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The Scarleteen Do-It

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If you're feeling low about your body and how it looks, and are thinking about, or already doing, some drastic things to try and change it, know you're not alone. But what you also need to know is that you can get to a better place with your body and how you feel about it without doing anything that keeps you feeling just as bad or makes you feel even worse, or puts your physical or mental health at risk. Getting to our own best bodies -- finding out what and how they are and can be, and finding them by seeing them clearly and accepting them as they uniquely are -- is doable for all of us just by doing some basic things that are good for us, inside and out.

How we feel about our bodies and in our bodies can have a big impact on our sexuality, our sex lives as well as our whole sense of self. It's also common to feel uncomfortable a body during times of life when it's been changing a lot or when everyone seems to be paying it a lot of (or what we feel is not enough) sexual attention. So, it's not surprising that, as a sexuality resource for young people, we hear from many folks feeling unhappy about their body shape and size and how their bodies look. Worries about being too big or too small, too thin or too thick, or having this part or that part be the "wrong" size, shape, color or kind loom large. These worries and issues can feel even bigger when dating or in a sexual relationship, or when you're thinking about starting either or both of those things. However we go about it, sex and sexuality is often an emotionally vulnerable place, and if and when we feel insecure about or uncomfortable in our own skin, it's not a shocker we can feel all the more so when we are or may be sharing it with someone else.

Rather than asking about how to be sure they're healthy or how to feel better about and in their bodies, users often ask us about fad diets to lose weight, exercise for the sole purpose of getting bigger or smaller, or surgery to change a given part they feel isn't perfect. Almost everywhere we look in our world, those are the kinds of things pushed, prodded and sold as the sole solutions to feeling bad about and in our bodies, so they might seem like our only options. But they're not, and they're usually not the best options. Diets, exercise solely to try and change appearance or cosmetic surgeries have been shown again and again not to create the results many people seek from them, especially improved body image and self-esteem. Sometimes those things can also create new health problems or body issues, too: cosmetic or weight loss surgery, overexercise, dieting or diet medications all can pose major health risks and have ill effects.

We want to help support our readers in good health and a positive body image as best we can, with things that most often truly support both for most people. We want everyone to feel as good as they can in and about their bodies, both with how they look and how they feel: we know both of those things are really important, and that getting to that place is rarely achieved by being (or trying to be) a certain clothing size, weight or having a body part that looks only one given way we decide is ideal.

The good news is improved health, fitness and better body image are possible for people of all shapes, sizes and abilities, for people whose bodies aren't all the same in looks or function. No matter what you weigh, or what size or shape this part or that one is, or how your unique body works or doesn't, you can probably feel better in your body and about your body with some relatively simple helps and habits and do so all while accepting yourself more and more, rather than less and less. You can also probably do all that without doing anything that feels like torture, making yourself sick, beating up on yourself in any way, spending a pile of cash or doing anything that might make you feel better in one way while giving you something new to feel bad about, like failing to follow a diet, developing a health condition due to iffy attempts at body changes, or never becoming the size you think you should be.

Most of the things that truly help all of us feel better in and about our bodies are also -- yippee! -- things that feel good all by themselves, and things that benefit our physical and mental health right now and for the rest of our lives.

Eat well and work to create a better relationship with food.

Know that saying “you are what you eat”? It may not be entirely true, but what you eat has a big impact on how you look and feel in your body. Eating foods that are good for you and eating enough of them are big steps towards a healthy body.

