Would you like to learn how to stop comparing your looks to others? Are you stuck in the body comparison trap?
Body comparison can be extremely painful. It can sabotage our best efforts at being present in life’s experiences.
We either experience temporarily relief (“I’m not that bad”) or disappointment (“I’m so far gone.”)
So how exactly do we move away from comparing our bodies to others? What can we do to avoid reinforcing our negative body image? And what’s the benefit of doing the work to reduce body comparison? Isn’t it easier to continue to diet and exercise our way to feeling more comfortable in our skin?
Today I’m talking about the following:
- The benefit of doing body image work to stop comparing your looks to others
2. Why weight loss isn’t the answer to body comparison
3. What mindset work can and can’t do
4. A somatic approach to comparison
5. 3 actions to help you to reduce body comparison
The Benefit of Image Work: Reducing Comparison
Body image dissatisfaction is a critical issue. This probably isn’t new to you or anyone you know, but the statistics? They are mind-blowing.
One study found that 70% of adult women report withdrawing from activities due to their body image (1), which means that you or someone you know are actively avoiding vacations, days at the beach, dinners out, parties, and other events for appearance-related reasons.
Body image concerns understandably rose during Covid-19 lockdowns. 53% of adults reported feeling worse or much worse about their bodies, and 58% of those under 18 reported a similar experience. However, body dissatisfaction has amplified overall since studies on this topic began in the 1920s. Covid-19 may have exacerbated body image concerns, but body dissatisfaction would have risen regardless of the lockdowns.
Consider that in 1973, only 23% of women and 15% of men expressed body dissatisfaction (3). These figures rose to 56% of women and 43% of men in 1997 and 83% of women and 75% of men in 2018 (4).
Only a mere 24% of American women and 22% of Canadian women feel confident in their appearance (5).
Why the Pursuit of Weight Loss Isn’t the Answer
Weight loss is so often proposed as the remedy for negative body image. If you don’t like the way you look, just change it, right?
Except that people of all sizes struggle with negative body image. Weight loss actually doesn’t improve body image according to the latest body image research.
I’d actually argue the opposite to be true: the more aggressively and more frequently you try to lose weight, the more negative your body image becomes. It’s difficult to take in and digest the value and beauty of our own bodies when we believe some bodies are better than other bodies, intentionally eat less than we need, and will only accept ourselves when we’re at our “ideal” weight.
Intentional weight loss doesn’t improve our body image. Plenty of very thin people struggle with very negative body image. Intentional weight loss, or dieting, typically leads to increasingly negative body image. Intentional weight loss can seem like a way out, but the research would suggest otherwise.
If you’d like to stop comparing your looks to others so that you can be more present in life’s meaningful moments, doing the work to accept your body — rather than distance yourself from your body — seems like your best bet. As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor and body image coach, I’m biased. But if weight loss isn’t the answer…what if body acceptance work offers something different?
Why Thinking the “Right Kind” of Thoughts Isn’t Enough
If you browse the body positive space, it can seem as though learning how to stop comparing your looks to others — and the shame or pride they induce—boils down to just having the “right kind” of thoughts about bodies.
Our culturally ingrained fear and disdain of fatness certainly play a role in our body dissatisfaction. Examining our beliefs about bodies is an important part of the process.
Embrace body positivity, accept that all bodies are good bodies, and let’s dance.
We certainly need different thoughts and beliefs to have a different relationship with our bodies.
In the land of mindset coaching and “master your thoughts” narratives, it can seem as though by changing the contents of our minds, we can change the contents of our experiences. To some degree, this is true. Body positivity transforms lives. But our thoughts aren’t necessarily within our control, and believing that all bodies are good bodies on the outside isn’t the same as cultivating a felt sense of safety inside.
In fact, mindset work only makes up about 33% of the work. I want to be clear that you can’t simply think your way out of comparing your body to others, even if you believe all bodies are valuable.
As Polyvagal Theory expert Deb Dana shares, “the mind narrates what the nervous system knows.” This is to say that our thoughts are a product of what’s going on inside of us.
Stories are how we make sense of the world around us. They provide an explanation for our felt experiences, and can often serve to minimize the overwhelming nature of our nervous system shifts (say, from a relaxed, alert state into fight-or-flight.)
Our nervous systems attune. Our brains attempt to make sense of what’s happening inside of our bodies.
