So how can you muzzle that insulting internal voice and get on with your life? “I’m way too hard on myself, but I don’t know how to lessen my negative thoughts,” admits Rebecca Illson, 25, of Birmingham, Michigan, who counted 50 of them over the course of the day. And that age-old advice to “love your body” is—let’s be honest—trite and unhelpful. “It’s not about achieving a ‘perfect’ body image. That’s not realistic,” says Nicole Wood-Barcalow, a psychologist at the Laureate Eating Disorders Program in Tulsa, Okla. “Even the most confident women have doubts. But they’ve learned to combat those thoughts rather than allow them to take over.”
It’s worth it for not just the mental peace but your physical health as well. Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, suggests that women who obsess over their body and diet have chronically elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol (even when their life is not otherwise stressed)—and, as a result, may suffer from elevated blood pressure, lower bone density, higher amounts of unhealthy belly fat and even menstrual problems. “And this was among women in their twenties!” exclaims lead researcher Jennifer Bedford, Ph.D. “If you continue on this path, it could have a real impact on heart, bone and reproductive health 10 or 20 years down the road.”
Not convinced you can stop the snark? Wood-Barcalow thinks you can. She recently conducted one of the few studies of young women with good body image—and was surprised to discover that 80 percent of them had struggled with negative body thoughts earlier in their life. “The fact that they were able to boost themselves up is proof that it’s possible for all women to adopt a better outlook on their body.” Here, seven ways to do just that:
1. Rewire your brain
If you know that constantly thinking negatively about your body teaches your brain to focus on the bad stuff, why not flip the script? “It’s absolutely possible to create neural pathways that favor affirming thoughts,” says Kearney-Cooke. She suggests keeping a pen handy to note things you do that make you feel good about your body. “One of my patients is doing this, and she came in so excited to tell me, ‘Look at my list now: It’s so big!’ Doing this puts positive stuff front-of-mind and starts becoming instinctive.”
2. Ask yourself:
Is this really about my body? Or am I trying to distract myself from being upset with someone or something else? This is another exercise Kearney-Cooke does with women. “I had a patient who came in and lamented, ‘My body is disgusting today!’ After she stopped to think about it for a minute, she realized it wasn’t about her body at all. She admitted she got drunk the night before and was embarrassed about it. That’s the issue she needs to address—drinking too much—not the size of her butt.”
Survey respondents who worked out regularly tended to report fewer harsh thoughts than those who didn’t. And it’s not just that being physically active improves your shape and health; it actually boosts your mind-set, too. One new study found that women felt better about themselves after exercising even when their bodies didn’t change, suggesting that the feeling of “That was challenging, and I did it!” played a bigger role than weight loss in boosting body image. “Hitting the gym or horseback riding makes me feel like a fitness rock star. It’s the biggest confidence booster for me,” says Margo Short, 22, of Dallas, who counted four negative thoughts—about two-thirds fewer than the average respondent.
4. Say, "stop!"
Literally, that word—when your mind goes all negative. “Just imagine a giant screaming stop sign,” says Kearney-Cooke. Emily Catalano, 22, of Boston, who logged just three bad body thoughts, does this: “It’s funny, but it really does shut up that negative voice and clears my head.”
5. Remind yourself
that obsessing about what you eat or look like doesn’t make you look any better. Bedford’s study found that young women who obsess over their diet don’t actually weigh less than those who generally eat what they want. “Some women look at a brownie and think: Ooh, that looks good, but brownies are ‘bad’. I wonder how many calories are in that? Maybe I could just have a teeny bite, and on and on. A woman with a healthier relationship with food would either eat the brownie, or not, and be done,” explains Bedford. At the end of the day, both get the same number of calories. The message: Fretting over every bite gets you nowhere. Eating mindfully—enjoying food and putting your fork down before you get too full—feels better and works better.
6. Appreciate your body
for what it does, rather than how it looks. In our survey, 55 percent of women had abusive thoughts about their overall weight or size; 43 percent said they targeted specific areas (the most berated: belly and thighs). “Next time you’re, say, cursing your wobbly arms, pause and think of their purpose—is it to make you feel bad? Or to let you hug your friends and enjoy life?” says Wood-Barcalow. It may seem a bit “Kumbaya,” but this mental tweak helped many respondents think less negatively. Jenni Schaefer, 34, of Austin, Texas, who reported only two bad body thoughts on the day in question, points to her ability to “be grateful that I can walk and that my body is healthy.”
7. Finally, play up your strengths
“Comparing yourself with others doesn’t help anything,” reminds Kearney-Cooke. “Focus on making the most of what you’ve got. Hold your head a little higher and walk a little taller: That attitude is absolutely magnetic.” Hear that? You’re magnetic. And don’t forget to tell yourself so, either. We all could use a few more compliments!
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