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Breaking Free From The Body Comparison Trap

Now and then, my iPhone likes to taunt me with old photos from my camera reel. They pop up as memories, usually in a slideshow with a theme like “Fun At The Beach” or “New Year’s Eve Over The Years.” Seeing old photos of good times with friends should make me happy. But at 35, when I look at these photos, all I see are the thinner, younger versions of myself that I’ll never be again.

I get that change is inevitable. That comparison is the thief of joy and all that. So why can’t I accept that my younger thinner self smiling back at me in these photos is someone I’ll never be again?

Breaking free from the body comparison trap is a common and complex problem that neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez helps patients navigate in her practice. “Societal standards often emphasize thinness as an ideal, creating a cultural bias that equates it with beauty and success,” she explains. “This ingrained perspective can lead individuals to internalize that their worth is tied to their appearance, making it difficult to detach from past images that align with these standards.”

Though easier said than done, it’s possible to break the cycle of comparison and love and accept your current body for all it is — rather than focusing on what it used to be. Here’s how to leave your past body in the past and love your present self.

The Psychology Behind Body Image

Body image, or the way we view our body, can greatly impact our self-esteem — something that Angela Ficken, a licensed psychotherapist based in Boston, sees often in her work with eating
disorder patients. “Body image significantly impacts self-esteem because it’s closely linked to societal standards of beauty and success,” she explains. “Social conditioning can create a pervasive belief that only certain body types are desirable, leading to negative body image in those who don’t fit these narrow standards.”

As a teenager in the early 2000s, I got the message loud and clear that thin was beautiful. Rail-thin actresses permeated all the TV screens and magazines I spent so much time with. I also found that the thinner and more in shape I was, the better I was treated.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Carol Chu-Peralta, life experiences like these create associations in our brains that are hard to break free from. “When we experience happiness and external validation when we are ‘thin,’ we create and strengthen that neural association,” she explains. In other words, our mind begins to believe that thinness equates to happiness. “This association of thinness and happiness also gets reinforced through our social media, TV, movies, etc, where thinness is promoted as ‘ideal’ and ‘beautiful,’ and ‘what most partners want,'” she continues. This constant idealization of being thin makes it hard to let go of the time we spent as the “ideal.”

Between constant social conditioning of the importance of being thin and unrealistic media portrayals of a beauty standard that so often are edited or enhanced by angles and lighting, a person’s self-esteem and body image can only take so much. Over time, experts say these experiences end up chipping away at our self-worth. “Constantly comparing our bodies to others can lead to feelings of inadequacy or low self-esteem, especially if we think we don’t measure up to the people we compare ourselves to,” explains Alyssa Scolari, a licensed professional counselor who sees patients struggle with this often. “When we look at others and wish we looked like them, it’s easy to overlook our unique qualities and strengths,” she says. “This can dampen our overall mood and how we feel about ourselves, sometimes even leading to anxiety or depression.”

This constant comparison of ourselves to unattainable ideals can lead to more serious issues. The stress and anxiety from trying to meet unrealistic beauty standards can be overwhelming, potentially affecting both our mental and physical health, says Hafeez. “Such comparisons also increase the risk of developing or worsening eating disorders, as people might resort to unhealthy habits to achieve an unrealistic body image.”

How Focusing On the Past Robs Us of the Present

Now that we understand why it’s so compelling to keep comparing our current selves to past versions we’re nostalgic for, it’s essential to understand what this constant comparison can cost us. “Focusing on past body shapes can prevent appreciation of the present, leading to discontent and a failure to recognize current achievements and strengths,” says Ficken. No matter how “out of shape” you might feel compared to the past, feeling shameful about your current body is going to
keep you from any goal you might set for yourself in the present — and may even prevent you from being able to set realistic, healthy goals for your current self. “Dwelling on past bodies can create unrealistic goals and prevent appreciation of current achievements, negatively impacting motivation for healthy changes,” Ficken continues.