Yep, you heard that right: part of eating well in your teens and early twenties includes making sure you're eating enough, rather than too much. Your body is doing a lot of growing and changing, and it needs calories and nutrients to do that – more calories than almost any other time in your life. While most folks past their twenties generally need less than 2000 calories per day, young people need around 2200 at a minimum, and may even need over 3000 depending on your body type, size and your level of daily activity. You’re supposed to be gaining some mass at this time in your life; some young people confuse normal body maturation and changes for something being the matter. How your body looked at 13 or 14 isn't going to be how it looks as you grow: nothing is wrong when it starts to look different, including weight gain or body proportion changes. Right now, you've got bones and muscles and a lot of other important parts of you that are all probably still developing, and they need solid nutritional support. Not eating enough or eating poorly now can also make a real mess of your metabolism now and long-term, which is the last thing you want if you want to be able to maintain your own healthy weight. So when you're hungry? Eat something. Usually our bodies tell us they're hungry because they earnestly need food.

As well as getting enough food, most of what you eat should be food that's healthy: most people can eat as much of the good stuff as they want to and stay fit as fiddles, especially when they're also being active. What's the good stuff? Fruits and veggies, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats and oils. Less than 10% of young people are eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables, while most are eating a lot of salt and sugar -- which we all need to try and limit -- and that's big, bad news when it comes to healthy bodies and brains that work as well as they can. Protein, iron and calcium are especially important for your muscle and bone development, so you want to do your best to eat enough of those every day, too. If you have restrictions with what you eat (like food allergies or sensitivities, or being vegan or vegetarian), you might just have to do some research to be sure the way you're eating is giving you what you need: it's totally possible to do that with different ways of eating, it just usually involves some homework and creativity. Worried you might not be getting everything you need? A daily multivitamin is always a good idea, and you can always check in with a healthcare and/or nutrition professional if you’re not sure that you’re eating well or would like some help in learning how to do that.

A couple of other nutrition helps: eat breakfast. We know, you’ve heard that a million times before, but it's important. Having a good meal in the morning has a big impact on how we feel for the rest of the day and how our body and mind stays working well every day. It's also often easier to eat well throughout the day when we started it by eating and eating well. If you find it hard to eat in the morning, try small things that can include important food groups as possible. Fruit and protein smoothies or a piece of fruit and a high-fiber muffin or slice of whole-grain bread are a couple easy ways to make a healthy breakfast happen on the fly. Snacks are good, too, as is dividing meals during the day into more frequent, smaller meals rather than just a couple giant plates of food.


Not sure what some of those things mean, like a whole grain, good fat or lean protein? Omnivores can check this link to get started, or if you're vegan or vegetarian, this is a goodie to look at.

Ditch the dieting. It's very, very well-documented that the primary reason the diet industry is so rich is because it fails people by design. People put tons of money into diet programs, special diet foods and supplements and pills every year, and every year don't see or keep any of the results they promise. It's a great deal for the diet industry; it's a crap deal for most people who buy into it most of the time.

If you think you need to radically change your eating or body size, talk to a healthcare professional first: don’t launch into any kind of weight-loss program or diet without sound advice from a doctor or nutritionist. Many diets don't include the nutrients everyone needs, and aren’t healthy or sound, especially for young people for whom diets can cause the most short and long-term problems. Not only do they most often not result in permanent weight changes, they can actually make it tougher for you to be at and maintain our own healthy weight and to stay healthy on the whole.

Sometimes when people can't stop gaining or losing weight, are endlessly feeling hungry or don't have an appetite at all; feel tired, depressed, brain-foggy or are having things like constant joint or muscle pain, it's because of a health condition, not because of eating too much or eating poorly or not getting enough exercise. For example, conditions like hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, liver disease, some auto-immune diseases, fibromyalgia, PCOS, and even food allergies or sensitivities can all influence our eating and the way our body processes food, our weight or shape and how we feel about our bodies. This is another huge reason to see your doctor instead of Jenny Craig. If you feel your body isn't working like it should, get checked out. While so much of how our bodies look is genetic and/or about the way we take care of ourselves, sometimes they're also influenced by health issues or conditions it's important to know we have and take care of.

