BE AN OBSERVER, NOT A JUDGE
Don't issue good/bad/pretty/ugly judgments when you look in the mirror. "If you have a scar, you can decide to see it as a flaw or simply as a memory of an injury," says Stacey Tantleff-Dunn, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida and director of the Laboratory for the Study of Eating, Appearance & Health. Try to take in your physical attributes the way you would those of a child or beloved friend—with appreciation and acceptance, not criticism.
FIND SOMETHING TO ADMIRE—IN YOURSELF
"Studies using eye-tracking technology have shown that people who are unhappy with their appearance zero in on their perceived flaws when they look in the mirror," says Nancy Etcoff, PhD, director of the Program in Aesthetics and Well Being at Massachusetts General Hospital. Turn your gaze on the feature you like (we know
you have at least one). "When your eyes take in something that pleases you, your brain's reward system is activated, lifting your whole mood," says Etcoff.
PUT ON A HAPPY FACE
"We all find smiling faces more attractive than nonsmiling ones," says Paul Ekman, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, who has studied facial expression for several decades. A smile not only lifts the muscles around the eyes and lips, for a more youthful appearance, but also generates a feel-good ripple effect: Your brain gets an instant mood boost from the muscle contractions, and that boost is maintained as people smile back at you.
JUST SAY "THANKS
When you compliment a child on her dress, she doesn't respond, "Oh, I don't think it fits quite right." (But she might say, "Thanks! And look at my shoes! And my braids! And did I tell you I'm the third tallest girl in my class?") Stop deflecting praise about your appearance. Simply say "thank you" when someone compliments your thick hair or sparkling eyes. You—and your admirer—will feel better about the exchange, creating positive reinforcement that makes you both want to give and receive compliments more often.
"Body image can be externally influenced—by a number on a scale or an image in a mirror—but it's also affected by physical sensations like discomfort," says McGonigal. When you wear clothes in the smaller size that you want to be (or once were), the feeling of constriction sends a constant signal to your brain that you're not thin enough. This isn't an appeal for elastic waistbands ("Looking like a schlump won't do much for your body image either," McGonigal says) but for clothes that are both elegant and comfortable—in the size you are now.
GIVE YOURSELF A REALITY CHECK
Unless you live off the grid (and if you're reading this, you probably don't), you're bombarded with media images of willowy, poreless women (case in point: the above). It's human nature to compare yourself with these images—but if you're not a supermodel, you'll come up short. Until such pictures are stamped with warning labels (an idea British and French lawmakers have proposed), when you catch yourself in the act of comparing, remember that these pictures are incredibly unrealistic—engineered by teams of lighting experts, makeup artists, and a tricky little computer application called Photoshop. They're created to make you feel insecure and encourage you to open your wallet. "Studies of teens have shown that increased media savvy does reduce comparisons and negativity about appearance," says Kerry O'Brien, PhD, a psychology lecturer at the University of Manchester.
CHOOSE YOUR FRIENDS WISELY
Recent research shows that our social networks have a profound effect on our behaviors and attitudes—including how we perceive our appearance. "It's hard to feel good about your looks if you're surrounded by people who criticize their own," says Etcoff. "Spend time around people who are confident in their bodies, and you'll find yourself following suit." And if you don't already have a few gay men in your circle of friends, you might want to add some: A study published last year in the journal Body Image found that friendships with gay men can elevate women's body esteem.
VIEW YOURSELF IN A FLATTERING LIGHT
We mean that literally, as in change your lightbulbs. White-coated incandescent bulbs cast a wash of soft, pretty light, says lighting expert Dan Blitzer, president of the Practical Lighting Workshop. The Philips Natural and GE Reveal brands also filter out yellow tones for a clean white light that goes easy on all skin tones. Consider the placement of your light fixtures as well: "When light reaches your face from all directions, it minimizes lines and shadows," says Blitzer. In your bathroom, replace overhead lighting with fixtures on either side of your mirror.