We're being bombarded with negative comments about our bodies—here's how to fight back

By Julie Stewart
January 25, 2016
Corbis Images

We all have blah days. You know, those days when you look in the mirror and wonder why you don't have rock-hard abs and legs for days. But what's really shaking our self-confidence? The problem isn't just coming from within. (Find out Why You Should Be More Body Positive This Year.)

Sexually active female college students reported that they'd received negative comments or pressure about an average of 4.46 body parts, according to a new study from Clemson University. For example, 85.8 percent of the women surveyed felt pressure about thinness; 81.7 percent said that pressure came from media, 46.8 percent said it came from friends and acquaintances, and 40.4 percent said it came from mothers. And 58.4 women said they felt pressured about their breasts-with the majority of that pressure (79.1 percent, to be exact) coming from the media, followed by friends and acquaintances, and then boyfriends-while 46 percent of woman confessed to feeling pressured about their butts (you can thank the media for that too). Women also felt pressured when it came to their pubic hair, vaginal odor and appearance, height, and having sex during menstruation.

Here's where it got really interesting: The research also showed that the more body parts women received negative feedback about, the less satisfied they were with their appearance. Women who'd experienced negativity were more likely to consider dieting and breast augmentation surgery, the study also showed. (Interestingly, virgins often reported less pressure, especially about their nether regions.)

"It's just a shame so many women by the time they're early adults have received so much negativity, and we didn't even address the frequency with which women received that negativity," says study author Bruce King, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Clemson University.

Negative comments really can have major consequences-in fact,body shaming can actually lead to a higher mortality risk "As a clinician who treats people with severe eating disorders, I can say that it's quite common for patients to say that their eating disorder started after someone made a negative weight-related comment," says Jennifer Mills, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at York University in Canada. "That's not to say that the comment caused the eating disorder-there may be other risk factors present and there were probably other factors at play-but a negative weight-related comment, even just one, can be very damaging, especially to people who are vulnerable."

With so much pressure and negativity coming from so many fronts, it's important to make sure that you are happy with how you look and feel. And if someone does put you down, don't let it sink in. Try these strategies to keep your self-confidence in top form.

Speak Up

Don't let body shamers win. "If it seems appropriate and you're comfortable doing it, actually speak up and say 'ouch, that's harsh. That's really not nice to say that to other people about their bodies,'" says Mills. The offender might apologize, which can help you feel better off the bat. Plus, there's a long-term benefit: "The thinking is that by doing this, we can start to collectively change the culture around us so that we're not allowing people to make negative, hurtful comments," says Mills. And if someone mocks you repeatedly, consider the possibility that you may need to distance yourself from the relationship. (Need inspiration? This Woman's Response to Fat Shaming at the Gym Will Make You Want to Cheer.)

Work Out

Hitting the weights can make you feel powerful. "Exercise does benefit body image even if you don't lose weight through exercise," says Mills. "Being active, strengthening your body, using your body for functions other than just looking good and being skinny, those things are really good for us to do."

Practice Gratitude

List three things you love about your body in a note on your phone, suggests Charlotte Markey, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Rutgers University. This will help you remember how fabulous you really are-now and in the future when you see the note. Need some inspo for what to write? "Spending some time thinking about the functionality of our bodies is also really important," she says. "Maybe you wish your arms were thinner but they're really strong. Or you wish your eyes were blue, but you have perfect vision," she says. Take a cue from these Women That Prove Being Strong Is Dead Sexy, and learn to love what you've got.

Redefine the Norm

If you compare yourself to images on Insta, take a step back. Remember that "Fitspiration" Instagram Posts Aren't Always Inspiring-and that's because a lot of what we see isn't actually real. Some people have had surgery or other augmentations; others are really good at using filters. "Condition yourself to think: 'it's fake,'" says Markey. "Just remind yourself it's not real, and it will help a little bit to change your expectation and not internalize the image." For a reality check, seek out images that are truly average. For example, if you have concerns about how you look downstairs, check out The Labia Library, a collection of photos that will show you a variety of examples of normal vulvas, put together by a non-profit group in Australia.

One more thing: "Keep in mind is that a lot of times it may really not be about you but about the person saying something to you," says Markey. "It doesn't necessarily mean that they're right in their evaluation of you." They may very well be projecting their own insecurities; don't waste time letting them bring you down too.


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