Just like some people have unhealthy relationships with partners, many people have an unhealthy relationship with food. How we feel about food and eating plays a big part in how we eat. If we feel like food is our enemy, it’s harder to eat the foods that are best for us, eat the amount of food we need, and moderate foods that aren't so great for us – neither binging on them with a heaping side dish of guilt, nor driving ourselves bananas trying to never eat them. Food and eating aren't evil, bad or a source of our ultimate downfall: food nurtures us, physically and emotionally, keeps us healthy, gives us the energy and focus to do the things we love to do, and is one of the things in life that can be a source of sensory pleasure. When we get down with that, it’s a lot easier to enjoy eating, to be thoughtful and grateful about it, and to savor the food we have, rather than resenting it and interacting with it poorly. For instance, maybe one of your favorite foods is something seriously sugary or greasy. That doesn't mean you have to give it a death sentence or consider it your mortal enemy: it just means you recognize it's not so smart to eat it all the time and instead eat it only now and then, and when you do, you let yourself enjoy it for the luxury it is, rather than making yourself feel awful about it, which puts you and food in a toxic relationship. It's okay to eat things that aren't so great for us now and then: it's all about striking a balance, both in how and what we eat, and how we think about eating.

If you're worried you have an unhealthy relationship with food, whether that's about disordered eating like anorexia or bulimia, putting a lot of unrealistic limitations on what you eat, or just feeling like you and food are mortal enemies, talk to someone who can help. Eating habits are a lot easier to change before we've been really set in them for decades, so now is a great time in your life to make positive changes not just with how you eat, but how you think and feel about it. It'll be way harder to change that later, especially if you've also developed health problems from disordered eating you've got to deal with at the same time.

Get a move on!

One of the biggest lies of the diet industry is that dieting is the way to change how your body feels and how you feel in it. But when you combine basic, sensible ways of eating with exercise, you're far more likely to feel, see and experience positive body changes than you are by restricting lots of foods or obsessing about calories. Exercise also does a great job of supporting healthy eating: when we're active, we tend to crave more of the good stuff than the things that don't make for sound, core nutrition. Being active can also help us respond more intuitively to what our bodies really want and need when it comes to food and other basic ways of caring for yourselves. It's kind of like regular physical activity can make us better able to hear our bodies' healthiest and most honest messages.

You probably already realize how physical activity benefits your body – it strengthens muscles and bones, helps you eat better, increases your energy levels, helps you get a good night’s sleep, can prevent illness and is one of the best things you can do to assure your body gets and stays at its unique healthy size and function – but it’s great for your mind, too. Exercise plays a big part in how well we manage stress, in our moods, including managing depression and anxiety, and in how clearly we think.

We're not suggesting you live on the treadmill every day or join a sports team if those aren't your bag. Any kind of regular physical activity is good for us. How much of it any of us need is fairly individual, as is what we can handle at a given time, but somewhere in the neighborhood of three hours each week (or 30 minutes a day) can be a good minimum to aim for.

Ideally, whatever physical activities you choose will involve build strength, increase flexibility and stamina, elevate your mood, help clear your head and will feel good to you while you're doing it. This is one of the ways in which having fun is really what's best for you. Choose activities you like doing and that feel good while you're doing them, rather than things you loathe or feel pain or discomfort with. If you're doing something where you work up a sweat, feel your heartrate pumping, get some stretching in and are having a good time, your form of exercise is probably fitting all of those bills.


We feel the need as a sexuality site to mention that while sex can be fun, is somewhat cardiovascular, often requires some flexibility and does work some muscles, it's a pretty lousy exercise plan, especially since the workout-y bits often only last a few minutes in any given sex session. While other exercise can tend to make sex more fun and enjoyable -- like by helping us feel better in our bodies and better about them, increasing stamina, aiding nervous system function so we feel things more acutely, for instance -- sex alone isn't going to do the trick here. Sorry!

