Here’s the scene: You’re walking down the sidewalk feeling content with your day. Then, an average looking stranger walks by in the other direction. As the other person approaches you, he or she seems to look at you for a few seconds longer than the usual passing-stranger glance.
What do you think about that look? And, in turn, how do you feel about your appearance and yourself?
These questions are important because our thoughts and feelings are intricately connected at both conscious and semi-conscious levels. Our perceptions and assumptions about daily experiences create our thoughts about each event. Then, the resulting thoughts inform and influence our feelings.
In the above scenario—you might think that the other person is looking longer because they love your new outfit, and then you’re likely to feel happy and self-confident with your appearance.
But, what if you think they’re staring because you have something in your teeth, or your hair looks funny? Then, you’re more likely to feel upset and self-conscious. If your focus often turns negatively to your weight, you may think that the other person is noticing you because you look fat, and you will probably feel especially bad about your body and yourself.
We all develop brain habits as we grow up and go through life. In other words, our brains get used to thinking certain thoughts in certain situations, and we tend to see new events in ways that confirm these patterns. If you generally think that you have a great sense of style, you’re more likely to interpret other’s lingering glances as noticing and appreciating your style, and to believe that your friend’s compliment of your fabulous boots is sincere.
If you generally think that your hips are way too huge, you’re more likely to perceive others as always noticing your hips and judging them as giant, and to dismiss any positive comments about how great you look in your new jeans as insincere or incorrect. The brain habits that lead you to those conclusions ultimately lead you to feeling good or bad about your appearance.
So, the things we tell ourselves about how we look in the mirror, how others see us, and how we should look—our “self-talk”—significantly control our body image and that aspect of our self-esteem. The good news is that, to a great extent, we have the power to change and control this self-talk and to determine how we choose to see ourselves and, in turn, how we feel about our bodies.
This isn’t to say that you’ll feel like a voluptuous vixen if you’ve always struggled to fill out a size zero, but your perceptions can come more in line with reality, and you can move toward feelings of acceptance and appreciation of what you have.
Besides influencing our own feelings, our self-talk can impact others. This month’s YouBeauty quiz focuses on the practice of fat talk, which undermines individual self-esteem, while masquerading as a bonding experience. Groups of friends can change their shared self-talk to promote each other’s body comfort. The key is to agree to make only positive and productive comments about their own weight and appearance, and to focus less on appearance-based comments in general. Bonding can be based on supporting each other in self-esteem and overall wellness—not on group self-bashing rituals.
If you would like to feel more accepting and comfortable about your body, you first need to identify your own particular self-talk messages. For example, maybe you always tell yourself that your stomach is flabby or your legs are too short. Or, maybe you focus on “conclusions,” such as that nobody will ever love you looking like this, or you’ll never be able to get in shape.
Start trying to replace your negative comments with more positive or balanced statements. Some find it helpful to pretend they’re responding to a friend, since it’s often easier to be more objective and kinder with a friend than with ourselves.
For example, if your friend said to you “I have the biggest, grossest stomach in the world,” you would not say “yes, you certainly do.” You would probably say something like, “I don’t think so, and you have the greatest legs!” And, you would be sincere in your reply. Imagine looking at yourself like you'd look at a friend, seeing beauty in the whole person. Try responding to your own negative self-talk this way, without distorted perceptions, and with acknowledgment of the positive.
If your negative self-talk is a deeply worn groove, it will probably take consistent practice to learn a new brain habit. Keep trying, because it will be worth the time and effort to emerge with a more balanced and accepting body image, increased self-esteem, and a greater sense of control over your own perceptions and feelings. With this new outlook, you’ll be even more motivated and empowered to take action to maximize your overall health and nurture your self-confidence.’
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