Stories seek to find the light at the end of the tunnel. Understanding how this occurs from a nervous system perspective can help us to turn on that light for ourselves.
How to Stop Comparing Our Looks to Others: State vs. Story
Our thoughts are a product of our nervous system state.
When we feel safe inside — when we’re in rest-and-digest— our body image stories will reflect this.
If I feel safe and connected inside, I have the opportunity to see the beauty in everyone. I am filled with openness, kindness, and curiosity.
I am enough, I am enough, I enough. Every one of us has something special to offer.
Our thoughts tend to be more empathetic, understanding, validating, and normalizing.
When we’re in fight or flight, our thoughts tend toward anxiety, catastrophizing, avoidant, or aggressive.
If I feel threatened, I have a need to defend and protect myself. I’ll look down on others and place myself in a position of superiority as a defensive strategy. It’s a state of competitiveness, criticism, and judgment.
I have to be the best. I need to win. I need to be perfect.
When we’re in a shutdown or frozen state, we tend to be more pessimistic, apathetic, and devoid of purpose.
If I feel defeated, I believe I’ll never be good enough.
I’m flooded with shame and guilt.
In this state, I believe everyone is better than me. While this is a “story,” somatically it’s also a defensive accommodation (trauma response). It reinforces my own shame, and it serves a function. When I’m shut down, I avoid the sympathetic energy (fight, flight, fawn) that I’m uncertain of how to work with safely. I don’t believe I can make things happen for myself. I don’t believe I can change. I’m afraid of trying. I berate and criticize myself. I feel hopeless and apathetic.
I will never be good enough. Everyone is better than me. I drew the short end of the stick.
3 Actions to Help You to Stop Comparing Your Looks to Others
While body image is a complex topic that defies the scope of a single body image post, I always start with what’s going on inside.
- Notice the stories you’re telling yourself. It will give you some indication as to what nervous system state you’re in. Consider writing the tape down or journalling about it. Does it sound like fight, flight, freeze, or rest-and-digest? (Hint: it’s not rest-and-digest.)
- Address your state to start a new story. If you find yourself in fight-or-flight, grounding strategies can help to move you back into rest-and-digest. If you find yourself in freeze, you’ll need more stimulating strategies. Keep in mind that most people require the help of a safe other when it comes to nervous system regulation (coaching isn’t just for skill-building and education!)
- Edit your language. The thing about stories is that they reinforce state. If I repeatedly tell myself that I am ugly, disgusting, and stupid, I will continue to reinforce my frozen state. If I believe that I need to be the best otherwise I’m a failure, I will continue to reinforce the fight. This is the stage where mindset work can come in handy. By noticing your language and making a concerted effort to shift it, you can also help your system to move into a state of peace and calm.
We can notice our thoughts and feelings, but ultimately it’s by regulating our nervous systems that we can write a different story: one where our body size and shape doesn’t determine our worth.
What kind of body image story do you want to live and dance inside?
- Etcoff et al (2006). Beyond Stereotypes: Rebuilding the foundation of beauty beliefs. Findings of the 2005 global study
- Body Image Survey Results (Rep.). (2020). London, UK: House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee.
- Berscheid, E., Walster, E., & Bohrnstedt, G. (1973). The happy American body: A survey report. Psychology Today, 120. doi:10.1037/e400542009-006
- Garner, D. (2017, September 14). Body Image in America: Survey Results. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/199702/body-image-in-america-survey-results
- Jackson, C., & Lemay, M. (2018, February 13). Most Americans Experience Feeling Dissatisfied with How Their Body Looks from Time to Time, Including Nearly Two in Five Who Feel This Way Whenever They Look in the Mirror. Retrieved November 02, 2020, from https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/most-americans-experience-feeling-dissatisfied-with-body-looks-from-time-to-time
- Moss, R. (2016, June 21). Women’s Body Confidence Is A ‘Critical Issue’ Worldwide … Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/dove-global-body-image-report_uk_5762a6a1e4b0681487dcc470
Want out of the diet cycle for good? Here’s how we can work together:
- Work with me 1:1. Together we’ll review your current relationship with food and your body, discuss your goals for our time together, and help you to feel safe with food and your body without #dietmath.
- New to Intuitive Eating and a non-diet approach? My book, Enjoy It All: Improve Your Health and Happiness with Intuitive Eating offers a guide to finding peace with food for good.