6 ways to help overcome your negative body image

Health Agenda

6 ways to help overcome your negative body image 

Updated January 2023 | 7 min read
Expert contributors Dr Ranjani Utpala, clinical psychologist, Butterfly Foundation
Words by Kerry McCarthy and Bonnie Bayley

Negative body image can affect your mental health. Learn how to give your body image a boost, for a healthier mindset and a happier life.

When was the last time you paid someone a compliment? How often do you gush over a friend’s new haircut, or tell a partner how beautiful or handsome they look?

And when was the last time you did that for yourself? Have you ever said anything nice about your body or noticed all the amazing stuff it can do?

Our body image – the way in which we see ourselves and our bodies – comes in part from the thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves.

Body image has almost nothing to do with what we look like, but everything to do with how we feel. And the way we see our bodies can be very different from reality.

Here are six ways you can improve your negative body image and learn how to talk to yourself with as much compassion and kindness as you do to others.

1. Appreciate your body for what it can do

One of the ways to have a better body image is to pay attention to all of the incredible things your body is capable of, says clinical psychologist Dr Ranjani Utpala, clinical director at  Butterfly Foundation, the national charity for Australians experiencing body image issues and eating disorders.

“Appreciating what your body can do, rather than focusing on what it looks like, is a good way to improve the way you perceive your body,” says Dr Utpala. “I do this myself when I go for a walk and get out into nature. I literally say, ‘Thank you, body, for bringing me here to see and appreciate all of this.’”

For Kirsty Welsh, former personal trainer, learning to appreciate her body has been a massive part of her recovery from injury and poor body image.

Kirsty, who is now a wellbeing coach and yoga instructor, says she used to train at high intensity seven days a week. “I’d set high expectations on myself to be the fittest, the strongest, and always three days away from being ready for a photo shoot,” she says.

Overtraining resulted in her getting chronic fatigue syndrome, plus a hip and shoulder injury and an identity shake-up that took two years to recover from. “One of the most powerful changes I made was realising that my legs and body weren’t there to be looked at by people, they were there for me to enjoy my life, so any time I saw myself in the mirror I’d stop and appreciate the function of that part of myself,” she says. “Once you start to respect yourself in that way, rather than disrespect yourself, you start to look after yourself better.”

Daily practice: Once a day, write down something your body did, or enabled you to do, that made you feel good. It doesn’t have to be something extreme – we aren’t all marathon runners. Think about things like going for a walk with a friend, gardening, playing with your kids or taking part in a sport you enjoy. Read the list back to yourself as it grows, as a reminder of all the things your body allows you to do.

2. Consider the effect of social media

It’s hard to avoid the flood of images of bodies we’re exposed to every day through the media – both traditional and social. Diet culture and so-called ‘healthy’ products can trick us into thinking we can all look like a supermodel if we just buy into whatever it is they’re selling.

It doesn’t take much exposure to social media for the negative body image impacts to kick in. New research from Griffith University has found that watching just seven minutes of beauty content on TikTok or Instagram causes young people to experience shame and anxiety about their appearance.

When trying to improve your body image, Dr Utpala recommends getting media savvy and thinking about the whole picture – not just the picture of the model. “First, how much has this image been modified and edited? Secondly, is the person in the image trying to sell something? What are we being asked to buy into so that we too can look like that? Also, consider who the person is. Maybe they’re a trainer who works out five hours a day and is literally paid to look like that," she says.

Daily practice: Curate your social-media exposure, making sure your feed is full of images and accounts that make you feel good. Try limiting your exposure to unhelpful or unrealistic images that can negatively impact your body image. The more images we see of unattainable bodies, the more likely we are to compare ourselves to them and feel worse about our body. “It’s important to unfollow accounts that don’t make you feel good and instead follow accounts that actually help us learn about ourselves,” says Kirsty.

