I recently spent no less than 45 minutes scrolling through in an Instagram rabbit hole of beautiful young women who had made “amazing body transformations!” As I moved from one post to the next, I found myself wishing I was more shredded, or thinner, or as happy as these smiling women seemed to be about their brand new bodies.
I’m a body positive advocate and body image coach, and I love and accept my body, but that in no way makes me immune to triggers. This particular trigger was a super popular fitness professional’s account where women who follow her guides showcase their weight loss and are celebrated for “finally having abs.” This fitness pro herself is beautiful and very lean, and despite the fact that I have zero issue with her, her programs, or even her Instagram account, I found myself hitting “unfollow” after I realized I’d spent the better part of an hour thinking about how to get leaner again.
It has been estimated that in our modern culture, the average person views anywhere from 500 to 5000 advertisements every day—and that estimate doesn’t even include social media posts and blogs. The vast majority of these advertisements rely on portraying “ideal” situations, places, bodies, and lives, in an effort to make you want what they’re offering.
Aspirational advertising may be a pretty effective marketing strategy, but as far as you, your self-esteem, and your personal satisfaction are concerned, it’s disastrous. Regularly viewing images of “ideal” (read: Photoshopped, fake, or otherwise unrealistic) lives and bodies, inevitably leads to comparing yourself unfavorably, and both your self-esteem and satisfaction rating plummet. When it comes to your body image, being in the habit of viewing so many “perfect” bodies makes it nearly impossible to look at your own body and say: “Yep, this is just right.” 1,2,3
The problem is that no matter how smart and self-aware we are, it can be very hard to outsmart the effect that seeing these images has on the brain.
Research has shown that we subconsciously prefer the body types we see most often, which is in part why women feel worse about themselves after flipping through a fashion magazine.4 The brain responds to what we see, and in our advertising-clutter culture, we are constantly blasted with images mostly depicting society’s current “ideal” standard of beauty: tall, thin, perfectly toned, white women with perky breasts and flawless skin, which represents… well, almost nobody.
This is why the rejection of retouching and the fight for greater inclusivity and body diversity in media, marketing, magazines, and movies is so important. The human brain tends to prefer whatever we see most often, and right now what we see most often are female bodies that have very little in common with the majority of actual female bodies.5,6
The good news is that while we can’t outsmart the effect that these images can have on us, we do have some control over which ones we see. A lot of the factors that go into negative self-image are admittedly out of our control, because we live in a society that tends to hold women to impossible ideals and over-values youth and sex appeal. But when it comes to what we visually and mentally consume, often we have more of a choice than we realize.
I believe that when it comes to our health and happiness, what we put into our minds is just as important as what we put into our mouths. In most circumstances, being surrounded by unhealthy food doesn’t mean you need to eat it, right? If you’re committed to feeling good and eating well, planning ahead help ensure that you have healthy food available to eat instead. The same goes for what we consume visually and mentally. There may be ample opportunities available to view thin, toned, “beautiful” white women with perfect skin, laughing while eating salads, but that doesn’t mean we need to view them.
If you’re struggling to love and embrace your body, I encourage you to go on a visual consumption diet, scrupulously removing anything from your life that doesn’t actively help you improve the way you feel about your body. Think of it like this: If it’s not helping you get better, it is likely making things worse, or at the very least, keeping you in the same mental space. Approach absolutely everything you consume through a critical lens, asking yourself, “Does this help me love my body more?” If the answer is anything other than “hell yes!” get rid of it.
This might seem really extreme, but so is going through life hating your body.
Though the research indicates that this type of “diet” can significantly improve body image and self-esteem, personally, when I first started limiting my visual consumption, I really struggled to give up certain things I considered pleasures. Things like reading fashion magazines and beauty blogs. I didn’t really stop until I realized that even though I did get a certain amount of pleasure from the creativity and beauty of these products, I left each experience feeling worse about myself, and wanting to buy products that would help “fix” or improve me in some way. Ultimately, I decided that the fleeting pleasure wasn’t worth the lasting sense of unease.
To take it one step further, I encourage you to actively surround yourself with visual information and resources that help normalize and validate who you are and what you’re about.
When we don’t regularly see ourselves represented in our immediate surroundings or the mass media, it can leave us with the (completely untrue) sense that we are alone, weird, or even wrong for simply being us.
These days I make it a point to live my life surrounded only by activities, people, places, and social media accounts that fuel my self-acceptance and self-love, rather than those that steal from it.
