Positive Body Image in a Photoshopped World

A selection of this months headlines:

“Flat Belly Your Way! The smart plan to target stubborn ab flab.” – Shape Magazine

“Lose 10 Pounds!” – Men’s Health Magazine

“Exclusive – Jen’s Secrets for staying young.” – People Magazine

“Stars Secret Diet Tricks – The 20 best fat burning tips that will work for you!” – US Weekly

What do all of these headlines have in common? They are all insisting that you need improvement. Specifically your body. It is apparently not acceptable the way it is, so you better buy these magazines because they are going to tell you how to fix it. These are the messages we see every single day. It’s not a surprise, then, that a recent survey of over 2,000 women found that 78% of them were unhappy with their bodies and wished they could wear a smaller size (D. Martz). 78%!

Body image issues are not limited to a certain gender, or size, or age. Earlier this week during a speech about body image and I asked “Who in this room has ever had a negative thought about their body?” Everyone, men and women, a 20 year old and a 60 year old, raised their hand. Negative body image is something that we’ve all struggled with. Therefore, I’d like to present to you five practical ways in which we can build better body image – no secret diet tricks required.

Strategy #1: Becoming a critical viewer of the media.

As you know, the media promotes one ideal body type, and by only showcasing that one type they perpetuate the myth that a person is only worthy of admiration and attention if they look a certain way. Ironically, these images we’re comparing ourselves to are not even real. Supermodel Coco Rocha said,

“For me just to look ‘natural’ in a photo takes two hours of hair and makeup, good lighting, styling, and Photoshop – and six hours later, you have the picture. But when I go home, it’s just me with no makeup, pimples, and a pair of baggy pants. That’s life — the rest is fantasy.”

In order to combat the negative effects of this photoshopped illusion we can pay attention to images, slogans, or attitudes that make us feel bad about ourselves and our bodies. By identifying the ways the media is manipulating us we can choose stop passively accepting their destructive suggestions. Then we can move on to:

Strategy #2: Alternative exposure therapy.

In 2003, a pair of Harvard researchers published a study about the the Pacific island of Fiji. In 1995 Fiji got cable TV. This included shows like Friends, Ally McBeal, Melrose Place, and rates of anorexia and bulimia skyrocketed. Before that most Fijians preferred a fuller figure, and eating disorders were almost unheard of on the island. However, by 1998 (just three years after the island received cable), the researchers found that girls who watched these shows at least three times a week were 50% more likely to have a distorted body image (A. Becker).

This study illustrates how the media we consume can have a huge effect on our body image. If a show, a magazine, or even an instagram account is making you feel bad about your body stop exposing yourself to it. Instead, expose yourself to people of all sizes who are confident, and happy, and living the type of life you want to live. This type of exposure therapy has been scientifically proven to improve body image. Instagram, facebook and other forms of social media are great for this.

Now, strategies 1 & 2 both focused on the external influences on body image, but that’s really only half of the solution. We must also consider what’s going on inside, and that’s where the next couple strategies come in.

Strategy #3: Ending the negative self talk.

Self-deprecating talk, whether said outloud or thought, is incredibly detrimental to our body image. We often engage in negative thought patterns without even realizing it, and we tend to be much more harsh on ourselves than we would ever be to a friend. By becoming aware of these thoughts we can then stop them and replace them with:

Strategy #4: Appreciation for everything our bodies can do.

Keep a list of everything you like about yourself. Things that have nothing to do with the way you look. I’ll even start your list for you: (1) You are working to build better body image! If you weren’t you would have stopped reading this post long ago! By focusing on our positive attributes instead of the negative we can begin to live in a place of gratitude instead of criticism.

Strategy #5: Do not give up.

My last strategy of the day is quite simple. Do not give up. If you’re an adult you have been exposed to 10, 20, maybe 50 years of the media telling you your body is not good enough. No wonder we’ve all struggled with negative body image! All of that conditioning will not be undone overnight. Stay the course, do the work, and know that you CAN overcome!

I have personally been working to overcome my body image issues for about two years now. It has been a tough journey at times, but I’ve found that the happiness and freedom that come with positive body image are well worth the struggle.




D. Martz, PhD, professor of psychology, Appalachian State University, North Carolina.

A Becker. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, December 2004; vol 28: No. 4.

This text is adapted from my Toastmasters speech “Positive Body Image in a Photoshopped World,” presented on 5/16/16.


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