Scary but true: In an exclusive Glamour survey, young women recorded an average of 13 brutal thoughts about their bodies each day. We say: Enough!
“That is a lot, yet I’m not totally surprised,” says Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., a Cincinnati psychologist who specializes in body image and helped Glamour design the survey. “It’s become such an accepted norm to put yourself down that if someone says she likes her body, she’s the odd woman out. I was in a group discussion recently, and when one woman said, ‘I actually feel OK about the way I look,’ another woman scrunched up her face and said, ‘I have never in my whole life heard anyone say that–and I’m not sure I even believe you.’ That’s how pervasive this negative body talk is. It’s actually more acceptable to insult your body than to praise it.”
And we seem to be well aware of how hard we are on ourselves. Nearly 63 percent of Glamour’s survey respondents said they had roughly the same number of negative thoughts as they expected. But few realized how venomous those thoughts were until they were down on paper. So how has this become OK?
Our unattainable cultural beauty ideals, our celebrity worship–those all play a part, says Kearney-Cooke. But another big reason is that we’ve actually trained ourselves to be this way. “Neuroscience has shown that whatever you focus on shapes your brain. If you’re constantly thinking negative thoughts about your body, that neural pathway becomes stronger–and those thoughts become habitual,” she explains. “Imagine a concert pianist. Her brain would have stronger neural pathways that support musicality and dexterity than someone who hadn’t spent her life practicing.”
Our “training” begins early. In a University of Central Florida study of three-to six-year-old girls, nearly half were already worried about being fat–and roughly a third said they wanted to change something about their body. “There are only so many times you can be hit with the message that your body isn’t ‘right’–whether you see it on TV, hear it from your mom or just feel it in the ether–before you internalize it and start beating yourself up for not being as perfect as you ‘should’ be,” says Nichole Wood–Barcalow, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Laureate Eating Disorders Program in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As Maureen Dorsett, 28, of Washington, D.C., who counted 11 negative thoughts the day she did our experiment, puts it: “I always saw my negative thoughts as a way of improving myself–of calling attention to what I need to work on. If a guy said to me, ‘Wow, your belly looks flabby today,’ that would be really offensive. Somehow, these thoughts never seemed as degrading coming from my own mind. Maybe I had just gotten so used to having them.”
To make matters worse, negative talk has become part of the way women bond. “Friends getting together and tearing themselves down is such a common thing that it’s hard to avoid,” says Kearney-Cooke. The chatter happens on Facebook and among coworkers, and is broadcast with surprising viciousness on shows like Real Housewives and Bridalplasty (on which one perfectly cute contestant declared, “I want this butt face fixed!”). And all that public bashing makes the internal insult-athon seem normal. As one woman told us, “When others make comments about their bodies, it makes me think about mine more.”
Hmm. If our brains are virtually wired this way–and outside cultural forces aren’t helping–how can we stop the self-hate? We were determined to find out.
Why Your Body May Not Be the Problem
When Glamour analyzed the data to look for a cause of these ruthless thoughts, a fascinating trend emerged: Respondents who were unsatisfied with their career or relationship tended to report more negative body thoughts than women who were content in those areas. What’s more, feeling uncomfortable emotions of any sort–stress, loneliness, even boredom–made many women start berating their looks. “If we’re having a bad day, we often take those negative emotions out on our body, rather than directing them at what’s really troubling us, like our boss or boyfriend,” says Wood-Barcalow. In fact–and this part’s important–whether you’re unhappy in general is a much larger factor in how you feel about your body than what your body actually looks like. In our survey, thin and average-weight women were just as likely to insult themselves as overweight ones. As Wood-Barcalow recites to her patients: “It’s all about your body–and absolutely nothing about your body.”
Consider: “Let’s say you’re in a meeting and you suddenly think, Ew, my arms are huge,” says Kearney-Cooke. “Well, you’ve had those same arms all day. Why are you suddenly feeling bad about them now? Maybe it’s because you don’t think your professional ideas are being valued or you’re not fulfilled in your job. Instead of focusing on the real issue, all you can think of is hating your arms. And it becomes a vicious cycle: All the push-ups in the world won’t make you feel better, because your arms weren’t the problem to begin with.”
