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Developing an awareness of your body and caring for it with regular physical activity, nutritious food, and enough sleep can help you stay healthy. But young adults are particularly susceptible to negative perceptions of themselves, even though “healthy” has many different looks.

In a recent study surveying 4,000 students in Michigan, about 75% of female and 57% of male students reported that their weight influences how they judge themselves as people.

Boosting your body confidence can positively affect many aspects of your life, from social to academic to your future career.

What Is Body Image?

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) defines body image this way:

  • How you feel about your height, weight, and shape
  • How you see yourself when you look in the mirror
  • How you picture yourself in your mind
  • How you feel in your body, not just about your body

These perceptions and feelings are based on a complex combination of factors, especially during your teens, when your body is changing a lot.

Cultural Influences

In many cultures, people are judged less by how they look and more on their other qualities, like their intelligence, kindness, and how they contribute to the community.

It’s an understatement to say there’s a lot of emphasis on size, shape, and various physical features in American culture, and in a recent Student Health 101 survey, about 75% of respondents said that media images, consumer products, and advertising play a significant role in their level of body satisfaction.

Margaret K., a student in Columbia, South Carolina, has noticed that the weight of women on television who are average-size or larger is often used as a form of humor. She says, “[The plots] directly associate her weight with who she is as a person.”

How Does TV Affect Body Image?

A recent study looked at how TV affects the body image development of Black and Caucasian females aged 17–22. It compared common TV programs, which often idealize thinner-than-average females, with shows specifically marketed toward Black viewers, which often offer a more realistic depiction of female bodies.

The study found that for Caucasian females, watching TV was associated with poorer body image, while among Black females, watching mostly Black-oriented TV was linked with healthier body image.

Selling False Ideals

Jane B., a student in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, points out, “Models [and entertainers] don’t wake up looking [that way]. They need tons of makeup, tape to hold stuff in place, special undergarments, and tons of airbrushing.”

Consider this: Most female models are thinner than 98% of American women, while most men in media are muscled and young, when obviously that’s not an accurate representation of real people.

More about advertising and gender stereotypes

Media images often reinforce gender stereotypes, portraying women as dainty and submissive while men are presented as dominant and competitive.

Kayla A., a student in Framingham, Massachusetts, feels this is true. “Commercials and magazines have established unrealistic ideals for both women and men,” she says.

Take a moment to think about yourself: Have media messages had an influence on how you present yourself or behave?

Social Influences

The Austin Foundation for Eating Disorders (AFED) reports that athletes—especially runners, football players, wrestlers, weight lifters, and body builders—develop body image problems because those sports demand particular weights.

Kate Rosenblatt, a counselor in South Windsor, Connecticut,  explains, “Messages from peers, family, coaches, and medical professionals contribute to the formation of body [confidence] or lack thereof.”

Surrounding yourself with family and friends who make you feel good about yourself can make a big difference.

Family and body image

Research has found that people who grow up surrounded by people who highly value physical appearance do so as well. Especially during your teens, when you’re establishing your own identity, looks can be a particularly sensitive topic.

In a 2004 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, the following factors were found to play a role in the body confidence and dieting behaviors of adolescent girls:

  • Family dynamics
  • A mother’s dieting and body image concerns
  • Family pressure to diet

Margaret K., a student in Columbia, South Carolina, notes, “Children pick up on parental behavior toward their own bodies, and it can influence how [the children] see themselves as they grow.”

So, what can you say if family members or friends are making negative comments—about themselves, you, or someone else? Here are some ideas:

  • I think you look great just the way you are.
  • It upsets me when you say things like that. It makes me feel bad about myself, and I like myself the way I am.
  • Let’s not focus on what she/he looks like. She/he’s really talented, don’t you think?
  • I’m healthy, and that’s what matters. 
  • I think what’s on the inside matters more than what someone looks like.
  • You know, focusing on my appearance makes me feel like you don’t appreciate all of my other qualities.
  • I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t agree with you.

Personality & genetic influence on body image

There are some things you can control about your body, and others that you can’t. People who tend to hold themselves to very high standards may be more prone to reach for unattainable physical ideals. If you’re a perfectionist, make an effort to avoid measuring yourself against other people. Practice enjoying what your body can do.

The National Eating Disorders Association reports that there are also genetic components that can predispose certain people to having low self-esteem or developing an eating disorder, though these can be tough to distinguish from social and cultural factors. More research is needed. In the meantime, if you’re struggling with negative body image concerns, talk with family members to learn more about their experiences—and find support.

Boost Your Body Confidence

Only about 20% of the respondents to the recent Student Health 101 survey rated their level of body satisfaction as “high.” Here are some ideas for improving yours:

  • Make a list of qualities you like in yourself. Include a few that are about your physical appearance and many that aren’t.
  • Place positive affirmations on a mirror or in your pocket.
  • Store kind words about yourself in your phone or as a screen saver.

Anna C., a student in Lamoni, Iowa, shares, “I find it easier to be positive about things I dislike when I focus on things I like, such as my hair or smile. When I look in the mirror, I see good things.”

More about positive affirmations

What’s a positive affirmation? A phrase you repeat to yourself (or write and post in a visible location) that’s intended to support good feelings about your appearance, talents, and skills. By verbalizing them on a regular basis, you’ll begin to believe the statements are true over time, even if you didn’t when you started out.

