You look great!

Four women share how they learned to love their shapes. Plus, 10 ways to start celebrating yours

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There are moments—albeit rare, and usually preceded by a few glasses of wine—when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and think, wow, I look really good. But too often we fill our days (and nights) with a mindless litany of barbs directed at our bodies: our hips are too vast, our breasts too saggy, our skin glows for all the wrong reasons.

“The majority of women are dissatisfied with their bodies, even women with a healthy or underweight body mass index,” says Dr. Traci McFarlane, a psychologist at the ambulatory care for eating disorders program at Toronto General Hospital. Her recent research for the Women’s Health Surveillance Report confirms that poor body image affects more women than ever before—women from every age group, not just those weaned on Britney Spears videos.

You don’t need a PhD to know when your body image is out of whack. The question is: can you learn to love your shape—if not all the time, at least more often? The answer is a resounding yes. It takes time and commitment, but building your body confidence is worth the effort. As Dr. Marcia Hutchinson, a Boston-area psychologist and author of 200 Ways to Love the Body You Have (Crossing), says, “Body image affects potentially everything you do, every relationship you’re in and the way you take care of yourself.” So, the next time you’re surrounded by a dozen nothing-looks-good-on-me outfits, try one of these 10 strategies. What you’ll discover: the way you feel about your body often has less to do with your love handles and more to do with the grey matter between your ears.

Gam it up

Shanon Archibald thinks her legs are her best physical asset. But the 24-year-old from Antigonish, N.S., didn’t always feel this way. “It was annoying and embarrassing. As a teenager, I couldn’t find pants to fit the large and muscular legs I had inherited from my athletic parents,” she says. But one day, during a high-school gym class that had Archibald suspended upside down from gymnastics rings, she heard her female teacher let out a muffled curse. “I had no idea what I’d done and was pretty self-conscious hanging there.” When the instructor asked her what she did to keep her legs in such great shape, Archibald immediately felt embarrassed. But as she hung in mid-air, she felt a twinge of pride. She realized that if her instructor was so impressed, her shapely legs must look pretty damn good. Today, she loves wearing skirts that show off her toned gams.

Laugh off the little things

Zena Olijnyk used to envy bigger people. The 43-year-old, who stands just under five feet tall, felt frustrated as a teenager when she realized she’d never be a long-legged creature like some of her popular classmates. “I just thought, jeez, I’m short,” says the 108-pound Torontonian, who is a trim and enviable size 2. “I felt that just by being tall, some of the other girls were more attractive.” She continued to struggle with her height as she moved into her 20s, feeling that others didn’t always take her seriously because she was small. Then one day when she was in her late 30s, Olijnyk caught herself making a joke about her height. “I realized that if I was drawing attention to it, I must have become comfortable.” Life taught her to like her body, but seeing her daughter deal with her own size made a difference, too. Eleven-year-old Anna has inherited her mother’s body type and has been able to excel in gymnastics because of it. “Anna’s size is an asset. She feels comfortable in her skin, and it’s empowering for her. I realized that if she’s cool with her height, I can be with mine, too.”

The learning curve

For Juanita Joubert-Johnson, dealing with negative feelings about her body meant learning to be proud of her African heritage. The 32-year-old Torontonian is originally from South Africa but lived in Greece as a young girl and teenager. “I was surrounded by white people who, in comparison to Africans, had flat asses and no hips.” She became acutely conscious of her darker skin and her developing curves. But one day, when she was about 13, she backed into an experience that made her feel good in her skin. After accidentally brushing up against her, a male classmate said, “You have a nice ass.” She was taken aback. “I thought, he thinks I have a nice ass? OK, so there’s hope for me after all.” That was a mini turning point for Joubert-Johnson, who today loves her shape and her African roots.

Confidence to scale

Suzanne Cuerrier hasn’t owned a bathroom scale in 17 years. But throughout high school, the now 42-year-old Trenton, Ont., resident was obsessed with her weight and felt her hips were enormous compared to those of her slimmer friends. “I thought, oh my God, I’m huge.” Her insecurities were confirmed when she became a bride at the ripe age of 19. “Your boobs are nice but your hips are rather large,” her husband told her. Although that same man is now her ex, his callous comments left a mark. “Women had to weigh less than 120 pounds or they were fat. At 125, I was on the fat side,” she says.

Finally, Cuerrier decided she’d had enough. She committed herself to healthy eating and an exercise regime that helped change her attitude. The end result? When she got rid of her first husband (Cuerrier is now remarried), she got rid of her hang-up about her hips. “I looked in the mirror one day and my hips didn’t bother me,” she says. “That’s when I decided I was not going to weigh myself anymore and I turfed my scale.”

