Now and then, my iPhone likes to taunt me with old photos from my camera reel. They pop up as memories, usually in a slideshow with a theme like “Fun At The Beach” or “New Year’s Eve Over The Years.” Seeing old photos of good times with friends should make me happy. But at 35, when I look at these photos, all I see are the thinner, younger versions of myself that I’ll never be again.

I get that change is inevitable. That comparison is the thief of joy and all that. So why can’t I accept that my younger thinner self smiling back at me in these photos is someone I’ll never be again?

Breaking free from the body comparison trap is a common and complex problem that neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez helps patients navigate in her practice. “Societal standards often emphasize thinness as an ideal, creating a cultural bias that equates it with beauty and success,” she explains. “This ingrained perspective can lead individuals to internalize that their worth is tied to their appearance, making it difficult to detach from past images that align with these standards.”

Though easier said than done, it’s possible to break the cycle of comparison and love and accept your current body for all it is — rather than focusing on what it used to be. Here’s how to leave your past body in the past and love your present self.

The Psychology Behind Body Image

Body image, or the way we view our body, can greatly impact our self-esteem — something that Angela Ficken, a licensed psychotherapist based in Boston, sees often in her work with eating
disorder patients. “Body image significantly impacts self-esteem because it’s closely linked to societal standards of beauty and success,” she explains. “Social conditioning can create a pervasive belief that only certain body types are desirable, leading to negative body image in those who don’t fit these narrow standards.”

Woman Talking to Therapist

As a teenager in the early 2000s, I got the message loud and clear that thin was beautiful. Rail-thin actresses permeated all the TV screens and magazines I spent so much time with. I also found that the thinner and more in shape I was, the better I was treated.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Carol Chu-Peralta, life experiences like these create associations in our brains that are hard to break free from. “When we experience happiness and external validation when we are ‘thin,’ we create and strengthen that neural association,” she explains. In other words, our mind begins to believe that thinness equates to happiness. “This association of thinness and happiness also gets reinforced through our social media, TV, movies, etc, where thinness is promoted as ‘ideal’ and ‘beautiful,’ and ‘what most partners want,'” she continues. This constant idealization of being thin makes it hard to let go of the time we spent as the “ideal.”

Between constant social conditioning of the importance of being thin and unrealistic media portrayals of a beauty standard that so often are edited or enhanced by angles and lighting, a person’s self-esteem and body image can only take so much. Over time, experts say these experiences end up chipping away at our self-worth. “Constantly comparing our bodies to others can lead to feelings of inadequacy or low self-esteem, especially if we think we don’t measure up to the people we compare ourselves to,” explains Alyssa Scolari, a licensed professional counselor who sees patients struggle with this often. “When we look at others and wish we looked like them, it’s easy to overlook our unique qualities and strengths,” she says. “This can dampen our overall mood and how we feel about ourselves, sometimes even leading to anxiety or depression.”

This constant comparison of ourselves to unattainable ideals can lead to more serious issues. The stress and anxiety from trying to meet unrealistic beauty standards can be overwhelming, potentially affecting both our mental and physical health, says Hafeez. “Such comparisons also increase the risk of developing or worsening eating disorders, as people might resort to unhealthy habits to achieve an unrealistic body image.”

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