Silencing Your Inner “Mean Girl”
So how can you muzzle that insulting internal voice and get on with your life? “I’m way too hard on myself, but I don’t know how to lessen my negative thoughts,” admits Rebecca Illson, 25, of Birmingham, Michigan, who counted 50 of them over the course of the day. And that age-old advice to “love your body” is–let’s be honest–trite and unhelpful. “It’s not about achieving a ‘perfect’ body image. That’s not realistic,” says Wood-Barcalow. “Even the most confident women have doubts. But they’ve learned to combat those thoughts rather than allow them to take over.”
It’s worth it for not just the mental peace but your physical health as well. Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, suggests that women who obsess over their body and diet have chronically elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol (even when their life is not otherwise stressed)–and, as a result, may suffer from elevated blood pressure, lower bone density, higher amounts of unhealthy belly fat and even menstrual problems. “And this was among women in their twenties!” exclaims lead researcher Jennifer Bedford, Ph.D. “If you continue on this path, it could have a real impact on heart, bone and reproductive health 10 or 20 years down the road.”
Hope for Real Change
Not convinced you can stop the snark? Wood-Barcalow thinks you can. She recently conducted one of the few studies of young women with good body image–and was surprised to discover that 80 percent of them had struggled with negative body thoughts earlier in their life. “The fact that they were able to boost themselves up is proof that it’s possible for all women to adopt a better outlook on their body.” Here, seven ways to do just that:
1. Rewire your brain. If you know that constantly thinking negatively about your body teaches your brain to focus on the bad stuff, why not flip the script? “It’s absolutely possible to create neural pathways that favor affirming thoughts,” says Kearney-Cooke. She suggests keeping a pen handy to note things you do that make you feel good about your body. “One of my patients is doing this, and she came in so excited to tell me, ‘Look at my list now: It’s so big!’ Doing this puts positive stuff front-of-mind and starts becoming instinctive.”
2. Ask yourself: Is this really about my body? Or am I trying to distract myself from being upset with someone or something else? This is another exercise Kearney-Cooke does with women. “I had a patient who came in and lamented, ‘My body is disgusting today!’ After she stopped to think about it for a minute, she realized it wasn’t about her body at all. She admitted she got drunk the night before and was embarrassed about it. That’s the issue she needs to address–drinking too much–not the size of her butt.”
3. Exercise! Survey respondents who worked out regularly tended to report fewer harsh thoughts than those who didn’t. And it’s not just that being physically active improves your shape and health; it actually boosts your mind-set, too. One new study found that women felt better about themselves after exercising even when their bodies didn’t change, suggesting that the feeling of “That was challenging, and I did it!” played a bigger role than weight loss in boosting body image. “Hitting the gym or horseback riding makes me feel like a fitness rock star. It’s the biggest confidence booster for me,” says Margo Short, 22, of Dallas, who counted four negative thoughts–about two-thirds fewer than the average respondent. (For a workout you can do at home, click here.)
4. Say “stop!”–literally, that word–when your mind goes all negative. “Just imagine a giant screaming stop sign,” says Kearney-Cooke. Emily Catalano, 22, of Boston, who logged just three bad body thoughts, does this: “It’s funny, but it really does shut up that negative voice and clears my head.”
5. Remind yourself that obsessing about what you eat or look like doesn’t make you look any better. Bedford’s study found that young women who obsess over their diet don’t actually weigh less than those who generally eat what they want. “Some women look at a brownie and think: Ooh, that looks good, but brownies are ‘bad’. I wonder how many calories are in that? Maybe I could just have a teeny bite, and on and on. A woman with a healthier relationship with food would either eat the brownie, or not, and be done,” explains Bedford. At the end of the day, both get the same number of calories. The message: Fretting over every bite gets you nowhere. Eating mindfully–enjoying food and putting your fork down before you get too full–feels better and works better.
