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by Stacey Colino

Here’s a sad fact: More than half of American women are unhappy with their bodies, according to one survey. The most bothersome body parts: waists, hips, and thighs. But being thin doesn’t guarantee satisfaction. What’s often crucial, researchers have discovered, is how much your family and friends focused on your appearance when you were growing up, and whether you received compliments or criticism.

You can’t change the past, but you can change how you feel now—and in just a matter of weeks. Here’s how:

1. Expand your notion of beauty.
Many characteristics make people appealing—and most of them have nothing to do with fitting into a size 4. Even when you focus on physical appearances, remember that the definition of beauty has been fluid through the ages. To see what era most suits you, sift through various images of beauty as portrayed by different artists. Pay attention to the goddesses, who have historically been voluptuous figures with a strong sensuality.

2. Silence your inner critic.
Listen to how you talk to yourself. Instead of making hateful comments, try to give your self-talk a more positive or at least a neutral spin, a process known as cognitive restructuring. You might remind yourself that while you’re not physically perfect, you have features that you like or are objectively attractive—such as arms made firm by weight training.

You can also try examining how you feel about your body parts, rating each as OK, terrific, or problematic. Chances are the majority of you is perfectly acceptable.

3. Make your body more powerful.
Research shows that when women shift from a focus on looks to a focus on function, they feel more positive about their bodies. And exercise is an important tool for making that change. One study, for instance, found that people who participated in a circuit weight-training program experienced greater body satisfaction and decreased anxiety about their appearances—after just 6 weeks.

4. Take a reality check.
Women frequently overestimate their flaws, especially when it comes to waist and hip sizes. So try this: take a piece of string and use a paper clip to mark off how much you think you’d need to encircle your waist. Then, wrap the string around your waist, mark your real size with another paper clip—and notice the difference.

Another way to stay in the reality zone: Get rid of your fat and skinny clothes. Instead of pretending you’re about to change size, work with what you have. Identify your best and worst features, then hide or highlight them with your clothes.

5. Feign confidence.
Stand tall, with your head high, your shoulders back, and a pleasant expression on your face. Remind yourself that you matter and that you’re entitled to take up space in the world; then walk in a way that expresses that attitude. Eventually, the feeling will come naturally.

6. Befriend your mirror image.
Here’s a good way to get ready for swimsuit season, especially if you’re uncomfortable without clothes: Start by looking at yourself (fully clothed) in a full-length mirror for 30 seconds, focusing on the areas you like. Next, try more figure-hugging or body-baring clothes. Breathe deeply and compliment yourself on some aspects of your appearance while gazing at your image. In time, you should feel more at ease.

7. Treat your body kindly.
Maybe you love the way it feels as you swim. Or perhaps you relish the sensation of soil in your hands as you garden or the flush of exertion while you’re dancing. Sensory satisfactions take the emphasis off your appearance and put it on how you experience your body. This enhances your appreciation of your physical self.

So do the healthy choices you make daily—to rest when you’re tired, go for a walk after a fight, or moisturize your dry skin. And eating well will help you feel better about your body, too.

—Stacey Colino writes about health and psychology for The Washington Post, Newsweek, and other publications.