“Diseases of the soul are more dangerous, and more numerous, than those of the body.”
Picture this…you’re swimming in the ocean, gathering with your friends for a meal or walking into a concert. These sound fun, right? In your mind’s eye can you see if you are negatively comparing yourself to others? Specifically, are you comparing your body, exercise or eating? If so, how often? What is the purpose of comparing? How do you feel after? When we engage in mental habits, it is reasonable to question their function and whether they lead us into our soul’s darkness or light.
A recent study¹ found that college women tend to compare themselves to both strangers and friends in an upward manner. That is, they compare their bodies with those who they view as more ideal, their exercise with those who exercise more often and their eating with those who eat smaller portions and (seemingly) healthy foods. Many other studies² suggest that unfavorably comparing yourself to others increases body dissatisfaction. This link seems to be true of men and women, though stronger for women than men and inversely related to age.
What is your reaction to these findings? My hunch is you are not surprised. You may even realize you have the same mental habits and the same body dissatisfaction. While comparing yourself to others may seem normal—because it is pervasive—we generally have a drive to make comparisons that result in favorable outcomes. Unfortunately, that is not the case when it comes to appearance-related social comparisons. If you are caught in this negative habit, cycle, and body dissatisfaction, I encourage you to be active in making a change. If you seek out help from a professional, you will learn that there are many roads out of this thinking trap. If you want to try it on your own, a cognitive strategy using the mnemonic of Three 3 C’s³ to change your mental habits away from body dissatisfaction is a simple (though not easy) place to start.
Step 1: Catch it!
Catch your thoughts about other people’s bodies, eating, and exercise. Identify the specifics. Take an inventory of the frequency to capture the magnitude of the problem. During the upcoming week, keep track of how often and in what ways you negatively compare yourself.
Step 2: Check it!
At the end of the week, check the facts, function, and helpfulness of your habit. Sometimes our automatic thoughts take us in a direction we don’t mean to go, sometimes they are untrue and sometimes they break down our spirits. Are your thoughts helpful? If not, start working on reducing the negative self-statements that arise from comparing yourself to others. Focus on other aspects of the people to whom you are comparing.⁴ Gather evidence about the accuracy of these thoughts. Observe whether they lead to more or less distress for you. Determine the function of your thoughts. This will take time and journaling. Be open-minded and patient as you ask yourself these questions. Thoughts influence your feelings and actions so don’t give up. As you recall from above, research suggests that this type of comparing may lead you to feel more dissatisfied with your appearance. The only reason to keep the habit is if you WANT to feel more dissatisfied.
Step 3: Change It!
Write out and practice making self-statements that are more helpful, rational, and purposeful responses when you are observing other people’s bodies, eating, and exercise. Try observing without judging them or you. If your new factual and more compassionate way of thinking leads to less distress after a few days—you’ve got it. If not, try again to create and practice how you want to think about social comparisons.
The good news is that body image is not a fixed state. While some thinking will always be automatic (like breathing etc.), you can exert control as well. I hope you feel empowered to make positive changes in your thinking and improve your body image!
Fitzsimmons-Craft (2017). Eating disorder related social comparison in college women’s everyday lives. International Journal of Eating Disorders, DOI: 10.1002/eat.22725.
 Myers, T & Crowther, J (2009). Social comparison as a predictor of body dissatisfaction: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, DOI: 10.1037/a0016763.
 Creed, T (2015). Using the Mnemonic “Three Cs” with Children and Adolescents. (Link)
 Cash, T & Pruzinksy, T (1990). Body Images. The Guilford Press, NY.