Does something about your body bug you? Maybe you believe you'd be happier if only you were thinner, taller, shorter, more muscular -- whatever.
If so, "stop trying to change your body and start changing the way you think about it," says Stephen L. Franzoi, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. "You can frustrate yourself trying to reach unattainable standards of beauty. Or you can decide to pursue reasonable goals that lead to a healthy and productive life."
Everybody has their own "body concept" -- a set of ideas about themselves and their bodies, including what they look like. People actively add to and change their body concept throughout their lives, depending on the factors that most influence them at a particular time.
They can also change their "body-esteem" -- their opinions about what they see in the mirror.
"Gender is one of the strongest influences on both body concept and body-esteem," says Dr. Franzoi. "In general, society gives men and women very different messages about their bodies, how they should look and what they should do."
Men, for example, are more often taught to think of their bodies as "instruments of action" that are strong and powerful. Most women, in contrast, tend to focus on being physically attractive and, many times, overly thin.
According to Dr. Franzoi, the sexes also tend to evaluate their bodies in different ways:
Women either love their bodies or hate them. Men feel either positive or neutral.
Women look at their bodies part by part. Men consider their bodies as a whole.
Women are concerned about looking young. Men don't mind a few wrinkles.
Low body-esteem, like low self-esteem, "can leave you feeling depressed, frustrated and socially isolated," says Dr. Franzoi.
It can also lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as eating disorders, using steroids to build more muscle, fad diets and even smoking to control weight.
Instead of punishing yourself for what you don't have or can never be, Dr. Franzoi suggests "building a positive concept of your body and yourself based on values that will last."
Here are some strategies:
Get moving. Physical activity has positive effects on your mental health in general. This easily translates into higher body-esteem. Regular exercise also can improve your posture, muscle tone and overall cardiovascular fitness -- all elements that make you look good to yourself and others.
Throw away the fashion magazines. They can make you feel bad about your looks, and they can also encourage you to abuse your body because fashionable weight standards are more stringent than what's healthy for women.
Refocus your attention on goals that are related to what you value about yourself. "Beauty is temporary. Concentrate on things like building work skills and interpersonal skills -- things you can really use," says Dr. Franzoi.
Be realistic about what you want for your body and yourself. "You can spin your wheels trying to attain an impossible and fleeting standard of beauty," he says. "It makes a lot more sense to say, 'This is who I am, this is what I can do, this is what I want to achieve.' That's when positive things start happening in your life."
© 2014 Main Line Health