Feb. 24, 2014 at 6:58 AM ET
Women spend an average of 55 minutes every day working on their appearance. Let’s break that down a little further: That amounts to 335 hours every year — or an entire two-week vacation — lost to their looks, according to the TODAY/AOL Ideal to Real Body Image Survey released Monday.
There's nothing wrong with caring about your appearance, of course. Part of caring for yourself is paying attention to the way you look. But there's a difference between self-care and investing too much of your self -worth in your appearance, and it's a tricky balance to stay on the right side of that line. Obsessing over your appearance is terribly unhealthy, potentially leading to mental health problems like anxiety, depression and disordered eating, decades of research has shown.
The survey found that 60 percent of adult women have negative thoughts about themselves weekly. That's compared to 36 percent of men. Even more alarming: 78 percent of teen girls are plagued with this kind of self-criticism.
More than 2,000 adults plus 200 teenagers over age 16 participated in the TODAY/AOL body image survey, a nationally representative online study conducted last month. Find the methodology of the survey here.
According to the TODAY/AOL survey:
“We are constantly confronted with images,” said Ann Kearney-Cooke, director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute, who helped develop some of the questions on the TODAY/AOL survey. “It’s nonstop – you can sit on the subway, or anywhere, and you can also then be looking at this. And the ideals are totally unrealistic.”
We are certainly our own worst critics. The average woman frets about six body parts, while the average man worries about three. Noted: Nobody likes their stomach — with 69 percent of women worrying about their tummies compared to 52 percent of men. For men, thinning hair comes next (24 percent), followed by skin issues (23 percent).
For women, the list of common worries goes on: skin (40 percent), thighs (39 percent), hair (32 percent), cellulite (29 percent) and butt (29 percent).
“It is not a bad thing to be invested in our appearance," says Jonathan Rudiger, a clinical psychologist in Nashville. "Our physical appearance is very much a part of the ‘self.’ However, we must avoid investing in our appearance for self-worth. Appearance is only one aspect of the self. In our culture, we spend too much time focused on the external while neglecting the internal."
When asked at what age they felt best about their body, both men and women agreed on the golden age of 27. However, that does not mean our best days are behind us. The good news is that along with wrinkles comes the wisdom to accept them, and body image improves with age. While 80 percent of women under age 24 worry about their appearance regularly, among the 55+ crowd, that number drops to 52 percent.
It's totally normal to not be crazy about every single aspect of your physical self, especially for women, says psychologist Kathryn Gordon, an assistant professor at North Dakota State University. The trouble starts when you begin to obsess over the things you hate about your appearance, says Gordon, who has studied the negative effects of dwelling on body hatred.
Psychologists call it “ruminating”—turning an idea over and over in your mind. Obsessing over the things that are wrong with your body has been linked to anxiety, another recent study showed.
"In my opinion, rumination results in an excessive focus on the self, which in turn results in a loss of perspective," Rudiger, who published research last year on the dangers of "co-ruminating," or turning to a friend to bad mouth your body (that's been nicknamed "fat talk").
"If you focus too much on any of your ‘flaws,’ you are going to be more likely to exaggerate the importance of the flaw.”
There are a couple proven ways to turn down the volume on those negative thoughts:
1. Distract yourself. When you notice yourself headed down a body-hatred shame spiral, sometimes all it takes is consciously trying to shifting your thoughts elsewhere, says Sarah Etu, a clinical psychologist in Fredericksburg, Va., who has published research that suggests distraction can lessen our stress over the way we look. If it's too hard to force yourself to change your thoughts, try doing something active, like doing the dishes, taking a walk or going to the gym.
2. Accept yourself. Teach yourself to appreciate your body for what it can do, not what it looks like. Maybe your ankles are a little cankle-y, but did they carry you across a finish line at a 5K? Maybe your stomach is a little squishy, but did it carry your kids? “When we move away from ‘pretty’ and ‘ugly’ labels, we can start to appreciate just how amazing our bodies really are," Rudiger says. "When we set healthy goals and stop focusing on what is wrong with our bodies, we can finally start to appreciate life and enjoy our connection to our body."
Because these are the bodies we're stuck with, he says. "We might as well learn to enjoy it and nurture it while we work on changing those unhelpful negative thoughts.”