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According to a 2006 study, the average American encounters 5,000 advertisements in one day. Many of these messages revolve around looking “better,” and influence just about everyone. Sadly, poor self-esteem is an equal opportunity offender.
“The average girl in America goes on her first diet when she is 8,” Caitlin Boyle, the editor of the Web site Operation Beautiful, says. Meanwhile, many young men feel pressure to bulk up or have six-pack abs.
Although it would be difficult to entirely avoid these messages, it is possible to take them with a grain of salt. “A lot comes down to sales and money,” Boyle explains. “Companies have to convince you that you aren’t worthwhile in order to make you buy stuff.”
In a recent Student Health 101 survey of nearly 3,000 students, 70 percent said they recognize that media images are often unrealistic.
So why not focus on the things about your body that you love?
Many college students already accept and appreciate their bodies. Overcome persistent negativity—in advertising, your inner voice, and culture in general—by seeking positive, uplifting influences. Who or what inspires you by exhibiting body confidence?
“It’s important to surround yourself with positive examples of real women and men,” Boyle says. This may mean thinking of people whose attributes you admire that have nothing to do with how they look—for example, people known for their compassion, innovative work, or creativity.
You can also focus on those in your life who embrace their bodies just the way they are. That doesn’t mean they don’t take care of themselves; it means they accept and celebrate what they can do because of their physical attributes rather than only how they look.
Brittany C., a freshman at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, says that her mom, who eats well and exercises regularly, inspires her. This has helped Brittany to feel good about her own body.
Take Care of Your Body & It’ll Take Care of You
The Student Health 101 survey found that 63 percent of students feel good about their bodies when they participate in sports or exercise, and they also report feeling their best when they eat well.
Pursuing healthful behavior, such as nutritious eating patterns or getting plenty of sleep, can help you focus on treating your body with respect.
Brittany explains that when she ran cross-country in high school, her goal wasn’t to win a medal. Rather, she simply loved the feeling of pushing her body and recognizing all the incredible things it can do.
Boyle encourages students to think about exercising as a way to feel empowered rather than about “getting hotter.” As she notes, “I never appreciated my body more than when I started to run and do 5Ks.” Brittany agrees, saying, “It’s about appreciating your body and what you’re born with.”
Sam M., a junior from the University of Mississippi in Oxford, says he likes to stay in shape, not because of external pressures, but because it makes him feel good. “I’ve always felt comfortable with myself,” he notes.
Margaret K., a sophomore at the University of South Carolina, suggests, “Bond with people who you share positive outlooks or habits with. Sometimes we relate to others by having a shared problem. Unless you’re helping each other fix it in a healthy way, that can simply lead to more negative feelings.”
“Behaving and thinking in a positive manner is a great way to expand your social circle and form deeper relationships,” says Boyle.
People who feel good about themselves, and like who they are, are often better able to affirm others. Not surprisingly, students report feeling good when they receive compliments. These confidence-boosting comments can help you feel comfortable in your own skin, and nearly 70 percent of students say they are friendlier when they feel good about themselves.
Margaret agrees: “We all need recognition and consideration from others. Compliments that are not related to physical [attributes] are the most permanently self-affirming.”
Let the mirror empower you, too. When you look at your own reflection, shower yourself with positivity rather than insults. Instead of zeroing in on a perceived flaw, pick out a few traits that you’re proud of.
If you want to take it one step further, compliment yourself out loud! It might feel cheesy, but saying (and thinking) really can translate, over time, into believing. Rather than dwelling on thoughts that bring you down, try a few uplifting activities. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Focus on Your Inner beauty
Do you select friends based on how they look? Chances are you don’t, and that people aren’t judging you that way, either. Almost everyone is harder on themselves than anybody else could possibly be.
Build your confidence by thinking about how you make friends laugh or contribute to conversations. People love you, not your looks.
Get Comfortable With Your Own Body
How well do you know yourself? We have a lot of body shame in the U.S., despite how popular media portray our behavior. Try shutting the blinds, locking the door, shedding your clothes, and strutting your stuff around the room. Then settle down with a book and appreciate your bare body.
Or, pay attention to how your body moves throughout the day. Appreciate your firm handshake, the way your muscles flex when you exercise, your back’s ability to carry books, or that your smile makes other people smile, too.
Write an Inspiring Note
As part of the Operation Beautiful concept, Boyle encourages both men and women to leave sticky notes with uplifting messages in public restrooms. That little bit of positivity goes a long way, both for the writer and the reader. People do this at Margaret’s university, and she says, “It’s amazing how much it makes a difference. Students talk about it all day [when] it happens.”
You can do this for yourself, too. Posting affirmations can be a helpful reminder of your strengths.
Other people can provide encouragement, but ultimately, each person has to decide to accept his or her own body. Start small and it’s likely you’ll soon find yourself feeling happier and more confident. After all, every body is capable of pretty wonderful things.
- Consider how unrealistic (and falsified) media images are. Real people come in all shapes and sizes.
- Take care of your body and it will take care of you.
- You have unique attributes and talents. Avoid focusing solely on your appearance.
- Be conscientious about body-talk. Avoid negative comments about yourself and other people.
Suggestions of compliments to give yourself
Compliment YourselfWhen you look in the mirror, and throughout the day, focus on the things you like about yourself, such as:
- Which of your facial features do you like most?
- What part of your body is most unique?
- Can you do anything unusual with your face or body? (E.g., curl your tongue or wiggle your ears.)
- What makes you look like other people in your family?
- Which parts of you are strong?
- How would you describe yourself? Choose something positive, like “calm,” “funny,” “I make people comfortable,” or “insightful.”
Get help or find out more
National Eating Disorders Association
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Body Dysmorphic Disorder