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Do you ever find yourself sitting in front of the mirror, zeroing in on something you don’t like about yourself? Sometimes it’s physical: acne scars, love handles, stretch marks, a crooked nose. But other times, our insecurities aren’t reflected in a mirror: a failed exam, a missed shot, or a romantic rejection.
“I’ve struggled with my body image for years,” says Laura*, a high school senior. “At one point, I starved myself for days trying to lose weight.”
“I get anxious about anything—even just saying hello to a classmate,” says Daniel*, a sophomore in Winnetka, Illinois.
In a recent Student Health 101 survey, one in four students admitted to being unable to fully accept themselves based on their strengths, limitations, personality characteristics, looks, or body type.
“It’s really common for people of all ages to struggle with how they look, but the burden seems to be especially heavy for young people,” says Dr. Renee Engeln, a psychologist and body image researcher at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. “The first thing I recommend is to simply stop putting so much emphasis on appearance. This can be hard to do in our culture, because so much seems to revolve around how people look, but it really is possible to make small changes that add up to big differences.”
Where to start? You asked, and we’ve got answers. Here, our experts respond to five of your most common body image questions.
Our self-esteem experts:
Dr. Renee Engeln, psychologist and body image researcher at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois
Dr. Leon F. Seltzer, psychologist, Del Mar, California
Q. I don’t like my body. How can I stop judging myself for it?
—Junior, Forest Park, Illinois
Answer: “Be aware that hating your looks is, ultimately, a choice you’ve been making—and that such a choice turns you into your own worst enemy. Try to cultivate self-compassion and recognize that although you didn’t choose your looks, you can choose to accept them. You’re likely to project this acceptance in a way that makes others find them acceptable as well.” —Dr. Seltzer
In other words, when you start to like yourself, others will notice that confidence too. Don’t announce your insecurities. “It’s often your own self-consciousness and projection of inferiority that ‘tilts’ others toward seeing [your insecurities] as less acceptable,” says Dr. Seltzer.
More tips on self-acceptance
Instead of focusing on what your body looks like in the mirror, remind yourself what it helps you accomplish. Next time you run to catch the bus, play sports with friends, ride a bike, or shake it to your favorite song, take a moment to be grateful. When was the last time you thanked your body for being strong enough to do all the activities you love?
Why it works
Studies show that those who appreciate what their body can do, rather than what it looks like, tend to have higher self-esteem and a more positive body image.
“I think something that would make people feel more self-accepting is if people stopped comparing themselves to others,” says Elisabeth, a freshman in Las Vegas, Nevada. “The more you [compare], the more likely you are to feel bad about yourself.”
Q. How does the media (TV, magazines, or even social media) affect self-acceptance?
—Sophomore, Brooklyn, New York
Answer: The media makes it truly difficult to have healthy ideas about things like body image. We’re constantly exposed to messages and images that leave us feeling as though we’re falling short. Every image we see is so perfected, it’s hard not to compare yourself to this unrealistic standard. Social media is perhaps the worst offender, as it can leave us trapped in a mental contest with our friends regarding who has the ‘best life’ or the most beautiful selfies.” —Dr. Engeln
Tips for overcoming comparison
Next time you’re feeling insecure (and everyone faces these feelings at times), meet up with someone who you’re close with and who accepts you for who you are. Do something you both enjoy, but most importantly, agree to avoid spending the whole time looking at your phones or trying to get the best picture for social media.
“Try taking a social media break whenever you can,” says Dr. Engeln. “Focus on being present with others. When you’re obsessed with getting the perfect image to capture the moment, you can forget to enjoy that moment while you’re in it.”
Why it works
Spending time with a close friend has been proven to boost self-esteem and release oxytocin in your body, a feel-good hormone that can help fight depression and help you control emotions.
Oh, and as for taking a break from Facebook or Instagram: Higher social media use has been linked to lower self-esteem, so the less you’re on social media, the better your chances are of feeling good.