Not sure you have anything physical you enjoy doing? Try and think a little more creatively and expand your horizons. Using exercise machines, taking aerobics classes at a gym or team sports are great ways to get exercise, but they're definitely not the only ways. Have a family dog? They’d probably appreciate going for a good long walk with you each morning. If the weather’s nice, get together with some friends to play softball or kickball: it's much more fun as a mellow social activity than it usually was in gym class. Keep your eye to the ground for local flash-mobs, which usually involve physical activity AND silly shenanigans (bonus!), or for walks or runs for causes you care about. Check out community centers to see if they have a gym or pool or offer classes like dance or martial arts. If going on your own feels intimidating, recruit a friend. Looking for something to do on the weekend? See if there are ice or roller rinks nearby, get a bunch of people together and fit in some exercise and some good chuckles as plenty of you will probably be falling all over the place. More of an introvert? There are plenty of ways to have fun being active alone: yoga is great for that (and also can be done in small spaces, a real plus for students), or you could get a hula-hoop or heavy bag and teach yourself to hoop or box, use a Wii or other computer tool to play exergames right in your room. Another easy trick to get more active is to walk, ride a bike or skate for transportation instead of driving or taking the train or bus.

If it's been a while since you've been active, start slow and be gentle. A little activity can feel like a ton when you've been on your butt for a while; overdoing it is rough on your body and also can feel so awful you won't feel motivated to keep it up. Activity in water can be a good choice for people who haven't been active, who are recovering from illness or who have physical disability: it's easy on joints, but it also works muscles more than it feels like it does. Again, if you need to, ask for help: you can always talk to a healthcare professional or trainer to get help getting started or restarted with exercise in ways that will work for you.

Three hours a week might sound like a lot at first, but when you find a few things you enjoy doing, it probably won’t feel like much at all. And once you get in the habit, you'll probably find you crave the activity and look more and more forward to it over time. Our bodies tend to love to move, so even at times in life when we forget that, they tend to quickly remember.

Feed Your Need for Zzzzs.

Sleep is especially important when you’re a young person: at this point in life you usually need between 8 and 10 hours of solid rest every night, no kidding. Being deprived of sleep can have serious consequences for both your body and mind. Everyone knows not sleeping enough or sleeping well can make us feel cranky and sluggish, but not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can make you more prone to depression and anxiety, affect your memory, decrease your immune system function (so you get sick more easily), and can contribute to things like headaches – it can even slow down the healing of injuries. If you're concerned about your weight, know that sleep is also linked to that, too: without enough rest, our metabolism doesn't work as well.

It can be hard to get the amount of sleep your body needs sometimes, especially with all the things you have pack into a day, but there are some easy things you can do to help yourself get the sleep you need and to sleep well. Cutting back on caffeine is a biggie. There are some folks (including both of us writing this piece) who just can’t cope without that first cup of coffee in the morning, or a daily can of soda, but try and keep caffeine intake to a reasonable amount, and do your best not to have any in the late afternoon or evening. It can keep you awake when you actually DO want to go to sleep, which means you need more caffeine the next day and it all turns into a vicious cycle.

Keeping a fairly regular sleep schedule can also help: that means trying to go to bed and wake up at around the same time every day, including on weekends. Getting into a pattern will help you fall asleep more easily when you do go to bed, because your body will be accustomed to doing so at that particular time. People are very much creatures of habit, even when we feel like we don't need to be: our bodies often crave routines. Another part of establishing a sound sleep routine is doing something relaxing before bed – it acts as a kind of cue to your body that it should start slowing down and get ready for sleep. If you’re used to watching TV or using the computer at night, turn it off at least a couple of hours before bed. Same goes for exercise – even though regular exercise can really help in terms of getting a good sleep, make sure you’re not working out and then trying to fall asleep immediately afterwards. You might try swapping out some of those things with mellower fare: journaling or letter-writing, reading, meditating, a warm bath or shower or some slow, gentle stretches. Plenty of people masturbate before sleeping to wind down, so if that works for you, it's all good.

Become a drinker.

