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Women under 30 are now 22 percent more likely to say they are happy with their bodies than older women are, the Glamour survey found.
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updated 3/27/2009 9:22:43 AM ET 2009-03-27T13:22:43

We at Glamour think your body is fantastic. Tall and gangly, small and busty, muscular, curvy, soft or sinewy — we celebrate it all. Men, we discovered, feel pretty much the same way. Trouble is, too many of you don't. Twenty-five years after our first major body-image survey, 16,000 women took our new poll — and admit they still have some issues. But the results also show how to break the body-hating cycle. The secrets are here.

Glamour undertook its first groundbreaking body-image survey in 1984, the era of Jane Fonda workouts, calorie counting and skintight Calvins. Our poll was the first magazine project of its kind, and what it uncovered shocked even experts at the time: 75 percent of women surveyed felt they were too fat, and more than 60 percent said they were dissatisfied with or ashamed of their stomach, hips and thighs.

Now, a full generation later, talk of size acceptance and body love are everywhere. Women of all body types — from voluptuous Adele to pin-thin Keira Knightley — are rightly praised as gorgeous. We seem to have learned to see beauty in one another, but have women’s true feelings about their own bodies changed?

Glamour decided it was time to find out. For the twenty-fifth anniversary of our body-image survey, we polled 16,000 women, posing many of the same questions we did back in ’84, along with some urgent new ones. And what we discovered about the current state of body love was as compelling as our first mother lode of findings, experts told us. “There is very little concrete data and research out there on how women feel about their body,” says Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., a Cincinnati psychologist specializing in body image. “It’s one of those things that are talked about a lot among therapists and educators and griped about privately among friends, but this survey gives us a real, true picture of where our collective head is on this issue right now.” So where exactly are we?

Sadly, the needle hasn’t moved much since 1984 — more than 40 percent of women still seem to be struggling with their body image. Glamour editors had hoped that, by now, there would be a seismic shift in women’s attitudes. Experts, on the other hand, never expected to see a new wave of body love so soon — women have always been judged by their appearance, and “no significant evolutionary changes can happen in just a couple of generations,” says Satoshi Kanazawa, Ph.D., an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science. And some were positively hopeful about the trends our data did show.

One striking finding: Women under 30 are now 22 percent more likely to say they are happy with their bodies than older women are. That data wasn’t available from our ’84 survey, but Kearney-Cooke says that, historically, younger women have struggled most with insecurity. “Older women usually felt better about their bodies — after they grew out of the awkward teenager stage and into feeling more comfortable about themselves. Now women are finding that confidence much sooner,” she says. “This is a real breakthrough — and it has a lot to do with recent education efforts and seeing a variety of body shapes and sizes that are deemed beautiful.”

There is other good news, our experts pointed out: While women may not always feel good about our bodies, we seem to have a clear understanding about what helps and what doesn’t. According to our findings, fewer women are resorting to dangerous weight-control tactics. Just 16 percent of women today say they’ve taken diet pills to lose weight versus 50 percent in 1984 — and the number of women who’ve starved themselves or purged to slim down has fallen by 24 and 20 percent, respectively. As for what helps? These are six of the best body-image boosters culled from our survey, and they come straight from women like you:

Go for it at work
75 percent of women we surveyed said professional achievements make them feel better about their body.

What does loving your job have to do with loving your shape? It’s less of a leap than you might think. “At the end of the day, what we want more than anything is to feel valued,” says body-image expert Jessica Weiner, author of “Life Doesn’t Begin 5 Pounds From Now.” “When you get that from your accomplishments at work — or in any area of your life — you care less about searching for that validation in the mirror. Plus, when you’re wrapped up in work, you simply don’t have time to obsess over your body. You’re channeling your mental energy elsewhere, in a far more positive way.”

Get off your (cute) butt!
96 percent of women said exercise makes them like their body more.

Working out boosts body confidence, regardless of whether or not your shape changes, says researcher Jim Annesi, Ph.D., director of wellness advancement at the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta. In one study he conducted, overweight women with a pretty dismal body image started exercising for 30 minutes, two days a week. Six months later, the women felt better about their bodies, even if their weight and dress size hadn’t changed much. “Being active in and of itself improves body image,” says Annesi — any shaping up that happens is a bonus.

