Confident woman
Photo: Getty Images
Are you happy with your body? If you have read a magazine or watched television lately, you probably aren't. Media images have an enormous impact on the way women view themselves. In fact, a recent study in the United Kingdom found that watching celebrity girl groups in music videos for even a short 10-minute period significantly decreased the average woman's self-image.

Unfortunately, escaping the media in today's society is virtually impossible. Women are constantly bombarded with billboards featuring ultra-thin models, or magazines featuring women who lost all their baby weight within the first 10 weeks of giving birth. No wonder almost 10 million women and girls and one million men and boys in the United States suffer from anorexia and/or bulimia, the two most common eating disorders worldwide.

Even worse then simply promoting slim figures, celebrity magazines routinely point out flaws in stars—generally female stars—and even go so far as to name the "best" and "worst" beach bodies each year. With magazines such as these on the shelves, it is no wonder that 81 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat. This fear doesn't go away with maturity. From diet pills to "cleansing" fasts, many women will do anything to fit into a size two, regardless of their age or body type. As a reflection of this, statistics around eating disorders are getting consistently worse: the number of people suffering from eating disorders in the U.S. has doubled in the last five years.

Body image and relationships

A poor body image can greatly affect your ability to find and maintain a loving relationship. Not only will you waste valuable time feeling poorly about yourself, but you will also cut yourself off from real love and acceptance. If you can't love and accept your body, you are unlikely to find someone else who can. If you go out for a date but can't enjoy yourself because you feel uncomfortable in your dress, that lack of confidence is going to come through—especially when you only allow yourself to order a small salad and pass on dessert.

Poor body image can also affect your sexual appetite and habits. Women who do not feel confident in their bodies generally don't feel comfortable undressing in front of their partners, and may even refuse to have sex in certain positions for fear of looking flabby. In addition, crash dieting can have extremely negative effects on estrogen and testosterone levels, which will affect everything from your mood to your libido to your menstrual cycle. The bottom line is that obsessing over your weight can make you very lonely indeed.
How to Rethink Your Body Image

Just like any other part of your self-image, the way you think and feel about your body is a choice—and it is something that you can control. For women, especially, it can be very difficult to keep thoughts about the body positive. Following these steps can help you learn to love and appreciate your body.

1. Identify your best assets, then play them up. Maybe you have bright eyes or a brilliant smile. Maybe your legs go on for miles, or you have charming freckles. There are a million little things that make your own beauty uniquely alluring.

2. Build a beauty routine that you are proud of. Taking good care of your skin, hair, and body helps you connect with and enjoy your body.

3. Notice how outer beauty is colored by what's inside. Show regular kindness and strength and you will see people naturally gravitate toward you.

Disordered eating 

Even if you do not fit the clinical diagnosis for an eating disorder, your body image has probably negatively affected your life at one point or another. Maybe you avoid the beach, maybe you stay in on Saturday nights, or maybe you are afraid to disrobe in front of your spouse. In an attempt to lose weight, you might embark on restrictive diets (no carbs, no white foods, no eating past 6:00 pm), or you might develop very ritualized eating patterns (eating only from a certain plate, extending meal time by chewing very slowly, indulging in a weekly "cheat day" in which your eating habits are wild and out of control).

These are signs of disordered eating, and nearly three out of four American women participate in these habits. Unfortunately, many symptoms of disordered eating are now considered quite normal. Most women would think nothing of it if a friend said she wasn't eating carbohydrates anymore, or if her mother mentioned she was going on a fruit and veggie fast. Society practically shouts at us that there's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight, no matter what your size or shape. In reality, losing weight is healthy only if you are legitimately overweight and are choosing safe methods of weight loss. However, research has found that 53 percent of dieters are already at a healthy weight and are still trying to lose weight. Moreover, many women are choosing to lose weight through restrictive or dangerous diets, or through expensive diet supplements.
Ending the "Thin" Epidemic

Most women already know that the best way to be healthy and maintain an appropriate weight is to eat healthy, balanced meals and to exercise regularly. Logically, you also know that you are "supposed" to love your body—but how can you embrace it when you perceive it as being riddled with flaws? One way to help yourself stop focusing on these perceived flaws is to consider the message you are sending to the young girls in your life—your daughter, your niece, or even your granddaughter. Every time you skip a meal or lament about your "fat hips" in front of your daughter you are sending her the message that your body—and therefore her body, and the female body in general—is flawed.