The body is mostly made up of water, but we lose a lot of it on a regular basis, so it needs to constantly be replaced. Nearly every single part of the body from your skin to your brain needs water to function well: if you’re dehydrated, you’re not likely going to feel or look your best. Dehydration has similar effects on the body as not getting enough sleep or not eating well: it can impact good memory and moods, make you tired, cause you to retain water and feel (and look) bloated, can make PMS symptoms worse and urinary tract infections more likely. Water is another big player in a healthy metabolism, too. Most people probably need around two liters every day, but that can vary depending on the person. Your best bet is to learn to recognize when you feel thirsty, and whenever you are, every time you are, always take some water in.

Getting enough water is pretty easy once you get into the habit, and you don’t need to drink just water, either – fruit juice, herbal teas and even milks can be good ways to hydrate, even though ideally, you want to be drinking more water than other fluids. Eating foods with a lot of water in them like fresh fruits and vegetables is another way to get some of your daily water. If possible, carry around a water bottle so you can refill it throughout the day and have water always available. Drink water with meals instead of soda, which often dehydrates rather than hydrating. If you miss the fizz of soda, drinking fizzy/seltzer water may scratch that itch. If you don't like the taste of plain water, try adding lemon, mint, cucumber or berries in your water pitcher.

Ditch or moderate the body-baddies.

You know this one already: with things we may do or take into our bodies that are really quite crap for us, we want to ideally avoid them, or at a minimum, do them in serious moderation. What kinds of things are we talking about? Booze (especially binge drinking), smoking, recreational drugs, sex without sound safety practices to reduce your risks of infections, diseases and injury (and pregnancy if you know you or your body aren't up for that), junk food, skipping meals, staying up all night, and just generally not taking the best care of yourself you can.

This isn't about value judgments around any of those things: it's just about what supports your health, well-being and your body being in the best shape it can be and about the kinds of things that sabotage those aims. Most of those things also tend to have a negative impact on how we look or feel about ourselves. If you ever find that you have a really hard time avoiding or moderating any of those things, ask for help. Addictions or self-sabotaging habits can not only make it harder to feel good about yourself and derail your health and mind, they can derail your whole life.


Some people suffer from what's called body dysmorphic disorder or dysmorphophobia, where they just can't stop thinking about serious flaws with appearance that don't seem so flawed to anyone else, or feel like their body is very, very wrong for them. There are different causes of that, including things like sexual or other trauma, having a gender identity that doesn't "match" a body or body parts, or having chemical imbalances in the brain. If this sounds like you, a lot of the things we're suggesting will only get you so far, so talk to a doctor or mental health professional to find out what can help you.

Know what else gets filed here? People or groups who are toxic to your positive self-image. Do all you can to surround yourself with positive people who think well of themselves and others, including you and treat themselves and others well. If you have a friend, partner or family member who makes you feel bad about yourself, do what you can to distance yourself from them or, when you can't, get someone to run interference for you. If you find yourself in a group of friends who are constantly trying to bring others down, expand your social circle so you can move away from that negativity, and towards people who support you and others in feeling good instead of horrible.

Reduce & manage stress.

Short of living under a rock (which also sounds quite stressful), there’s no way to get rid of all our stressors, be they negative or positive. Stress is a term that basically describes how our bodies and minds react to any stressor, something that causes or stimulates stress, whether it's tangible or only in our heads. A stressor can be pretty much anything: a test coming up, conflict at home or in our relationships, a competition right around the corner or a feeling we're not good enough and can be positive things, too, like moving out on our own, new romantic or sexual feelings or exciting travel plans. Sometimes stress isn't a bad thing: it can help us finish a task or respond in a crisis situation. Other times, it's not so great: too much stress, or managing stress poorly, can result in feeling crummy.

