Thinking back to the first of the year, how many of us set a resolution with the intention of bettering ourselves? How many of us set goals that were focused on new exercise regimens, weight loss and/or the changing of dietary habits? A recent Nielsen survey stated that almost one-third of Americans declared their resolution was to lose a few pounds and sculpt their bodies. What if we shifted this thinking – what if at the start of each new year we moved away from weight management goals and put an end to critical thoughts about ourselves and our bodies?
To approach this idea of eliminating our criticisms in an effort to improve our self-esteem and reduce eating disordered behavior, Florida State University Professor, Pamela Keel tested a novel approach to encouraging body acceptance. Keel suggested to her participants that they consider what would truly make them happier as the new year progresses. Would this mean losing a few pounds here and there, or shedding harmful attitudes and outlooks about their bodies?
Keel and her team worked to develop body-acceptance strategies that could help individuals feel better about themselves and avoid criticism. These ideas came from an intervention program called “The Body Project.” The Body Project was initially designed to reduce the risk of developing an eating disorder as the result of poor body image and self-talk. One specific intervention from The Body Project is called “mirror-exposure.” In mirror exposure, individuals are asked to stand in front of a mirror (in various stages of undress) and comment out loud about aspects of their bodies that they like. In doing so, they’re encouraged to focus on the body part’s function or use. For example, “I really like the shape of my shoulders” or “I really appreciate the way my legs take me wherever I need to go… every day without fail, they get me out of bed, to the car, up the stairs and into the office. I don’t have to worry about walking,” Keel stated. As time passes, the individual will scan the body for higher risk body parts, like the gut and replace any automatic negative thoughts with an alternative phrase such as “I really like the shape of my legs.” The exercise encourages participants to appreciate positive aspects of the body rather than discounting the positive. This process supports a transformation of sorts in terms of how individuals evaluate themselves. This practice employs a principle known in the field of psychology as cognitive dissonance theory: acting in opposition to a negative attitude. Over time and with repetition, these more positive assertions become more natural and feel more accurate.
Keel reports that this strategy and others targeting cognitive dissonance (e.g. experiencing that nothing bad will happen if they do the opposite of what they fear, such as eating in public, bathing in a public pool, etc) have proven effective and that the benefits of such practices go beyond the improvement of body image. Once comfortable with the practice of positive self-talk and practicing cognitive dissonance, the study noted increased self-esteem, improved mood, reduction in the risk of self-injury and reduced eating disordered behaviors. Luckily, these interventions do not take much time and can be done anywhere. An online version of this program is available via The Oregon Research Institute.
While we may be a month and a half into our New Year’s resolutions, it’s not too late to turn back the hands of time and select a more productive resolution. Try body-love instead of body-change and see what effects this may have on your everyday life. Interested in learning more about self-love, healthy goal setting and risk reduction? Contact Columbus Park.