Although most of us have parts of ourselves that we don’t like (“my nose could be smaller,” “my thighs could be thinner”), for some people, dealing a negative body image is a part of daily life.  The media’s obsession with dieting, and with thin, rich celebrities, certainly contributes to the problem.  However, each of us is ultimately responsible for refusing to participate in this superficial obsession and learning to love ourselves the way we are. Read on to learn more about body image problems and how to overcome them.

What is Body Image?

The scientist in me wants to say that the true definition of body image is the brain’s representation of of the body’s sensory system and internal sense of having a body.  This internal “body image” changes as we grow, especially in childhood and adolescence.  That partly explains why teenagers can be so klutzy and awkward, because their bodies are growing faster than their brains can keep up with.

However, most of us define body image as how we evaluate ourselves. Aside from feeling like we have a body, most of us have an opinion about our bodies.  Those with a healthy body image may have a couple of areas they think need improvement, but generally, they feel good about the way they look and are able to enjoy and appreciate their bodies.  Those who struggle with their weight very often have a negative body image. They feel fat, ugly, and unloveable.  They think others judge them harshly, and they shy away from certain social situations.

In extreme cases, a person’s body image can be so distorted that it can lead to serious problems. Here, the negative self-evaluation reaches painful levels, and often there is a huge distortion in how these people see themselves.  To others, they may look just fine, but they grossly misjudge the size or attractiveness of certain parts of their bodies.  This is a cardinal feature of some psychological disorders, like Body Dysmorphic Disorder and some Eating Disorders.  These are serious problems that require professional attention, and shouldn’t be dismissed as a sign that the person is “superficial” or “conceited.”

Signs of Negative Body Image

Worried that you or someone you know might have a problem with body image?  Some of the signs are listed below:

* You constantly compare your appearance with others.

* You refuse to let your picture be taken, or are extremely self-conscious in photos.

* You keep checking a certain body part that you think is flawed (e.g., your nose or belly).

* You measure the flaw frequently (e.g., weighing yourself).

* You attempt to hide your flaws.

* You feel anxious and self-conscious around other people.

* You call yourself names: “hideous,” “ugly,” and “disgusting.”

In addition, the following are signs of Body Dysmorphic Disorder:

* You avoid leaving the house unless you absolutely have to. Body Dysmorphic Disorder limits your social and love life.

* You spend hours getting ready, often applying and reapplying makeup several times, or fixing a strand of hair that doesn’t quite go where you want it to.

* You seek frequent and repetitive cosmetic surgery, and often aren’t happy with the results.

* More frequent in men: you weight train excessively, never feeling satisfied with the size or shape of your muscles.

If you suffer from debilitating levels of negative body image, and suspect you might have Body Dysmorphic Disorder or an Eating Disorder, I strongly urge you to seek professional help. You don’t need to feel this way; there is good help available out there.

How to Feel Better About Your Body

If you think you could use some help in the body image department, there are lots of ways you can learn to love your body.  Here are a few:

* Stop watching TV (see my blog post (http://www NULL.julia-dinardo NULL.php/site/article/adventures_in_going_tv_less/) on my decision to go this extreme route).  I have no idea what’s in the theatres, what brands are hot, and who recently gained 10 pounds, and guess what, I don’t care!  This applies to magazines and other forms of superficial media as well.

* Make a list of all the things you like about your body. Really get into it!  Undress in front of the mirror (soft lighting helps!), and look at yourself through different (more accepting, and loving) eyes.

* Get rid of the clothes that make you feel ugly.  Only wear clothes that fit you well and play up your great features.  Experiment with new styles and accessories.  A stylist can help you decide which cuts, styles and fabrics look best on your body (check my Resources page for some recommendations).

* Stop comparing yourself to others. Maybe that thin girl over there is desperately unhappy and starves herself all day to look that way.  Is that how you want to measure your self-worth?

* Rediscover the pleasure in sensual activities.  Yes, that might mean making love, but it also includes moving in ways that make you feel alive.  Dancing, yoga, and exercise all make you feel more fluid and energized.  Strength training is especially effective in helping you focus your attention mindfully on what makes your body work, leading to a greater appreciation of yourself, a feeling of strength and power, and of course, a toned and sculpted body.

* Smile at yourself every time you look in the mirror.  Hard to do at first, but works like a charm, especially right before you walk out the door!

* Pamper yourself regularly.  Use lotions and soaps that smell delicious, take lovely bubblebaths, and have a spa day (at home or not) every so often.  Do little things to make yourself feel gorgeous (paint your toenails, try a new hairdo, or put on that outfit that makes you feel great).

Remember, you can’t change the media, but you can choose what you pay attention to and how you feel about yourself.  Learn to love yourself the way you are, and be the best you can be right now. Tomorrow is another day, and today is all you’ve got!