Even the most confident among us would admit to doing it. You walk into a room, scan the crowd and start making comparisons: “She’s so much thinner than me.” “Her legs are longer.” “Her arms are more toned than mine.”
In new groups, with our friends, and when we flip through magazines and watch TV, we jump into the dangerous game of comparing our bodies with those of other women.
It’s a common habit experts say we should work hard to drop. After all, we come in such a wide range of shapes and sizes that true comparisons aren’t even fair or accurate. And this self-talk almost always makes us feel bad about ourselves.
It’s tough not to make comparisons. It’s a natural human instinct, and it’s how we learn, says Leslie Heinberg, director of behavioral sciences at Cleveland Clinic’s Bariatric and Metabolic Institute. The problem arises when these comparisons focus more on the negative.
“We are more likely to make upward comparisons—compare ourselves to somebody we perceive as better—than downward comparisons,” Heinberg says.
“We especially do that when it comes to appearance and weight.”
Many of us start thinking this way early in our lives, even as children, says Carolyn Becker, co-director of The Body Project, an eating disorder prevention program.
“It almost becomes an over-practiced skill,” she says. “We’re encouraged to make these comparisons, to look at perfectionistic figures in the media so we will buy products and services.”
But experts say there are all kinds of problems with that type of thinking. First, looking at someone else’s body doesn’t always tell you a complete story.
“Somebody who is very fit and has a higher percentage of lean muscle mass, if you put them on the scale they may weigh a lot more than someone who is not fit, someone with a higher percentage of body fat,” Heinberg says. “All of this is comparing apples to oranges, and it doesn’t really make sense.”
Plus, these comparisons are unbalanced. We know what’s going on in our own minds and lives, but we don’t consider the other side.
“We compare that internal experience with everyone’s outside,” she says.
“We assume that because they look so put together, so confident, they have no worries.”
We can stop the comparisons and regain our confidence by making specific changes in the way we think and interact with each other, Becker says. First, drop those conversations you have with friends about what you ate, about the size of your thighs, or about other women’s bodies—something Becker calls “fat talk.”
“A mere three to five minutes of ‘fat talk’ increases body dissatisfaction,” she says. “One thing you can do is simply not engage in ‘fat talk.’ Say, ‘I prefer to talk about other things.’”
Becker also suggests standing naked in front of your mirror and writing down positive things about your body and yourself.
She says women who have a hard time finding anything they like should start with non-physical characteristics, such as, “I like my sense of humor.” Then, move on to thinking about your body’s functional power—the legs that power you through walking or running, the arms that help you haul heavy things.
“You can appreciate the functionality of your body even if you’re struggling to appreciate the appearance,” Becker says.