Building positive body image when unrealistic comparisons are everywhere

We present the case for embracing the imperfect – because who isn’t?

Power to the imperfect

In a world bombarded with messages and images about ‘perfect’ bodies – and to celebrate Women’s Health Week – we investigate how can we help women to love their bodies.


Body image is how you think and feel about your physical self. And it's not a new concept. Throughout time, humans have been compelled to judge themselves through comparison with others.

From childhood through to adolescence and adulthood, your body shape changes. So can your body image. This can be influenced not only by your health and personality, but external factors such as media, society and culture.

In the information age, every person every day receives on average 105,000 words of communication through media, internet and mobile phones apps. Add images and graphics to that, and each person is exposed to around 34Gb (gigabytes) of information a day – enough to overload a laptop within a week.

All this information can affect body image and behaviour, and often in a negative way. Having a poor body image can diminish your self-esteem and, in turn, your self-care.

In contrast, having a healthy body image means feeling comfortable about your body, which can help you to maintain good health.

An image-driven world
Tina McCarthy, Jean Hailes ambassador and founder of the Wheel Women social and recreational women's cycling group, says social media has enabled “the everyday person” to have a voice and influence, “whereas it was previously in the hands of big companies with big advertising budgets”.

While that is often a good thing, other times it gives a platform to “the social media influencer, frequently unqualified in health but happy to spruik wellness and beauty messages to highly impressionable followers”, Ms McCarthy says. “And the problem is that what's capturing people's imagination is not important in the scheme of things.”

Trends, such as the objectification of women (for example, the ‘pornification’ of social media – where images are increasingly sexual) and celebration of skinny bodies, are worrisome developments in the world of social media and can worsen a negative body image, she says. “But it's difficult to tell women to just ‘get over it’, especially when there is so much pressure to look a certain way in this modern world.”

Snippets of the real world
Ms McCarthy says Wheel Women aims to improve women's body image by showing that women of all shapes, sizes and levels of fitness can ride a bike, and as much as suits them.

“In between the ‘snippets of perfection’ on Instagram, we are showing ‘snippets of the real world’ – and this is a powerful message,” she says.

“We are about providing a non-judgemental place for women to do what they can manage – whether that be one ride per month or one ride per week.”

Ms McCarthy is also an ambassador of This Girl Can – Victoria, a state government campaign that celebrates and supports Victorian women embracing physical activity in a way that suits the individual.

The message for both Wheel Women and This Girl Can – Victoria is ‘just go out and have a go; you don't have to be perfect”, says Ms McCarthy.

“If you are loving what you are doing, you will do more of it, and your happiness and inner glow will radiate.”

The inner self-critical voice
Jean Hailes psychologist Gillian Needleman says that body image is the voice of negative criticism.

“Unfortunately, humans are hard-wired to the primitive self-critical voice – it is an automatic thought,” Ms Needleman says.

As that voice won't ever go away, we need to challenge our self-criticism and learn how to manage it.

“If we lose the strength of conviction and belief around the self-criticism, we can reduce its power,” she says.

First and foremost, according to Ms Needleman, you need to see your body as more than just your ‘casing’ or physical appearance.

Your body is the result of many factors, such as genetics, environment, diet, exercise, type of work, if you have had children and how many. It is important to reaffirm that you are more than the sum of your physical parts.

“We are not one dimensional, yet negative body image forces us to view our body in this manner,” Ms Needleman says.

“Looking at your body and the role it plays for you as a functioning, complex entity is a great way to start to challenge the critical voice.

“The more you accept your body, the kinder you are to it – and this is beneficial for overall health and wellbeing as it will impact how you treat it.”

Modelling positive body image
The following mantras may be useful for minimising negative body image:

1. Right here, right now
Take me as I am.

I am doing my best for now and I will continue to try to maintain my health.

2. Body appreciation
My body is a complex entity that does many things.

3. Wellbeing rather than looks
My health is the most important thing

I have so much more to offer the world than my looks.

4. Self-love
My body is my friend

I accept myself as I am.

Ms Needleman says another way to gently shift the mindset is to write three gratitude statements daily, noting down what you have appreciated about your body.

She says remembering that “no one is perfect” is also a simple but important way to remind yourself to be kind to yourself.

Find more about body image here.

Has body image been a challenge for you at times during your life? Are women in particular too concerned about body image? Is the situation improving?

This article is published with the permission of Jean Hailes for Women's Health. Call 1800 JEAN HAILES (532 642) toll-free for further health information.

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    To make a comment, please register or login

    2nd Sep 2019
    Sadly, these 'messages' can sometimes result in serious problems for (often) young people, and sometimes older people as well. It's not unknown for young girls and boys to feel worthless since they do not have the 'perfect body' etc, and this can even lead to suicides and mental illness.

    On the other hand - at 70 I'm fortunate in having been a greyhound all my life (at just over 6') and usually very fit etc... and in having what is described as 'olive skin' - which I can tell you is a pain in spring (now) and Autumn, since it becomes oily as hell for a while. This has the effect of not having skin develop lines and looking 'old' and sun worn.... and I sympathise with those who don't have that.

    Me dear old ma reckons it's the North American Indian tribe (I share the blood group of one such) - but you know what family stories are ....
    2nd Sep 2019
    Anyway - all you older ladies - fear not - men such as my good self see you as you are... not for your body shape etc... a real man can see the good in your past and your present.... good bones and stuff shows even as you age...
    pedro the swift
    2nd Sep 2019
    I used to be modest before I became perfect!
    2nd Sep 2019
    The work is hard - but someone has to do it ................
    2nd Sep 2019
    i know im obese /over weight /what ever and there are some reasons for that , but what you see is what you get , if you dont like it buzz off because I dont have the time energy or strength to wait for you to grow up
    2nd Sep 2019
    'Perfect', 'imperfect'. What strange words to use when we know that everyone is different. We all do not have the same face, why should we all have the same backside? We know there are different body types, quite aside from issues like overweight, obesity, etc. Let's embrace difference for a change, instead of perfection.
    2nd Sep 2019
    All those up there look OK to me - how old are they, BTW?

    In the civilised West of the Civlised Tribes, there is a cut-off limit.... they call us the Civilised Tribes because we're easy to sneak up on...

    2nd Sep 2019
    Why women's health? Don't men suffer from poor body image? Too short, too fat, the Michelin tyre build, the bald patch, too hairy (leave the Greeks alone), too skinny... these days not enough tattoos (glurg) ... jeez, don't these clowns know that an SAS trooper in Afghanistan had no tattoos 'cause it just wasn't his 'thing'? Stop assuming they'll make you out to look like a first grade footballer or a special forces guy or something when you're 5'6" and built like a starved rat... you'll only succeed in looking like a criminal or a spiv....

    But anyway - don't let me put down your body image 'cause you've got tatts, girls and boys... what a waste of fine womanflesh...
    2nd Sep 2019
    Now that I've had the heart thing done and no pain, I'm looking for a longboard for this summer.. might go back to surfing....only 70... no shark ever bit me and lived!

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