Dealing with a lot of stress and/or managing it poorly can make you feel and look worn out, make it tough to think clearly, can cause your immune system to work less well, can contribute to depression, anxiety and other mood disorders and can have ill effects on your sexual life and sexual function. It can also impact how we eat or sleep, what our skin looks like and what kind of shape we're in.

Doing what you can to reduce the things that stress you out and to manage stress well can be a big help in looking and feeling your best. Everyone goes through times when we’re more stressed or feel less able to deal with stress, but there are things to do that can help.

Reducing or cutting what stressors you can is a big help. You can do that by doing things like making sure you don't agree to do more than you can handle or really fit into a day, week or month, and by leaving yourself plenty of time, always, for chill downtime; for doing things that relax you, like hanging out with friends, family or partners, getting physical activity in, engaging in whatever your favorite creative work or hobbies are, sleeping, vegging out with a book, a movie, music or staring at the wall and doing nothing at all. You may only manage half an hour or an hour of downtime every day, but do fit in whatever you can to give yourself those needed breaks. You'll also want to ditch stresses you just don't need and that you have the ability to ditch, like unhealthy or bummed-out relationships, poor health habits or things you used to like doing but just don't have an interest in anymore.

Taking care of yourself physically as best you can plays a big role in managing stress. That means doing all the things we’ve already talked about: eating well, sleeping enough, staying hydrated and avoiding or really limiting things like alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. When you’re as healthy as you can be, it’s easier to deal with anything challenging or stressful that might come your way.

Don't be a bottler. Some of us find it tough to talk about things that are bothering us, but bottling things up is a pretty sure way to make stress worse. It's really important to express ourselves when we feel stressed out or upset. Find people you can talk to about what’s going on in your life: iften they'll be the same people who talk to you about their big deals. Even if you don’t need advice or feedback, just having a chance to get things off your chest and out of your head is helpful. Sometimes a friend or family member is a good choice, other times a therapist our counselor may be what you need. At times when you know you're holding things in but just can't find anyone you talk to, try writing them out in a journal, or use phone or internet helplines for venting and support.

Sometimes we can get rid of or reduce certain stressors. Other times, that's out of our hands, like when we lose someone we love, become seriously ill, have a big financial setback, don't get something we really want or have a conflict with someone close to us. During those times, we can't make those things go away, but we can take care of ourselves as best we can while we're dealing with them, and also reduce other stresses around us. For example, when we're dealing with the death of someone we care about, we can scale back on other things we have committed to but which, at that time, only add to our burden. We can also always push ourselves to ask for help when we're dealing with something tough. Asking for help is a sign of strength and good self-care, not of weakness, like some people think. If it helps, remember that when you ask people you care about for help, it makes it more likely that when they're hurting bad and feel alone, they'll feel able to ask you so you can give them the same kind of care.


How do you dress? Try to choose and wear clothes you really feel comfortable in, inside and out: that fit your body well and fit who you are as a person. If you think of clothes as ways to conform or get a boyfriend or girlfriend, see if you can't instead start thinking of them as both ways to express the unique person you are inside on the outside, and as tools to just live your life, like to stay warm or cool, to be able to freely move in, and feel physically comforted by. Avoid buying clothes you hope to fit in: only buy what fits you right now. If you tend to shop for clothes in places where things never seem to fit right, try to find places you can shop where things do fit you: secondhand shops can be great for this when specialty shops aren't near you. Or, you can learn to sew so that you can make clothes yourself, or tailor clothes bought elsewhere so they do fit, whether that's about fitting your chest or your personal style.

Laugh. Laughter may not always be the best medicine, but laughing releases mood-enhancing chemicals just like exercise does and feeling happy obviously changes how we look and our outlook. So, make room for laughter and some hilarity in your life. Read a funny book, watch a movie you know is funny, or find a few clips of your favorite stand-up comic online. Keep things you know give you a chuckle handy for times when you need help getting out of a funk. Seek out relationships in your life that include plenty of laughter. Learn to laugh at yourself, too: sometimes taking ourselves too seriously can incline us to stress out about things we could instead just blow off and have a good giggle over.