3. Take time for mindfulness

Low mood or anxiety has been linked to negative body image, and the worse you feel about yourself, the lower your mood may become. Research shows that things like getting good-quality sleep, eating balanced meals, doing regular exercise, and avoiding drugs and alcohol can all improve our overall mood and how we feel.

“Getting a good night’s sleep or going for a walk isn’t going to change your body image,” says Dr Utpala. “But nurturing your whole self and practising body kindness, acceptance and care is a way of telling your body that you accept and appreciate it.”

Daily practice: Take some time every day to do something that makes your body and mind feel good.

If you only have 10 minutes, try a mindfulness meditation exercise. “Meditation is one of the best things I’ve got into,” says Kirsty. “You start to develop a relationship with yourself and learn about what you want and value.”

If you have 30 minutes to spare, try a longer meditation (like a yoga nidra), or lie down and have a quick nap.

If you have an hour, go for a walk somewhere with a nice view. Bonus points if you go for a nature stroll: research published in the journal Body Image shows spending time in a natural environment results in significantly higher body appreciation.

Whatever your preferred feel-good activity, by dedicating time to rejuvenating your body and mind, you’re sending a message to yourself that your whole self is worth looking after and caring for.

4. Practise positive self-talk

Think about how you talk to your best friend or child, versus how your inner voice talks to you. We regularly use tone and language on ourselves that we would never dream of using with other people we love. If your inner voice is bad-mouthing you and your body, your body image will be affected.

“If you notice that your self-talk is negative, try and change that,” says Dr Utpala. “Stand up to the bully within you and say, ‘Stop it. My body doesn’t need that’. Changing your mindset in how you talk to, and judge, yourself can help improve body image.”

Regularly practising self-compassion – that is, being kind and caring towards yourself rather than harshly judgemental – can act like a powerful remedy to avoiding low self-esteem, with a review of 28 studies finding it helps protect against poor body image and disordered eating.

Daily practice: Every morning take a few seconds to look in the mirror and say something nice to yourself. Some people prefer mantras or affirmations, like “I am enough”. Or choose something about your body that you're grateful for and vocalise it. Saying “I’m grateful for my legs because they help me go for a run” or “I‘m proud of my body because it grew my babies” will help you start your day with a positive view of your body.

5. Stop trying to see your body as a problem

“I encourage people to remember that their bodies are not a problem to fix,” says Dr Utpala. “Appreciating, respecting and accepting our bodies for what they can do, and focusing on skills, talents, qualities and values, can all help improve body image.”

Daily practice: Try keeping a gratitude journal and writing down the things in life that you value and that bring you joy, like spending time with friends or family, taking a pet for a walk, reading a great book, watching a funny movie, etc. Being able to see in print all the good things in your life can help improve your mood and counter negative thoughts.

6. Get help for your negative body image

While the exercises above are a good place to start, sometimes you might need extra help.

Warning signs your body image is tipping into an unmanageable issue for which you might need to reach out to chat to someone, include:

  • obsessively thinking about your body and appearance
  • frequently comparing your appearance with other people
  • changes to your eating and exercise behaviours (like increased exercise or restricting food)
  • withdrawing from people in your life or the things you enjoy
  • other mental health concerns like depression or anxiety and risky and harmful behaviours, like smoking or abusing substances.

Frequent weighing or ‘checking’ yourself in the mirror can also be signs you’re battling poor body image.

“Often people wait until a problem gets really bad before they reach out for professional help,” says Dr Utpala. “But we know that early intervention leads to better outcomes and I would encourage anyone struggling with these issues to ask for help early.”

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

To speak to someone about problems with body image, call the Butterfly National Helpline on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673).

Seeking help

We’re also here to help. To support members with faster, easier access to qualified mental health professionals, we’re offering a free telehealth HealthyMinds Check-in with a PSYCH2U psychologist for eligible members*. Whether you’re looking for support for yourself or your loved ones, our unique range of mental health and wellbeing programs can help you understand and improve mental health challenges such as stress, anxiety and depression.


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