Healthy Buffs: Ask the Expert: Developing a positive body image

The images we see in the media often tell only one story about what our bodies should look like, what they should be dressed in, and how we should feel about them. However, there are many factors that can influence a person’s body image. Dr. Dana Udall, a psychologist at Counseling and Psychiatric Services and the coordinator of Eating Disorder Services, explains what body image is, how it manifests in our day-to-day lives and how we can promote positive body image in ourselves, peers, and society.

What is body image?

Body image is the way we see our physical body and how we imagine it looks to others. People with positive body image generally feel comfortable and confident in their bodies, while people with negative body image may struggle to accept their natural size and shape, and feel ashamed, anxious or awkward about their bodies. Body image doesn’t always align with reality, which means we may view our bodies in a distorted and inaccurate way.

What influences body image?

Many things influence our perception of our bodies including our family, friends, peers, culture and the media.

Families often exert a lot of influence on body image, and can do so from an early age. For example, the way a parent or family member talks about his or her own body, or the bodies of others, can be internalized and reflected in a child’s own body image down the road.

Coming to college can be a culture shock, especially in a town like Boulder, where it’s common for people to be very active. Feeling like you don’t fit in with the norm can feel very isolating. For many, college is also the first time you’re surrounded only by peers, making it easier to compare academic and social performance, body size and shape, and eating and exercise habits. It’s natural for humans to compare ourselves to others, but if we’re doing it too frequently, or using unrealistic standards as the basis of comparison, self-esteem and body image can suffer.

How do we develop a positive body image?

Being aware of the media’s influence, and the messages that permeate our culture regarding how we should look, is a good place to start. By paying attention to these messages, we can think critically about what we’re being taught not only about weight, but also race, class, gender and sexual orientation. Once we’re aware of these messages, we can come to understand how they impact self-evaluation, and we can consciously choose to reject them.

Being critical of our use of social media is also important. It’s common for people to post highlights or idealized versions of their lives, which don’t necessarily reflect their day-to-day reality. Taking regular breaks from social media to spend time with like-minded friends can provide community and support around common values, and can ground us in reality. Incorporating activities like meditation, yoga and breathing exercises are great ways to practice self-care and increase feelings of wellbeing.

What are 6 things you can do right now?

  1. Keep a top-10 list of things you like about yourself, unrelated to your appearance. Read and add to it often.
  2. See yourself as a whole person instead of the sum of your body parts.
  3. Appreciate all your body can do for you, like breathing and laughing.
  4. Surround yourself with positive people. It’s easier to feel good around those who like you as you are.
  5. Instead of reflecting inward and worrying about your body, turn your energy outward to help others.
  6. Try to replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations.

About the Expert

Dana Udall with the University of Colorado Boulder. (Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado)
Dana Udall with the University of Colorado Boulder. (Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado)

Udall holds a PhD from the University of Southern California and has extensive experience in the area of eating disorders and body image. She trained at the Renfrew Center and Belmont Behavioral Health before becoming a senior staff psychologist at the Eating Disorders Treatment Center in Albuquerque, NM. In addition, Udall maintained a private practice for nearly a decade in which she specialized in eating disorders, adolescent development and the coming out process for GLBTQ youth.

Udall joined CAPS after training and working in various university counseling centers, including the University of Southern California, Mt. Saint Mary’s College, and the University of Pennsylvania, where she completed a pre-doctoral internship and post-doctoral fellowship before serving as an Interim Staff Psychologist. From there she went on to La Salle University, where she worked as a staff psychologist. Udall is highly collaborative in her work, and seeks to empower students to make positive and enduring change in their lives.

For more information, visit http://www.colorado.edu/counseling