Our disability experts:
Lydia Brown, autistic activist, writer, and speaker in Boston, Massachusetts
Lawrence Carter-Long, public affairs specialist at the National Council on Disability
Q. How can I feel better about my disability?
—Junior, Thornton, Colorado
Answer: Like many disabled young people, I struggled with self-esteem and identity development for a long time. Growing up disabled can be incredibly isolating—you might only be around people with bodies or brains like yours in places like group therapy or the hospital. Even the most well-meaning relatives, teachers, and classmates might unconsciously accept the idea that disability means broken or defective, and it can be so hard to find meaningful, practical support. I began to develop an empowered disability identity and autistic pride when I found out that there are whole communities out there of people like me [who are] thriving—not despite disability, but because of disability.” —Lydia Brown
“Disabled people are masters at finding innovative ways to get around in a world that wasn’t built with us in mind. Though we’re not always taught to think about it this way, the life skills we are forced to develop benefit non-disabled people as well. Text messaging was initially for deaf people, and now who doesn’t text? Curb ramps are useful not only for disabled folks but also for those using baby strollers, shopping carts, and carting around luggage. I got angry when it dawned on me that I’d been lied to all my life: Disability wasn’t a shortcoming, it was the opposite—a benefit. Having cerebral palsy forced me to experience the world differently and ultimately expanded my view. I’m grateful for it. Disability gives you a perfect excuse to stand out, to blaze your own trail, to do things differently. I wish I had understood that, and taken advantage of it, sooner.” —Lawrence Carter-Long
If there’s a support group in place as a resource for people who have the same disability as you, make it a point to attend—just knowing that you’re not alone can be helpful. You can also volunteer to help any organization whose mission you care about or think of ways to become a leader and advocate in your community.
+ Check out the National Youth Leadership Network for ideas and inspiration.
Why it works
A 2008 study by Harvard Business School professor Dr. Michael Norton and colleagues found that giving to others actually makes us happier than receiving. Offering help to someone else activates the parts of your brain associated with joy, social connection, and trust, so you’re more likely to feel better about your own situation at the end of the day.
Q. What can I do if other people are putting me down?
—Freshman, Brooklyn, New York
Answer: Take some time to think about the people you spend your time with. If your friends constantly leave you feeling like you’re not good enough, it might be time to start spending time with people who can help you grow as a person instead of people who leave you feeling insecure. If your friends challenge you in supportive and kind ways, then focus on gratitude for having such wonderful people in your life and work to be that kind of friend for others.” —Dr. Engeln
How to change a negative environment
Does your social circle encourage self-acceptance or self-hate? Change your attitude by avoiding any negative talk about yourself or others. You might be surprised to find that your friends slowly follow suit. It’s hard to shift friend groups in high school, but you can do so without flat-out disowning anybody. Make an effort to spend more time with friends who aren’t constantly criticizing themselves or gossiping.
“Do your best to stop talking about how other people look. It’s not good for you and it contributes to a culture where it seems like looks are all that matter,” says Dr. Engeln. “Every time you find yourself having a conversation about what someone looks like, ask yourself what other interesting things you have to talk about and then change the conversation.”
Why it works
Studies show that groups of friends tend to share the same body image attitudes, including views on dieting and what’s acceptable or not. It’s also been proven that social circles share similar happiness levels.
Q. How can I improve aspects about myself while still accepting who I am overall?
—Junior, Indianapolis, Indiana
Answer: Take the time to think about your values and what’s important to you. Ask yourself, ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’ then think of some steps you can take toward being that person. This keeps you moving in a positive direction toward your goals instead of focusing on areas where you feel like you’re falling short.” —Dr. Engeln
Tips on self-forgiveness and motivation
Instead of letting yourself fall into despair over the mistakes you’ve made or the failures you’ve faced, forgive yourself. Chances are, you tried your best—and even if you didn’t (e.g., you didn’t study enough and didn’t exactly ace the exam), you’ve learned a lesson and can work toward self-improvement. You’re human. Allow yourself to be imperfect.
“Everybody is different and that’s that,” says Sean, a sophomore in Simsbury, Connecticut. “Some things are within our control, but most aren’t.”
Why it works
Experts agree that self-compassion is key to accepting yourself. Once you’re no longer fighting with the past or a circumstance that you can’t control, you’ll be free to focus on reaching your goals.
“Unconditional self-acceptance isn’t a simple decision, but a longer-term process in which someone learns to focus on their strengths, not their limitations or impairments,” says Dr. Seltzer.
*Names changed for privacy.
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Lydia Brown, gender/queer and transracially/transnationally adopted East Asian, autistic activist, writer, and speaker; co-president of TASH New England, chairperson of the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council, and executive board member of the Autism Women’s Network, Boston, Massachusetts.
Lawrence Carter-Long, public affairs specialist at the National Council on Disability; former dancer, communications expert, and popular media spokesperson. Renee Engeln, PhD, psychologist and body image researcher at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois.
Leon F. Seltzer, PhD, psychologist in Del Mar, California.
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Student Health 101 survey, January 2015.
Student Health 101 survey, May 2015.
Student Health 101 survey, October 2015.