Here are some affirmations about healthy body image: 

  • I feel love for my body and the way it works.
  • My body is perfect just the way it is.
  • I am confident in the way I look.
  • I feel comfortable in my own skin.
  • I will begin taking better care of myself than I ever have before.
  • I am beginning to feel happy with the way I look.
  • My self-acceptance is beginning to change the way other people see me.

You can also write your own, based on the thoughts or beliefs that you would like to change.

More affirmation ideas.

Connect Your Mind & Body

Thinking about the many things your body does each day, instead of just how it looks, can help you focus on your strengths.

Kayla A., a student in Framingham, Massachusetts, says exercise helps her feel physically and mentally better about her body, and Richy G., a student in Amherst, Massachusetts, makes healthy eating a priority.

Richy also says getting enough rest is important. He explains, “Scheduling time for a nap is a great way to stay focused and energized, and helps me feel confident.”

More body confidence boosting ideas

There are lots of ways to show your body some love. Here are just a few to get you started:

  1. Take a bubble bath or long, relaxing shower.
  2. Get a manicure and/or pedicure, alone or with a friend. Men can have their nails groomed, too!
  3. Dress up in special clothes and dance, go to a concert, or just have dinner. Join some friends and give one another compliments.
  4. Keep up with daily hygiene. It may sound silly, but regular self-care is a way to demonstrate respect and appreciation for your body. 
Find Positive Support

If you’re one of the many students struggling with negative beliefs about their bodies, lots of help is available.

Getting involved in your community and finding fun activities can enhance your sense of support and acceptance. Heather Ingram, a psychologist in Wimberley, Texas, also suggests individual or group therapy with a focus on developing self-esteem.

Your body does much more than hold up your clothes and get you to class. It can laugh, dance, breathe, and enjoy the world through its 5 senses. Focusing on more than how you look is a key to having more confidence.

There are MANY types of beauty.
Here’s some inspiration:

  • Enjoy pictures of people from around the world.
  • Explore art. Are there people represented who look like you?
  • Watch as children play, free from the pressures of body image concerns.

Take Action:

  • Understand that images in media are airbrushed and altered to make people look different than they really do.
  • Surround yourself with supportive, nonjudgmental family and friends.
  • Use positive affirmations and focus on your best qualities. Give your friends and family members compliments. Positivity is contagious!
  • Improve your self-esteem by taking care of your body.
  • If poor body image is getting you down, talk with someone you trust.

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Article sources

Serdar, K. (2005). “Female Body Image and the Mass Media: Perspectives on How Women Internalize the Ideal Beauty Standard.” Associated Students of Westminster College’s Westminster Myriad. Retrieved August 12, 2013 from: https://www.westminstercollege.edu/myriad/index.cfm?parent=2514&detail=4475&content=4795

Byely, L., et al. (2000). “A prospective study of familial and social influences on girls’ body image and dieting.” International Journal of Eating Disorders. Vol. 2., No. 2: 155–164. Retrieved August 12, 2013 from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/1098-108X%28200009%2928:2%3C155::AID-EAT4%3E3.0.CO;2-K/abstract;jsessionid=E80DE5B556809BFDD666D72179AB01CA.d01t01

Schooler, D., et al. (2004). “Who’s That Girl: Television’s Role on Body Image Development of Young White and Black Women”. Psychology of Women Quarterly. Vol. 28: 38-47. Retrieved August 11, 2013 from: https://ucblibraries.colorado.edu/circulation/ereserves/pdfs/courses/FALL/JOUR%204331,%20 WMST%204331,%20MCLEAN/ON%20COURSE%20NOW/WHO%27S%20THAT%20GIRL.pdf

Irving, L.M. and Berel, S.R. (2001). “Comparison of media-literacy programs to strengthen college women’s resistance to media images.” Psychology of Women Quarterly. Vol. 25, No. 25: 103–111. Retrieved June 27, 2013 from: https://www.cmch.tv/mentors/fullRecord.asp?id=2941

Austin Foundation for Eating Disorders, Males and Eating Disorders. Retrieved August 12, 2013 from: https://www.austinfed.org/males.htm#.Uglsm39n0Qk

National Eating Disorders Association, Factors that May Contribute to Eating Disorders. Retrieved August 12, 2014 from: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/factors-may-contribute-eating-disorders

National Eating Disorders Association, Media, Body Image, and Eating Disorders. Retrieved August 5, 2014 from: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/media-body-image-and-eating-disorders

National Eating Disorders Association, 10 Steps to Positive Body Image. Retrieved August 4, 2014 from: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/10-steps-positive-body-image

Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, Eating Disorder Statistics. Retrieved August 5, 2014 from: https://www.ndsu.edu/fileadmin/counseling/Eating_Disorder_Statistics.pdf

National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Eating Disorder Statistics. Retrieved August 11, 2014 from: https://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/

National Association for Males with Eating Disorders, Risk Factors. Retrieved August 11, 2014 from: https://namedinc.org/riskfactors.asp

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University of Washington College of Education, Teen Futures Media Network, Teen Health and the Media, Body Image & Nutrition: Fast Facts Retrieved July 31, 2014 from: https://depts.washington.edu/thmedia/view.cgi?section=bodyimage&page=fastfacts