Give yourself the gift of filling your environment with the qualities you embody by building a reservoir of images and opinions that support, validate, and celebrate you. You wouldn’t build a circle of friends who reject you, right? Don’t build a circle of information and images that reject you either. Instead, consciously build a circle of support, validation, and celebration for who you are. If you’re a curvy lady who lifts weights for example, you might follow every member of the women’s olympic weightlifting team on Instagram. If you’re a female gamer, you might want to join a Facebook group for women who are self-professed nerds or geeks, who think gaming is awesome.
Become the curator of your own personal art gallery, only your gallery is your mind. Be discerning and hold yourself to high standards; let your excellent taste show through. Allow in only those exhibits that will move you, support you, challenge you, lift you up, and push you in the direction you want to go.
If you want to move in the direction of learning how to love and embrace your body, fill your gallery with whatever helps you do that and be uncompromising in your willingness to remove anything that doesn’t help. You only have so many walls in your gallery, you know? If you’re trying to tackle something as important and difficult as loving and embracing your body, it’s wise to not waste any of your wall space.
How To Go On A Visual Consumption Diet
If you’re wondering what going on a visual consumption diet might look like, here are some examples:
- Unfollow social media accounts that make you feel even slightly less-than. This isn’t about judging anyone else, it’s about being your own advocate and listening to how you When it came to the fitness professional I mentioned at the beginning of this article, for example, I discovered that she triggered me into wishing I had my abs back. That’s just not something I’m interested in pursuing right now, so away she went.
- Fill your social media and blog/news feeds with body diversity and body positivity. Seriously, there are so many amazing accounts and sources out there with women just rockin’ what they’ve got. Explore, follow them, follow their friends, and see how you feel. Always view each account or resource through the lens of what’s important to you: “Is this actively helping me love and embrace myself?” If the answer is not a resounding “yes!” then it’s got to go.
- Fill your working and living spaces with images that inspire you to you love yourself. Print out photos of your heros and supporters, and display them so that you’re constantly surrounded by people who champion and accept you. Imagine how it would feel to walk into your office space and instantly be surrounded by Joan of Arc, Amelia Earhart, your adoring niece, your mom, your best friend, and that college professor who believed in you so much that you finally started believing in yourself. Consume what these people have to offer instead of visuals that don’t align with who you are and where you want your life to take you. You’ll find it a heck of a lot easier to believe that you are enough.
- Look at images of yourself! I know this one sounds a bit strange since so many women really don’t like seeing photos of themselves, but I encourage you to start taking a ton of photos and looking at yourself often! Remember, our brains start to prefer the bodies we see most often. Mercilessly delete the photos you don’t like, and keep an ever-growing stockpile of the ones you like. Selfies, body shots, candids, posed—whatever you like. Take them, store them, and look at them often.
If you’ve been training harder and harder, only to realize that you’re not getting the results you’re looking for, and you want some more guidance, we can help.
There’s nothing more heartbreaking than watching women exhaust themselves in the gym, desperate for results, only to end up spinning their wheels and not making the progress they want to make. That’s why we created our FREE handbook, Why You’re Training Hard And Not Seeing Results.
- Fardouly J, Vartanian LR. (2015) Negative comparisons about one’s appearance mediate the relationship between Facebook usage and body image concerns. Body Image. January. 12(1): 82–88 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1740144514001375
- Knobloch-Westerwick S. (2015) Thinspiration: Self-Improvement Versus Self-Evaluation Social Comparisons with Thin-Ideal Media Portrayals. Health Communication. 30(11): 1089-1101 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10410236.2014.921270
- Tiggemann M, Slater A. (2013) NetGirls: The Internet, Facebook, and body image concern in adolescent girls. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 46(6): 630–633 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/eat.22141/abstract
- Boothroyd LG, Tovée MJ, Pollet TV (2012) Visual Diet versus Associative Learning as Mechanisms of Change in Body Size Preferences. PLoS ONE 7(11): e48691. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0048691
- Winkler C, Rhodes G. (2005) Perceptual adaptation affects attractiveness of female bodies. British Journal of Psychology, 96: 141–154. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1348/000712605X36343/abstract
- Tovée M, Swami V, Furnham A, Mangalparsad R. (2006) Changing perceptions of attractiveness as observers are exposed to a different culture. Evolution and Human Behavior. 27(6): 443-456 http://www.ehbonline.org/article/S1090-5138(06)00058-4/abstract