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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 at the University of Michigan, about 75 percent of female and 57 percent 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 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.

Cultural Influences

In many cultures, people are judged less by how they look and more on their other qualities, like 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 percent of respondents said that media images, consumer products, and advertising play a significant role in their level of body satisfaction.

Margaret K., a junior at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, 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 the effects of television on the body image development of Black and Caucasian females aged 17-22. It compared average television programs, which often idealize thinner-than-average females, with shows specifically marketed toward Black consumers, which often offer a more realistic depiction of female bodies.

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

Selling False Ideals
Jane B., a student at Cape Cod Community College 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.” Most female models are thinner than 98 percent of American women, while most men in media are muscled and young, when obviously that’s not an accurate representation of real people.

More thoughts on 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 senior at Framingham State University in 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

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.

More about 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 adolescence, when people are establishing their own identities, 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
  • Maternal modeling of dieting and body image concerns
  • Family pressure to diet
Margaret K., a junior at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, 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.

Work and Career 
Even your field of study or work can have an effect. The Austin Foundation for Eating Disorders (AFED) reports that men who work in professions like modeling and entertainment seem to be at higher risk for struggling with body image, and athletes-especially runners, football players, wrestlers, weight lifters, and body builders-develop body image problems because those sports demand particular weights.

More about career and body image

There are similar findings for women. A study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology presented two groups of women with images of average-size models. The women in professions like teaching, with less focus on appearance, had improved body image after looking at the pictures. Women in appearance-focused professions, such as fashion, didn’t report any improvements.

More about personality and genetic influences 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 being mindful and 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 your family members to learn more about their experiences-and find support.

Boost Your Body Confidence

Only about 20 percent of the respondents to a 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 are not.
  • 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 recent graduate of Graceland University 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

Show YOURSELF Some Love

What’s a positive affirmation? A phrase you repeat to yourself (or write and post in a prominent location) that’s intended to bolster 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 Mind & Body
Buddha described the human body as a “vehicle for awakening.” Thinking of your body as an instrument, rather than an ornament, can help you focus on the many things your body does each day.

Kayla A., a senior at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, says exercise helps her feel physically and mentally better about her body, and Richy G., a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, makes balanced-meal planning a priority.
He also says getting enough rest is important. Richy 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 peaceful 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 five senses. Focusing on more than how you look is a key to having more confidence.

Take Action:

  • Take media advertisements with a “grain of salt.”
  • Use positive affirmations to focus on your best qualities.
  • Improve your self-esteem by taking care of your body.
  • Surround yourself with supportive, nonjudgmental family and friends.
  • Seek help with body image counseling if needed.

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