7 Expert Strategies For Improving Your Body Image

It’s 8:52 a.m., which means I should already be well on my way towards New York City's Financial District for my glossy-magazine job. Instead, after panicking for the better part of an hour and dumping half of my closet on the floor, I call in sick. With tears streaming down my face, I settle into my bed with my laptop. I’ll just work from home.

This is the reality of body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD, which approximately one in 50 people in the U.S. suffers from. Those of us with BDD have so much trouble controlling negative thoughts about our appearances that it interferes with our daily lives.

But you don’t have to have BDD to struggle with body image issues. In fact, according to a Refinery29 survey of 1,100 female readers, more than half (51%) of respondents said they have avoided activities because they felt self-conscious about their bodies. “I do think that everyone has moments where they go, I don’t like this part of my body as much,” says Gail Saltz, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell School of Medicine.

Likewise, Bethany Kassar, senior clinical director at Summit Behavioral Health Center (where she counsels many BDD patients) says, “Most people are walking around with some body dysmorphic thoughts in their head.”

And whether you have BDD like me or are just not feeling how your hair came out today, these feelings are valid and real. And as much as you want to love your body, it can be difficult to overcome these feelings in the moment. To that end, I spoke with several experts to find out just how to cultivate some self-love. Here are a few tricks you can use during your most anxious times.

Illustrated by Norah Stone.
Set A Get-Dressed Timer

Have trouble getting out the door in the morning? It’s a common symptom of BDD — but also a common reality with our ever-increasing focus on appearance, especially through social media.

“Sometimes, I [practice] a behavior modification where I’ll say, ‘Okay, you have 15 minutes to get dressed, and once that timer goes off after 15 minutes, you have to commit to something to wear,’ and so they may change their clothes several times, but once the timer’s gone off, it’s stopping the thought and the action,” says Kelly Kitely, LCSW, a women’s health psychotherapist in Chicago. Not happy with your outfit? Too bad. Try something else that makes you feel great — like an awesome pair of earrings or a bold red lipstick, Kitely suggests.
Illustrated by Norah Stone.
Likewise, Limit Mirror Time (& Types)

Looking in the mirror can be hard if you’re not feeling your best. Say you’ve got a big zit and you can’t stop focusing on it. Or maybe it’s just that you think your eyebrows are uneven. Regardless, make sure you use your same get-dressed timer in front of the mirror when applying skin and hair products or makeup.

Also, make sure to skip the magnifying mirror; it paints a completely inaccurate picture, says Katharine Phillips, MD, director of the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Program at Rhode Island Hospital. And “try to skip checks throughout the day if you’re doing things like zeroing in on a little zit or your hair. If you don’t really need to look in the mirror those extra times during the day, don’t,” says Dr. Phillips. “The longer you start looking in the mirror and the closer you get, the more dissatisfied you get,” she adds.

And if you’re worried that your boss is staring at that hair frizz? Remember what Kitely says: “No one thinks about ourselves as much as we do.”
Illustrated by Norah Stone.
Outbid Yourself

When I say something negative about myself, it’s usually something about my stomach, boobs, or general size. But every time you're about to restate that one negative thing, retrain yourself to say (or even better, write down) five positive things about yourself — physical appearance not included.

“You could replace it with [things like] ‘I’m smart’ and ‘I’m a good friend,’” says Kitely. Keeping a journal of these things — or a mere mental checklist — will help reinforce positive thinking patterns. “Focus on things that have at least as much, if not more, value,” says Dr. Saltz. You can also try a diary app, such as My Wonderful Days, which lets you add kitschy mood stickers — or just keep it simple by jotting everything down in your iPhone’s notepad.
Illustrated by Norah Stone.
Find A Mantra — But The Right Mantra

This is a tricky one; mantras and positive affirmations have been shown to have mixed success. An April 2015 study in Psychological Science, for example, found that positive affirmations can have negative effects. “Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but [they] backfire for the very people who need them the most," the authors write in the paper. Dr. Phillips agrees, saying, “Simply trying to tell yourself you look great probably isn’t going to help.”

What can work, though, is finding a mantra for yourself that’s not about your physical appearance or the body part you hate: something like, "I am positive energy," or my personal favorite, "Inhale the good stuff, exhale the bullshit."

While this may not be a unanimously agreed-upon strategy, Kitely is a fan of the practice. “I have my clients post a note on their mirror, in the bathroom, when they’re getting dressed,” she says. “[Or] even next to their nightstands, so that when they first wake up in the morning, they see that, and that’s the touchstone for the next transition, getting ready — wherever triggers may be.”

I use the mantra method, but if you feel like it’s backfiring for you, disengage immediately and try a different exercise.
Illustrated by Norah Stone.
Chart Out Your Self-Esteem

Feeling really down? Grab a pen and paper and sketch out a circle that you can split up into a pie chart, recommends Dr. Phillips. Now, fill out your pie using different attributes you like about yourself.

Focus on non-physical aspects: You’re a hard worker, a good friend, a great partner, etc. In the end, you'll have a visual representation of what makes you great to stash in your day planner or just keep in mind.
Illustrated by Norah Stone.
Remind Yourself: You're Not Clairvoyant

Take a step back and think about any “forecasting” you might be doing. Example: Ugh, I’m going to have a terrible time at the party tonight, because I feel and look so ugly. Now, become hyper-aware of that prediction. Marinate in the thought; then, ask yourself, Am I a fortune teller? Can I actually see the future? Because unless you’re that chick from Long Island Medium, you can't predict what's going to happen.

Another power you don't possess is mind-reading. And feeling like everyone is staring and thinking about how you look is another very real, but totally unfounded anxiety that a lot of people deal with. “The idea that everyone’s looking at the [body part] you don’t like is called a cognitive error,” says Dr. Phillips. “You’re assuming that you know what other people are thinking, or because you’re thinking something, everyone must be thinking that, too.” But you’re probably wrong — and this is one time that’s a good thing.
Illustrated by Norah Stone.
Finally, Ask Yourself: What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

This thought experiment involves mindfulness, and it’s actually useful for any kind of anxiety, because it forces you to take a rational approach. When you really think about the worst that could happen, you’ll find that, more often than not, the worst isn’t that bad — especially when it comes to your self-image concerns.

When you feel like your thighs look gigantic or you can’t go out because of your nose, stop and ask yourself this very question. Because having “big thighs” in your jeans is not really a limiting factor when it comes to living your life.

I get the feeling. Sometimes, I actually have to use this technique when I think my rib fat (yes, I’ve made that a thing) is showing in a light-colored blouse. (Not that I’m being specific or anything.) And I have asked myself, What’s the worst that can happen if I go out in this white silk blouse? Will I die? No, definitely not. I may have sweat marks (especially if it’s summer), but nothing about my self-coined “rib fat” is really going to change my day. Maybe I will feel a little icky for a few hours, but hey, look at that! My 15 minutes in front of the mirror is up! Time to move on.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.