The only real person who can put an end to this "thin is in" epidemic is you. Ditch the diet soda cans in your fridge and replace them with natural fruits and vegetables. Avoid pre-packaged salads from fast food places and prepare a truly nutritious meal with your family. When you go to the grocery store, don't pore over the latest celebrity gossip magazines—and don't let your daughter do this either. Remind your daughter (and yourself) that all magazines airbrush their models, and then give her real heroes to look up to, starting with yourself.

Finally, don't forget the importance of exercise. Exercise helps the body function properly, and it also helps boost your mood and your self esteem. Just one workout session can leave you feeling stronger and more confident, so incorporate this into your routine as much as possible.

The Truth About the Numbers of Weight Loss 

Exactly how many women struggle with body image? A study conducted by Self magazine found that 67 percent of women (excluding those with actual eating disorders) are trying to lose weight, 13 percent smoke to lose weight, 37 percent regularly skip meals to try to lose weight, and 27 percent would be "extremely upset" if they gained just five pounds. The women in this survey came from all walks of life and spanned a range of ages and ethnicities, yet they had one thing in common: they all wanted the "perfect" body.
Rewriting Relationship Scripts
Even if you didn't experience childhood trauma, you might still be attracted to unhealthy relationships or unavailable men based on a part of your unique lovemap. Fortunately, there are ways that you can work through these obstacles, too. Follow the steps below to break out of negative patterns and change your love life for the better.

Step one: Break things off 

Break off communication with the ex from hell. You know the one I am talking about: he's never there when you need him, but is always calling you late at night when he's had a few too many drinks (or vice versa). He knows he can take advantage of you because you are still vulnerable from the breakup. You still get excited by his phone call and fantasize about your relationship working someday, even though your friends and family tell you to break it off once and for all. Take their well-intentioned advice and stop answering the phone when he calls. The best way to leave the past behind is to decide not to get sucked back into hurtful scenarios by a guy who wants you for the moment, but not for forever. Remind yourself: it's his loss!

Step two: Replace bad thoughts 

Be purposeful about writing down any negative thoughts and feelings. Now that you know why you are attracted to certain types, you can also start to identify the unique scripts in your head that are informing this selection. In other words, if you have a running dialogue in your head that says you are overweight, unintelligent, worthless, or any other negative quality, you aren't going to pick a partner who treats you with respect. Write down your most common negative thoughts. Think about where each thought came from and write that down, too (for example, perhaps your emotionally abusive mom often said that you were fat, or your first boyfriend called you a slut after you lost your virginity to him). Notice how many of these negative thoughts were actually implanted by others and then internalized by you as true. Are you ready to let go of them? Can you look at each belief about yourself, examine where it came from, and decide to no longer carry that voice in your head as the woman you are now?

Consider making a symbolic gesture and burning or ripping up the list. As you erase the evidence of your thoughts, imagine those thoughts leaving your mind. In their stead, begin keeping a journal of affirmations (such as "I am worthy of a partner who treats me like a princess") or things you are grateful for ("I am happy I have great friends who love me"). Whenever you find yourself having negative thoughts, remember that they came from others, not from yourself, and make a conscious decision to let them go. With practice, you will find it easier and easier. You will also find that your confidence and happiness grow, along with your chances of finding a healthy, loving relationship.

Step three: Acknowledge challenges

Notice when those negative thoughts reappear. Despite your symbolic bonfire, the truth is that negative thoughts will inevitably rear their ugly heads once in a while, especially if you are having a bad day. Don't get upset when this happens. Instead, stop, notice what is happening, accept it, and move on. For example, if you are getting dressed for a night out and you feel frustrated by how your body looks in your dress, acknowledge it. For example, "I am really beating myself up right now. It isn't likely that my body looks any different than it usually does, so there must be something else going on. Maybe I am upset because I am feeling nervous about how this date is going to go." As you acknowledge these thoughts rather than fight them, you can take control of your own mind and release the tension.

Step four: Step out of your cycle 

Make new traditions. You can't let go of the past mentally if you keep returning to it physically. If you feel stuck in a cycle of bad decisions, change your routine. Try a new spot on girls' night, or volunteer at a shelter in a new part of town. You can even try taking a new route to work. By physically forcing yourself out of the same surroundings, you can start a mental shift, too. Plus, you never know who you will meet when you leave your comfort zone.

Read more from Dr. Berman's new book, It's Not Him, It's You.
From It's Not Him, It's You: How to Take Charge of Your Life and Create the Love and Intimacy You Deserve by Laura Berman, PhD. Copyright © 2010 by Laura Berman, PhD. Used with the permission of DK Publishing.


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