6. Appreciate your body for what it does, rather than how it looks. In our survey, 55 percent of women had abusive thoughts about their overall weight or size; 43 percent said they targeted specific areas (the most berated: belly and thighs). “Next time you’re, say, cursing your wobbly arms, pause and think of their purpose–is it to make you feel bad? Or to let you hug your friends and enjoy life?” says Wood-Barcalow. It may seem a bit “Kumbaya,” but this mental tweak helped many respondents think less negatively. Jenni Schaefer, 34, of Austin, Texas, who reported only two bad body thoughts on the day in question, points to her ability to “be grateful that I can walk and that my body is healthy.”
7. Finally, play up your strengths. “Comparing yourself with others doesn’t help anything,” reminds Kearney-Cooke. “Focus on making the most of what you’ve got. Hold your head a little higher and walk a little taller: That attitude is absolutely magnetic.” Hear that? You’re magnetic. And don’t forget to tell yourself so, either. We all could use a few more compliment!
If a man talked this way to a woman, it would be considered relationship abuse. So why do we spew such venom at ourselves? Brace yourself and listen to the real thoughts of women Glamour surveyed.
“Fat-ass. Lazy bitch. I hate my thighs. I hate my stomach. I hate my arms.”
“Don’t eat that. You could probably use an eating disorder.”
“Your stomach is fat. That is why you are alone.”
“Oh my God, look at her waist and legs! We’re the same height. She looks like a model. I look like a lumpy sock.”
“You’re obese. All the pretty girls are size 2.”
“I can’t imagine anyone wanting to have sex with this.”
“Scrawny and messed up.”
“You’re bigger than her. Fatty.”
“Big nose, disgusting skin, bags under eyes, ugly feet, small breasts.”
“Please don’t let my size 00 coworker notice this huge gut I’ve been cultivating.”
“You look like an Oompa-Loompa.”
“Huge legs, fat stomach, not pretty enough to attract anyone, ugly in comparison to others.”
“I look disgusting with my cottage cheese legs and stretch-mark hips. Nasty. No one would want to touch me.”
“I’m ugly. Too skinny. Look sick.”
EARTH TO WOMEN: Stop this madness! We deserve better than this. If you wouldn’t say it to a friend, don’t say it to yourself.
That’s the minuscule proportion of the women we surveyed who said they had no negative body thoughts the day they did our experiment. So what’s in their water?
“I struggled with my body image when I was younger. I’m of Bangladeshi descent, and when I was growing up, other girls were always thinner, blonder and more perfect and popular. I finally had this turning point where I actually decided to just give up. It sounds crazy, but I remember thinking I was so tired of trying to fit in and beating myself up and getting nowhere. I thought life couldn’t possibly get worse if I just gave up and decided to be myself. And you know what? I realized that there really was no change in my quality of life whether I was a little heavier or at the ‘perfect’ weight. I was still happy and successful and boys liked me and my friends loved me. Now I know what is healthy for me.”
–Tasneem Alam, 25, New York City
“I want people around me who are positive. I had a boss once who actually used to make comments about my being small (I’m 5’1” and 100 pounds), saying, ‘Why are you wearing that? It makes you look even more like a toothpick.’ It took my coworkers’ assuring me that it wasn’t about me, but about how my boss felt about herself. Now, I’d still love to be taller and curvier. But you know what? Only so many women in the world can be Victoria’s Secret models. I have to appreciate myself the way I am.”
–Karen Hudson, 31, Moore, Okla.
“I remind myself of what I have control over. For example, you can’t control the fact that things naturally get a little softer as you age, but you can feed your body healthy food and stay active. You can’t make your curly hair straight no matter how many irons you take to it, but you can have your stylist show you how to rock your natural texture. Taking ownership of your choices gives you power. I’m never going to look in the mirror and see a blond surfer girl, but neither is Christina Hendricks, Zooey Deschanel or Janelle Monae. Those are all stunning women who stand out because they aren’t trying to alter their true nature.”
–Marie-Gael Gray, 30, Athens, Ohio
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Courtesy of Glamour.