Depressed or anxious? Issues like anxiety and depression are incredibly common for young people, and despite what some people say, serious anxiety and depression don't happen just because you're a certain age, and won't just go away once you're not a teenager. If you struggle with those, they're probably playing a big part in how you feel about yourself and your body, and impacting your overall health. If you think or know you’re dealing with depression or anxiety that's persistent (more than a bad day now and then), talk to someone qualified to help assess that for you. If you’re afraid to do that because you know there are therapies you don’t want, aren’t comfortable with, or don’t think you could access, know you have a choice in how you manage any kind of illness. So, if someone suggests a method of treatment that isn’t what you want or doesn’t feel right to you, ask about others.

Put a kibbosh on comparing & dissing.

Easier said than done, we know, especially if it feels like everyone around you does it. But it's totally possible and it sure beats the alternative. Comparisons – especially when it comes to something as relatively unchooseable and unchangeable as looks – perpetuate the idea that one physical characteristic or way of looking is better than another, and who needs that? Not only is that awfully negative, it's also just not true. We all look how we look, and all of our perceptions and ideas about beauty and attractiveness vary widely, rather than being universal. I think we'd all want a world which does a better job of recognizing that there are a million kinds of beautiful, not just one or two, and we can help that happen -- and get some relief from that whole business -- just with our own behavior.

The ways of looking most often held up as ideal usually come nowhere near what most of the population of the planet looks like. Mass media rarely shows the real range of what people can look like. Bodies don’t all look the same or work the same, and wouldn't even if we all had exactly the same ways of eating, amount of exercise or income. Everyone's body, even at our very best health and fitness, is different at its personal best. Even comparing yourself to any "average" measurement isn’t often helpful, because average doesn’t mean normal and it also may not mean you. You don't need a number to know you exist and are for real: you already know you do and are.

It's also worth asking what comparisons really give you or others that's of any positive use to you. All it probably tells you is that in some ways you're different from some people, while in others, you're similar. You can know all of that already without going to a negative place driven by envy or insecurity.

If you must compare, try doing it in ways that make you and others feel good.If you catch yourself saying something like, "He has way less body hair than I do," or "Her boobs are smaller than mine," see if you can just let those observations just be observations, without taking another step and making judgments about which the the "right" amount of body hair or the "better" breast size. It's okay to notice other people's bodies and observe them: we all have eyes, after all. But what's not so positive or empowering is turning our observations into competitions or value judgments, or not working to correct ourselves when we do.


Those things we like about how we look? They look the way they do in context, not in a vacuum. So, any one thing we like is probably about way more than just that one thing. For instance, your eyes probably look as green as they do because of the dark brown of your skin and how they're set in your whole face; if you like how your butt looks, notice all the parts surrounding it. If they looked different -- if your legs were thinner, or your breasts were bigger -- your butt would look different in that different context. The same genetics that gave you the thin arms you don't appreciate gave you the thick hair that you do. Try and see your bigger picture.

Being a bully about other people's looks not only hurts them, it also can do a real number on your feelings about yourself and your own body. It’s tough to feel good about ourselves when we’re being mean or shallow, and hard to feel good about our bodies when we’re viewing them as being in some kind of perpetual beauty pageant. By all means, dissing out loud is negative and hurtful, but even doing it in your own head or behind someone's back can be a real bummer. Being negative about or obsessed with how we or others look can have harmful or negative impacts on those around us whose body image is strongly influenced by what we say and do, too.

This also includes not dissing yourself and your body.

