughts and identifying your triggers takes a lot of effort and mindfulness because it’s easy to think of things and not be aware of them. But, becoming intentional can help you pinpoint when you’re more likely to feel these negative thoughts. Common instances where you may have negative self-talk are scrolling through social media or having conversations with others about weight, diets, bodies, etc.
Once you acknowledge these triggers, you can create boundaries with yourself. For example, if scrolling on social media causes negative self-talk, start to limit your time on social media and unfollow accounts that trigger you. If talking with friends about weight and dieting triggers, you avoid those conversations. Or, if a family member begins to comment on your body, tell them you don’t want outside comments on it anymore.
Turn those comments around when you notice you’re saying negative things about yourself. For example, if you think you’ll never have the body of your dream celebrity, remember the money, upkeep, and commitment it takes to look like they do. You don’t have to live under that microscope and are free to be yourself and live your life.
You can also shift your focus to the things you love about your body, like how fast you can run, your pretty manicure, whatever takes the focus away from falling into a negative spiral.
Toxic body image is not easy to overcome alone, especially if you have an eating disorder or issues with disordered eating. You need help to undo the negative thought patterns and behaviors you’ve developed.
Hence why working with a qualified therapist is essential. They can help you identify triggers and find ways to overcome them. Additionally, they’ll help you create boundaries with yourself and others while learning skills to help you navigate your recovery journey.
Furthermore, you may find it beneficial to find a support group. Becoming part of a community that understands what you’re going through can help you feel less alone. Plus, they’re a great support system if you find that friends and family can’t support you in the way you need.
I spent most of my life struggling with toxic body image binging, over-exercising, falling for diet gimmicks, and restricting my diet to the point that it became physically, mentally, and emotionally unhealthy. But learning to stop comparing myself to others, end my dependence on diet culture, re-imagine what beauty was, become body neutral, quit negative self-talk about my body, and work with a therapist has helped me recover.
I’m not going to lie and say that I’m “cured” because I still have bad days. But however, the progress I’ve made over the past few years has been phenomenal, and I know it’s because of these principles. Although toxic body image is an issue within our culture, we can overcome it with dedication and commitment.
References & Suggested Readings
Very Well Mind: The Connection Between Body Image and Eating Disorders updated on January 5, 2021 written by Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, CEDS, medically reviewed by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS
Talkspace: 6 Ways to Be More Compassionate About Your Body Image July 5, 2019 written by Ashley Laderer
Center for Change: Battling Our Bodies: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Body Images written by Nicole Hawkins, PhD