You’ve had a great weekend. Maybe there was a special occasion – a wedding, a reunion, a birthday celebration. Maybe the activities were not milestones so much as enjoyable ways to spend your time – dinner with friends, holiday shopping, games with your kids. Whatever the events may have been, however big or small, your social media feed steadily streams with photos documenting your every move. The inner monologue accompanying each picture raises the volume of your critical voice. “Look at those lines on my face.” “I look terrible in that dress.” “If I lost five pounds, maybe I’d look as great as my friend.” You’ve been tagged, and now the photos scream: “It’s time to feel bad about yourself!”
Concern with weight and body image is, unfortunately, a common part of the human experience in Western society. Body image is our mental self-portrait, the thoughts we have about our shape or weight, and the actions we take that relate back to appearance. When these markers of body image are off-kilter — when we see ourselves very differently from how others see us, for example — we are more likely to feel lousy about ourselves, depressed in general, or to use unhealthy eating behaviors, like strict dieting or emotional eating.
There are different theories as to why poor body image is so common in our culture. The driver of the dissatisfaction may be the discrepancy between how our bodies actually look (particularly with body weight on the rise nationally) and the images with which we are commonly confronted, communicating that ideal beauty equals thin. The comparisons that we make to others within our social circles may be another culprit. With the advent of social media, we now have ready-made tools for comparison.
Go online, and the images staring back are more likely than ever to include you and your friends, pictures taken and posted for all to see, over which you had little control and may now be inclined to scrutinize. Which of course, you know will only make you feel worse. Do yourself a favor and get back in the driver’s seat. Take charge of your thoughts and actions, and your feelings about those pictures may very well change. Here are few tips to help reset your body image GPS:
1. Let it be. Unless you deem the picture inappropriate, try not to delete it or remove the tag. While doing so may initially be experienced as empowering, it could make you feel worse in the long term. Use this as an opportunity to practice being imperfect and tolerate the reality that in this day and age, you cannot fully control “the digital story” of your life.
2. Set a time limit. Don’t avoid the pictures altogether, but don’t dwell on them either. Establish a reasonable amount of time that allows you to look through any new photo tags, but not to go back through old posts and pictures. If you don’t think that you can stick to the limit, then use the alarm on your phone or schedule something immediately following the designated time window.
3. Find the silver lining by asking yourself questions that allow you to reflect and notice, but not to judge. Rather than letting your mind run wild with criticism, consider: What do you like about your appearance in the photo? Or, what do you remember enjoying most about the moment at which it was taken? Before seeing the photo, how did you feel? Are you any different now than then?
4. Now that you’ve counterbalanced the negative with some positive, change the channel in your brain. You can do this by focusing on other aspects of yourself about which you feel great, or by thinking about something entirely unrelated, like research for an upcoming trip or even the mundane errands that you need to get done this week.
5. Finally, take a moment to relax and put it all back in perspective. Relaxation websites can help you to calm down and do nothing for at least two minutes with the help of soothing images, sounds and relaxation scripts. If these sites are up on your computer, your go-to social media site won’t be. If you’re on the go, try a mobile app and breathe to relax.
If you are continuing to pore over pictures and feeling distraught, consider going to talk it out with a therapist. An objective listener can help you to think your thoughts out loud, to process and challenge them.
Is this a magic cure? Maybe not. But, taken together these steps may help you feel more like the real you, worthy of taking a new selfie in your mind’s eye.
Written by Deborah R. Glasofer, Ph.D.
Originally posted in the Huffington Post on December 19, 2013.