Quick pick-me-ups

Your hair is flat, there’s a beacon-like pimple on your cheek and your pants no longer do up. And, oh yeah, you’re late for work. Try one of these instant pick-me-ups to get you through your day:

Run for it
Jog or walk briskly for five to 15 minutes on the way to your next appointment. You’ll instantly feel energized, and the effort will put a sexy glow in your cheeks.

Fake it
For 15 minutes at a time throughout the day, imagine that you already have the look and body you desire, suggests Boston-area psychologist Marcia Hutchinson, author of 200 Ways to Love the Body You Have (Crossing). You will be surprised at how confident this mental trick can make you act and feel, she says.

Befriend your body
Envision that one of your friends looked just like you today. Would you be as hard on her? “With people we love, we don’t focus on ears that are too big; we focus on the warmth of their eyes,” says Dr. Hutchinson.

Rx for body image blues

How do you know if your concern with your body has crossed the line and become an obsession?

Dr. Blake Woodside, a Toronto psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders, says that this problem, known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), can’t be confused with self-consciousness because BDD behaviour is so extreme. Here are the signs to look out for:

· You’re obsessed with a physical flaw and are convinced it’s deformed and unattractive. It interferes with your social and professional life.
· You believe this flaw is obvious and repulsive, no matter what anyone tells you. “A person with BDD can’t be reassured,” says Dr. Woodside.
· You will go to any lengths to fix the flaw, resorting to multiple surgeries or steroids. “You would have 10 nose jobs, but never be satisfied, like Michael Jackson,” says Dr. Woodside. “People with BDD are actually distressed about something else, but they don’t want to deal with it, so they focus on the body.” This rare condition is treated with antidepressants and cognitive behaviour therapy. Ask your doctor for more information.
10 steps to body-image success
Get a reality check
“Society’s message is that to be happy you need to look a certain way—and anybody with enough willpower can do it,” says Dr. Traci McFarlane, an eating disorder specialist at Toronto General Hospital. But, she adds, it isn’t true. “There is a huge genetic predisposition for our body and weight.” So, ditch the celebrity magazines and find a recent picture of yourself that exudes health.

Purge your closet
Keeping clothes that don’t fit properly feeds body-image problems, says Dr. McFarlane. Give your closet a ruthless once-over so you don’t start your day sifting through your “fat” and “skinny” clothes.

Separate your body from body image
“Body image is an emotional construct based on every criticism, every teasing, every look you’ve ever gotten,” says Dr. Marsha Hutchinson, author of 200 Ways to Love the Body You Have (Crossing). While you can’t erase the past, you can choose the type of relationship you have with your body now. “You can decide that your body is a graceful temple, or look at it as a war zone.”

Ease up, but don’t give up
“People use their scale as an emotional barometer,” says Dr. McFarlane. “If the scale goes up you feel terrible, but when it goes down you still feel bad because it’s not down far enough.” Talk to your doctor about setting achievable health goals, such as fitting three 10-minute blasts of activity into each day. Then weigh in infrequently, says Lindsay McLaren of the Centre for Health and Policy Studies at the University of Calgary.

Unload some baggage
According to McLaren’s research, the people around you—neighbours, colleagues, friends and family—affect how you feel about your body. Do the women in your life seem comfortable with their bodies? Or have you internalized some of their belittling postures, expressions and attitudes? Becoming aware of these influences can help you let go of them, says Dr. Hutchinson.

Watch your language
Write down the harsh words you use to describe your body and others’, such as fat, disgusting or short. Try to think of more neutral descriptions. “Fat isn’t a feeling—maybe you’re actually feeling embarrassed or anxious,” says Dr. McFarlane.

Go on a media diet
If those melon-breasted girls on Survivor give you a hate-on for your shape, pull the plug. One study of school-aged girls in Fiji—where larger body types are celebrated—found that the introduction of western TV programming sparked body dissatisfaction and dieting.

At the very least, choose your content wisely. One Chatelaine staffer learned to love her shape by looking for images of curvy role models. “When I see someone such as model Emme or singer Queen Latifah looking great, I know I can, too.”

Isolate the problem
Dr. McFarlane’s research suggests that negative feelings about our bodies make us feel badly about ourselves overall. “Some women say, ‘I feel badly about my body, so I’m a bad person,'” she says. If you’re having one of those “I’m so ugly” moments, stop and recall an accomplishment.

Celebrate your body
Your arms comfort loved ones, your taste buds savour flavours and your butt gives you something soft to sit on. Take a moment to appreciate what your body does for you. As Dr. McFarlane says, “You may think you have fat thighs, but they get you around.”

Forget 15 pounds to bliss
Would life be that different if you had a perfect body? A lot of women blame their bodies for everything that’s wrong, says Dr. Hutchinson. If your life is on hold until you lose (or gain)15 pounds, change your strategy. Contacting an old friend or booking a vacation can make you feel good and take the focus off your body, says Dr. McFarlane.