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After struggling with an eating disorder for several years, Cheri Osmundsen, 33, of San Clemente, Calif., says picking up running was one of the things that helped her turn the corner. “It got me to view my body as less of an enemy and more of an asset, because I appreciate what it’s doing for me,” she says. She now has several half-marathons under her belt. “My thighs may not be skinny-mini, but they’re strong — and they helped get me through every race!” she says. “There’s real power that comes from knowing that.”

Embrace your inner sex goddess
85 percent of women said having sex makes them feel good about their shape.

“I’ve had a lot of patients complain that it was difficult to relax and initiate or enjoy sex for fear their bodies weren’t ‘good’ enough,” says New York City ob-gyn Hilda Hutcherson, M.D. “But women who are able to get past those insecurities can find those fears are unfounded and realize how empowering it can be to experience pleasure and connection with another human being. Similarly, masturbation puts you in touch with your body. You appreciate the skin you are in. It truly is amazing to realize the extreme pleasure that we’re capable of. Your body really is your best friend!”

Feed your body well
97 percent of women said eating healthy boosts their body image.

Like exercise, the benefits of good-for-you foods go way beyond any effect they may have on your weight. “I was always a major yo-yo dieter,” says Anna Yanofsky, 27, a writer and blogger in Jersey City, N.J. “I’d do some fad diet or starve myself and lose 20 pounds, but the weight would always go right back on. After years of this, I knew I had to do something. So I chose to focus on self-improvement rather than dropping pounds, and it was like, Eureka! I started eating healthy, balanced and, most important, regular meals, and almost immediately I started feeling and looking better. The more I took care of myself, the less power the negative voice in my head had over me, because I knew I was finally doing right by my body.”

There’s another, even more direct link between food and feelings, says Melina Jampolis, M.D., an internist and nutrition specialist in San Francisco: Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats and lean protein help keep blood sugar stable and key hormones in balance, both of which directly affect your emotions. “The first thing that many of my patients tell me as soon as a week after starting a healthier diet is that they have more energy and just feel better physically,” says Dr. Jampolis. What’s more, “diets rich in these foods have been associated with lower incidence of depression. So if your mood is better, and you feel better, your body image and self-esteem are understandably better.”

But whatever you do, please don’t start putting too much pressure on yourself to make every bite perfect. Adds Courtney Martin, a body-image lecturer and author of “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters”: “We infuse food with too much meaning and power. I’m always telling women, ‘It’s cookie. You ate it. Move on.’ That’s what I tell myself when part of me wants to obsess over something I ate.”

Stop snarking!
95 percent of women said getting compliments from other women helps them like their shape.

There’s a lot of “body snarking” going on these days — on blogs, MySpace pages, catty teen TV shows and, of course, in the weekly tabs. “Every tabloid and entertainment show is trumpeting celebrities’ body changes, who has ‘packed on the pounds,’ who’s ‘dangerously thin.’ It’s like the country’s on one giant weight watch,” says Liza Feilner, a therapist at the Remuda Ranch eating disorder treatment center in Wickenburg, Ariz.

Most recent case in point: Jessica Simpson made the cover of at least four tabloids when it appeared she’d gained a few pounds. (“Inside Jess’ Weight Battle!” one headline screamed.) It’s hard for the rest of us not to internalize some of that chatter. Forty percent of women in our survey said they feel more pressure to have the perfect body now than they did just five years ago. “Women are airbrushing the photos they put up on Facebook and match .com,” says Weiner. “There’s this undercurrent of paranoia, that people are constantly watching and judging every inch of you, so you’d better be perfect.”

How can you fight back? Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself — and give one another compliments with abandon. Yanofsky says her friends had always tried to be supportive, but she had to train herself to believe the positive things they said. “When I used to say things like ‘I’m so huge — can’t go out tonight because I’m fat,’ my girlfriends would tell me I looked amazing and that I had no idea what I really looked like,” she says. “I learned that whatever image of my body I had in my head, it wasn’t matching up to what other people saw. So when I’d start getting down on myself, I’d make a conscious decision to believe what they said was true. It’s helped quiet that mean voice more than I can tell you.”

For more great tips and information, visit Glamour.com.

Copyright © 2012 CondéNet. All rights reserved.

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