What's better for you and for others? Make some mental adjustments. When you see someone or a part of someone you feel jealous about, see if you can't switch that envy to admiration: instead of coveting them, just admire and appreciate them. When you find you can't stop seeing or talking about someone's flaws, make some extra effort to instead find something you like about them or find beautiful and unique. Instead of telling other people how fat/skinny/ugly/tacky/nasty someone is, why not share something cool or nice about them instead? Not only does what goes around tend to come around, thinking positively about other people tends to help us think and feel more positive about ourselves. And when we learn to start seeing and appreciating what's unique and beautiful about others, it's a lot easier to see those things in ourselves.

Do you often find yourself collecting or looking at images of people as body or beauty ideals? Make sure those images include people who look like you and also people who you admire for more than just looks, but for who they are and what they do. Maybe even keep a running collage in your room or bathroom of images that show some real diversity and some people who look like you, as well as showing people whose beauty isn't just on the outside.

Here's another self-image booster: instead of focusing on what you don't like about yourself, start trying to focus on what you DO like. Keep a running list of your best qualities and attributes you can always add to. What you put on it can include things you like about your looks, but make a point of including things that aren't, too, like things you can do and the whole person you are. In the moments you feel low about you, read it over and remind yourself of the good stuff.

Never forget that your body is mostly a means for living your life.

Without it you wouldn't have a life to live in the first place, you know.

It's not realistic to say that looks just don't matter, to you or to others: we all know that they do. We also all know that it's not like any of us can not see or otherwise perceive how we or others look. But we also should help ourselves and others out by making sure we're putting looks in the proper perspective. They aren't everything, and when we're really focused on living and enjoying our lives, they tend to feel a lot less important than when we make them our primary focus. What our bodies can do for us when it comes to how they look pales in comparison to what they can do for us when it comes to living our lives. It isn't a pretty face that makes for great art, after all, even if the art is of a pretty face: it's the hands and eyes and mind and senses of the painter who painted it.

Make sure you're actually using your body -- including your brain -- to do things that make you feel good about yourself and that you enjoy and feel passionate about. Those things can be as big as trying to write the next great American novel, participating in a social justice rally or helping to build a new house for a family in need or as relatively small as doing a basic human kindness -- like giving someone hurting a hug, helping someone struggling with a bag of groceries or providing someone with an excellent compliment -- or just making sure you're putting your focus and energy into things of real value. Focusing or thinking so, so much about ourselves and how we look, or about surfacey or material things can both make us feel crappy ourselves and influence our inclination to try and change ourselves rather than accepting ourselves. Making a point to think about and help other people -- and not viewing them as competition -- goes a long way, as does making moves away from a focus on just what's on the surface, not who you can be and who you are.

Even the "little" things in life aren't so little: having fun with your friends, playing with your cat or looking in the mirror once and telling yourself that you and your body are wonderful, awesome, beautiful, unique and just right, right in this moment, just as they are. That's all much bigger stuff than look.

Our bodies aren't just a place to hang our clothes or billboards that advertise romantic or sexual availability or potential appeal. They're not just about what they look like and what we or others think of how they look. They're much, much more so, how we have the ability, whatever our individual abilities may be, to do every single thing we do every single day in our world and our lives. They're how we can and do feel and experience everything. They're what we've got as our tools to be awesome, which is a lot more challenging and enriching than just looking awesome. A living room chair can look fabulous every day, after all, but you probably have a lot more to offer others, the world and yourself than a piece of furniture does.

Let's review!

  • Food is your friend. Choose your foody-pals thoughtfully and cultivate a healthy friendship. If you want to hang out with a food that's not so awesome sometimes, that's okay, just don't make that one your BFF.
  • Your body craves both rest and motion. Work to make sure you get enough -- probably more than you get now -- of each.
  • Make your drinking games about water.
  • The crummy stuff: try and knock it off. If you can't or don't want to knock it off, at least knock it all down a few pegs.
  • Chill out and relax: there isn't anything lazy about not being a constant stressball.
  • Stop being a looks or body bully to others or yourself.
  • Life is for living, not just for looking. Never forget it, lest you be mistaken for a footstool.
written 16 May 2011 . updated 09 Jan 2014

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