Constantly comparing your current body to your past one is not only unproductive — as Chu-Peralta points out, it’s also pretty unfair. “It completely dismisses so much of what we don’t have control over that impacts our bodies — such as our life circumstances, hormone changes, different chronic or acute ailments,” she says, not to mention beautiful life changes like giving birth. “Focusing on the past leaves us with little room to appreciate some of what we might have right now that is working for us,” says Chu-Peralta.

Tips to Stop Comparing Your Past Self to Your Current Self

Breaking free from the comparison trap is easier said than done. But with a conscious, continued effort, it’s possible to live in the present and love the body you’re in. Here are a few ways to get started.

Practice gratitudeIt’s so easy to look in the mirror and focus on the things we don’t like about our bodies. But the truth is, all of us inevitably take what our body does for us daily for granted. “By acknowledging and celebrating the small things — like being able to walk, dance, or simply breathe — we start to foster a sense of kindness and appreciation for our bodies,” says Scolari. “It’s like sending a thank you note to ourselves for all the amazing things our bodies do for us every day.” The next time your body gets you up a flight of stairs, or allows you to carry in a heavy load of groceries, give it a pat on the back.

Be mindful of self-talk. How we talk about our bodies, whether in our thoughts or even out loud in confidence with friends, can greatly impact our body image. When these self-judgmental thoughts creep in, Chu-Peralta says to be mindful of what these thoughts tell you. “If I tell myself that I’m ugly and fat, it must mean that I care about my body, or how my body looks,” she says as an example. “I can now choose to reframe my judgment of ‘I’m ugly’ to ‘I must really care about how my body looks, and I’m dissatisfied with it,’ and choose to do something helpful about it, so long as I’m practicing the mindset of seeing my body as something I need to give back to, instead of objectifying it.”

Consider a social media detox. Spending hours a day on social media scrolling through filtered photos of thin, fit Instagram models can make it feel like you’re the only one who doesn’t fit in with this image. “Stepping away gives you a chance to disconnect from these potentially skewed perceptions,” says Scolari. She recommends using this hiatus to focus on activities that make you feel good about your body. “Whether it’s hobbies, exercise, or spending quality time with friends and family, these experiences can enhance self-esteem and provide a more balanced perspective on body image.”

Incorporate positive affirmations. Saying positive affirmations about our bodies aloud helps shift our mindsets to be more kind and positive. The key is to choose affirmations you truly believe. “Find one that really aligns with the mindset you want to ultimately adopt about how you view your body,” says Chu-Peralta. “Then practice it multiple times a day in a mindful manner. Focus on the words and how they feel in your mind and body while you say the affirmation.”

Focus on healthy vs. thin. Shifting the focus away from pursuing an ideal body type to living a healthier lifestyle starts with redefining your goals. “Instead of aiming for a specific look or weight, we can set objectives around overall well-being, like eating nutritious foods because they make us feel good or exercising for strength and energy, not just appearance,” says Scolari. “By making these changes, we move towards a mindset where health and well-being are priorities, and pursuing an ideal body becomes less central.”

Surround yourself with people who love and accept their bodies. Who we spend time with impacts our thoughts, beliefs and even our body image. When you’re around others with a healthy and accepting view of their bodies, it creates a positive environment that encourages similar feelings in yourself,” says Scolari. If you don’t have people in your current circle who feel this way, plenty of online and in-person communities embrace body positivity. Try looking at Facebook groups and local community boards or find a fitness class or gym where the goal is to feel good — not be thin.

The Bottom Line

Embracing your current body is a journey. Breaking down old ways of thinking about an ideal body can take time, so being kind to yourself is important. “Our minds and bodies are complex, and there are no simple hacks that can change a lifetime of habitual thinking patterns,” says Chu-Peralta. However, with time and the right support system, changing these negative thinking patterns about our bodies is possible — and you don’t have to do it alone. “If you are ready to try on a new mindset and change your relationship with your body, try finding a licensed psychologist or therapist who specializes in body image to help you get ‘unstuck’ and move forward.”

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