According to the internet, the best way to happiness is slapping a smile on your face, which means those annoying guys who catch you in a moment of RBF — aka “normal face” — and then demand you “smile” are actually doing you a favor. This is because the smiling science says we can improve our mood by turning that frown upside down. Therefore, the best way to combat a poor postnatal body image is to grin whenever you have a down thought. Or not.
I Have An Admission
I have an admission: I am skeptical of much psychological research. Over the last several decades entire schools of thought have been built on tricking college students into acting certain ways, then asking them to rate their feelings, and then drawing conclusions about all of humanity based on these surveys. More recently the research has gotten a bit more sophisticated, often measuring chemicals and brain activity, but color me unconvinced.
In particular, the general tenor of smiling research deals with putting pens and pencils in people’s mouths while having them watch cartoons. Lately, the research has focused on bodily functions, often measuring neurotransmitters and heart rate when people move their faces in different ways. All this is interesting, BUT even if we could prove smiling releases dopamine, or that contorting their mouths into fake smiles makes people rate cartoons as funnier, the limited implications of this research are not in step with popular self help advice.
For example, in 2012 The Guardian published a post called “Self-Help: Forget Positive Thinking, Try Positive Action.” The title intrigued me because I’m partial to headlines playing on tropes. What is “positive action”? Do tell.
However, I was dismayed by the simplicity of the advice. The author tells us to put on a joker smile for 20 seconds to boost happiness — to eat with our non-dominant hand when dieting — and to wash our hands when we feel guilty: Not exactly the insights into human nature I was expecting. Even if we give this comical advice some scientific benefit of the doubt, it doesn’t take into consideration contrary evidence, such that forcing a smile might actually make women feel worse.
Ultimately, can smiling make you feel better? Probably. For how long? I don’t know. Is it the key to a better body image? Certainly not.
Forced Smiling Won’t Improve Your Body Image, But “Acting As If” Might
Although I’m highly skeptical of self-help advice that calls on “smiling research,” the studies bring up an interesting thought experiment. Do emotions cause physical changes, or do physical changes cause emotions?
For example, does smiling make you happy, or does happiness cause smiling? Clearly, happiness causes smiling. Anyone with kids knows that. However, I’m willing to concede that the opposite can be true too. Smiling can improve mood. But, just because faking it a little may promote a better mood, this doesn’t mean it can flip one around. How Stuff Works has a good run down of the evidence and comes to a succinct conclusion: “The theory basically states that in a state of emotional neutrality, putting a smile on your face can tip you in the direction of a positive feeling.”
So, yes, changing your physicality can have an affect on mood. Acting “as if” you are happy could conceivably push you in the general direction of happiness, at least temporarily, but not if too forced or too prolonged.
What Does This Have to Do with Body Image?
Body image is more complicated than mood because it is harder to define. Still, let’s ask ourselves: Can we inculcate a good body image by acting as if we have a good body image, just as we can (slightly) increase our moods simply by smiling? Yes and no.
Buying a new outfit, getting a new haircut, or putting on some lipstick are the body image equivalents of smiling. They probably work…temporarily. But they aren’t the body image Paradise.
However, over time, accumulated small and consistent actions probably do color body image. Acting as if you have a good body image might eventually bump up your body image a few notches (it helped me). Indeed, much of cognitive behavioral therapy rests on the assumption that altering behavior alters mood. For example, CBT for depression places a lot of emphasis on accomplishing small tasks, like getting dressed, taking a shower, committing to one social activity, etc… In other words, CBT homework involves doing things that non-depressed individuals do without even thinking about it. Over time, the routine itself can lead to a lessening of depression symptoms. (Note, CBT doesn’t tell depressed people to just “smile more” as a way to enact a positive mood.)
Having a low body image IS NOT the same as being depressed. The two can overlap, but plenty of non-depressed people have body image problems, and plenty of depressed people aren’t terribly upset about their bodies. I only mention depression as a well-known example. Like depression, body image is a vague term that only becomes concrete when specific actions are attached to it.
How is Body Image Enacted?
We know how a non-depressed person is supposed to function. But, how does someone with a good body image act? Does she strut in a bikini everyday (I wouldn’t try this in the winter)? Twerk in public (not possible with tight hamstrings)? Carry around a soapbox on which she can jump whenever someone mentions women’s bodies (too cumbersome)?
Nah. The best way to “act as if” you have a good body image is to first figure out what the heck that means to you. What does a good body image look like and how can you enact it?
Here are some possibilities:
- A good body image means looking at yourself as a whole person. How do you enact this? You could enact this by squashing global self-ratings, questioning your irrational thoughts, and committing to looking at other men and women as whole people.
- A good body image means taking a neutral stance to weight. How do you enact this? You could enact this by getting rid of a mental ideal weight and by focusing on how you use your body (exercise), rather than on your pants’ size.
- A good body image means wearing clothes that make you feel good about your body. How do you enact this? You could enact this by getting rid of clothes that make you feel bad (obvious, but not often done), by buying some new outfits, or simply by deciding some bulges here and there are normal and no big deal.
- A good body image means you don’t actually think about your body all that much. How do you enact this? You could enact this by removing body thought triggers (like reading fashion magazines), by engaging in intellectual pursuits, or by turning your focus outward whenever you start obsessing about your body.
These ideas are simply a start. They require fine tuning to suit your personality. However, if you’ve never attempted to define body image, then start there.
Remember, body image is as body image does. This doesn’t mean that you need to smile all the time, that you need to force positive thoughts, or that you need to don your bikini. But it does mean you can effect emotional change by figuring out what a good body image looks like to you and how you can actually enact it. But, please, no 20 second joker grins.