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4 Body Image Lessons You Need to Learn Before You Turn 30

US News & World Report - Health logo US News & World Report - Health 1/9/2019 Charlotte Markey

Mixed race woman puckering in mirror: Research suggests that living authentically leads to increases in self-esteem. © (Getty Images) Research suggests that living authentically leads to increases in self-esteem. In my recent work interviewing dozens of women for an upcoming book, I've come to realize we all have something in common: We all struggle to some degree with body image. We don't necessarily feel bad about ourselves, but we don't feel as good as we'd like to either. Most of us also have some regret about the amount of time and emotional energy we've spent concerned about our appearances. We want that time back.

But alas, we can't time travel (yet). So we're offering our advice to the next generation so that, if they listen, they can dedicate their time and energy to more meaningful activities, people and thoughts than what's in the mirror. Listen up, ladies – here's what my fellow 40-somethings-and-up want you to know:

1. Take care of yourself for the right reasons.

Health can be fleeting – here one day and gone the next. If many of us could go back, we'd take better care of our bodies when they were easier to care for. As one woman I interviewed put it, "You only have one body – it's important to take really good care of it."

That can be easier said than done, of course – especially since we live in a society that confuses appearance with health. As girls and women, we're encouraged to exercise to lose weight, tone up or otherwise look a certain way – not necessarily to feel good or lower our risk of disease.

But exercising for the sake of health pays off. In fact, research has found that women who focus on health as a reason to exercise have higher self-esteem than those who exercise for appearance-related reasons. In other words, valuing health over looks may have both psychological and physical benefits. 

2. Protect your body.

In the #MeToo era, girls and women are more aware of the importance of standing up for themselves and their bodies than they were when I was a teen. Thank goodness. And yet, it's still all too common for girls and women to accommodate others when it comes their bodies. Whether it's acquiescing a boyfriend's preferences in the bedroom or ignoring a misguided colleague's inappropriate comments, it's not OK to brush these things off.

Taking action against such behaviors isn't just important for your own well-being, it's also important in order to create lasting social change. After all, theory and research suggests that harassment is often not really about sex, but power. "A wide range of nonsexual actions is used to denigrate women and label them as 'different' because of their sex," writes Vicki Schultz, a professor of law and social sciences at Yale Law School.

She suggests that ending harassment requires women to speak up – and that's just for starters. Most schools, workplaces and other organizations have policies and procedures when it comes to all forms of harassment. So if you have concerns about how you've been treated, search online for this policy and talk to a trusted friend or colleague about how to respond. Not responding often means that other women may suffer the same offenses you have by the same person.

3. Be powerful.

As women, we aren't socialized to strive to embody power. But not doing so can lead to regrets. "I wish I had had more confidence in what my body could do, tried more challenging activities [and] used up more of my body's mileage," one woman told me.

Feeling and acting powerfully can also help lead to gender equality – even if you need to fake it until you make it. As Sophia Bush said, "You are allowed to be both a masterpiece and a work in progress, simultaneously." To feel more empowered, use your body to do things. Maybe it's running a 5K or rock climbing. Maybe it's yoga or weightlifting. Whatever inspires you to feel strong and powerful is what you should do. 

4. Be authentic.

Thanks to social media, it's far easier today than when I was growing up to constantly feel like you're not enough – not exercising enough, not spending enough time perfecting your attire, not having enough fun. But doing what you can to stay true to who you really are pays off. Research even suggests that living authentically leads to increases in self-esteem among girls. 

This doesn't mean that you can't color your hair or wear makeup. If that's what you want to do, do it! It just means that we should all spend a bit more time questioning our motives when it comes to our physical selves. "In the moment, it can feel super important to be thin and pretty, and that if you 'slip' no one will like you," nutritionist and author Georgie Fear told me. "That's a lie. You are kind. You help other people (when you aren't obsessing over your flaws) and you are going to have an amazing life because of who you are – not what you look like."

Video: Maria Shriver on how she teaches daughters to love their bodies (TODAY)

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