There are two things that have been taking up a lot of my mental energy recently: self-esteem (how we feel about ourselves and how we judge ourselves and our worth); and body image (the perception of a person’s physical appearance) – both of which are deeply connected.

We seem to live in a world where appearance is all-important. Even scrolling through Psychology Today, I found an article outlining a study on which physical features were most attractive to the opposite sex, before providing six tips on how to make yourself more physically attractive.

And the obsession with appearance is certainly nothing new. As the climax of my history degree, I wrote a dissertation on the representation of women in advertising in the 1970s and in my research, I found sources that were, frankly, laughable:

‘In 1975, the women’s magazine Honey included an advertisement for “Anne French Deep Cleansing Milk” [see image] which promoted the assumption that women must use cosmetic products to become sexually attractive to men. The advertisement tells the story of the miserable Susan, who fancies her co-worker, Bob. She overhears Bob saying, ‘She’s a nice girl but she always looks such a mess’. By the end of the story, and after Susan used the cleansing milk, her complexion improved and the happy Susan went home with Bob after the office dance. This implies that, to be happy, women needed to be sexually attractive to men and therefore must buy certain products and conform to male sexual ideals’.

And ultimately, I feel, very little has changed. Through simply watching television, seeing advertisements or scrolling through social media, we are bombarded with idealised, unattainable body images of both men and women that dig away at our own body confidence and self-esteem whilst selling us the notion that we need to look this way to be happy.

However, when we turn to those who have studied what contributes to happiness and life satisfaction, appearance has nothing to do with it. According to the Commission on Wellbeing and Policy, the most important factors contributing to happiness are our mental and physical health, and our relationships… and ‘attractiveness’ is not even mentioned.

For decades, if not longer, we have constantly been told we need to strive to a certain physical standard to be happy. And the irony is, not only does appearance have nothing to do with happiness and life satisfaction, but the messages that say ‘looking like this will make you happy’ are damaging to our confidence and self-esteem which directly correlates to poor mental health.

So what can we do for ourselves?

Firstly consider the idea of ‘self-compassion,’ which has been shown to be associated with increased psychological wellbeing. Self-compassion has been defined by Kristin D. Neff, Kristin L. Kirkpatrick and Stephanie S. Rude as ‘being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as isolating; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness rather than over-identifying with them’.  Self-compassion is about treating ourselves kindly, as we would a good friend.

But what can we do more practically to work on this? I think awareness of the nature of the media is hugely important. Regardless of whether you are on Instagram, whether you look at advertisements or whether you flick through fitness or beauty magazines, the likelihood is you are being exposed to images of unattainable ‘attractiveness’. And I think an awareness of this means we can be slightly more in control of what we internalise.

But also work on removing your focus from physical appearance and focussing on other areas of your worth in order to boost your self-esteem and practice self-compassion:

  • Love yourself – focus on your good features and give yourself compliments. Your body does incredible things for you – it breathes, it dances, it laughs and so much more, so focus on all the amazing things about it!
  • Look at yourself as a whole. You are not just how you look. Focus on all the good things on the inside that make you who you are.
  • Eat Happy! – I’m not talking about dieting, I’m talking about maintaining a healthy, nutritious diet, as this does wonders for how you feel in your body (see here for more)
  • Surround yourself with positivity – it is far easier to feel happy and confident when you are surrounded by supportive and encouraging people.
  • Every time you realise you are thinking negatively about yourself, think of three things you like about yourself.
  • Do something kind for your body – take a bubble bath, relax in a comfy chair… something that lets your body know you appreciate it.
  • Replace the time you spend worrying about yourself with helping others. Reaching out to others will help you to see that you have value and can make a positive impact.

In an age of social media and Photoshop and filters, we are constantly being told that what we are isn’t good enough. But a key step on the road to happiness, I think, is accepting who we are, rather than striving to be something different. So give yourself a bit of a break, Hubbers – focus on your strengths, remind yourself you are so much more than how you look, and practice a little self-appreciation.