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Experts, athletes, coaches, and parents agree that raising young female athletes requires careful navigation through many challenges, especially during and after puberty. We’re only starting to understand what it takes to help them flourish. Partly, perhaps, because we’re only starting to understand what it takes to help ourselves truly flourish.
In this five-part investigative report, we examine both how to #FixGirlsSports and raise a stronger, healthier next generation; as well as how to re-evaluate our own body image for the better, including the resources you need to rebuild or fortify one of the most important relationships of all—the one with yourself.
Motivated to improve your body image? First, know that negative thoughts aren’t your fault, and you’re far from alone in struggling with them. But also know that changing your body doesn’t solve the problem—women of all shapes and sizes can have a healthy body image or a poor one. Instead, work to alter your mindset by developing three key skills: mindfulness (staying in the moment), self-compassion (treating yourself kindly rather than harshly judging), and body attunement (getting in touch with the signals your body sends).
The following nine techniques can help you hone these mindsets to improve your body image. Experts are still learning exactly how to shape body image for the better—so be creative about what makes you personally feel good. Eventually, you can build a toolkit to reduce the occurrence of negative thoughts and minimize the impact when they do occur, says Marci Evans, R.D.
Examine the people—and messages—you’re surrounding yourself with. Phase out any that make you feel ashamed or inadequate. Intentionally seek out athletes of different sizes to follow and befriend in real life.
Try a daily gratitude, like sport psychologist Leeja Carter’s practice of touching various joints and organs and thanking them for the work they do. In addition, place random reminders in your phone that ping you with a message about the strength of your legs or the power of your core.
Write a letter from your head to your body, either in a functional approach (listing all your body helps you do each day) or a compassionate one (from the perspective of a loving friend). Just 15 minutes of either tactic boosts body satisfaction and improves body image, according to researchers.
Track your avoidance behavior—situations you steer clear of because of body fears. Place them in a hierarchy, from slightly intimidating to completely overwhelming. Then, expose yourself to them in small doses or on a short-term basis. For instance, spend five minutes bathing-suit shopping, or tell yourself you’ll accept all dinner invitations for a month. Soon, they’ll seem less scary, says Kara Bazzi, a therapist and cofounder of Opal Food & Body Wisdom in Seattle.
Pick a quiet time and practice imagining yourself accomplishing goals in the body you have. Both internal and external imagery can work, Carter says: picturing the scene of crossing a finish line, or tapping into the mental and physical sensations of finishing a tough workout strong.
Everyone has moments when they feel strong and powerful. When those occur, pause for a moment and write them on a slip of paper. Put them in a box, and pull one out whenever you have a low moment, says certified mental performance consultant Angie Fifer.
Another way to handle negative thoughts: Pause and ask where the thought came from. Notice how it makes you feel. Then let it pass, bringing yourself back to the moment by focusing on your breath or using a physical cue, such as relaxing your shoulders and arms.
Body-shaming, or “fat talk,” runs rampant. Resist the urge to respond either by bashing yourself or flattering the speaker (“I wish my stomach was as flat as yours!”). Instead, wait until a neutral time and start a dialogue about how those conversations make you feel. Try: “I’m wondering if, as friends and as women, we can find a different way to talk about our bodies so it isn’t this shared hating ground.”
Rise up in rage at the culture, coaches, and others who place harmful and inappropriate demands on our bodies. Instead of worrying about whether your body conforms to an ideal, become a new example for improved body image everywhere. That makes you the one in control, instead of the environment telling you what we can be, which is far more empowering.