Body Image and How to Fight Back When Comparison Steals Your Joy

Body Image and How to Fight Back When Comparison Steals Your Joy

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” -Teddy Roosevelt.

I love this quote, but is it really true that comparison is the thief of joy? It turns out, actually, it is not so much the comparison itself but how you compare yourself to others that makes the difference. Gerber et al. (2018) analyzed over 60 years of research studies on social comparison and found that people generally tend to choose an upward (rather than downward) comparison target despite the fact that they feel worse after an upward comparison and better after a downward comparison. For example, when you look at Facebook and feel like everyone has a better social life than you, you are likely comparing yourself to your most social friends on Facebook and not to all the homebodies that either aren’t often posting or don’t even have social media accounts. Upward comparisons like this makes it appear that “everyone” has more friends, more party invites, and just generally a more active social life than you. Similarly, when we feel like we are overweight or out of shape, it is often because we are comparing ourselves to the thinnest or fittest people we know (you know, the ones that are constantly posting videos of their sweat-drenched workouts on social media to inspire us). When we compare ourselves with the most attractive person we know, Kylie Jenner, or Jason Momoa, then it’s no surprise if we feel a bit doggish by comparison. All of these upward comparisons leave us feeling less than.

Why people do this to themselves we don’t know. However, it is important to realize that our upward social comparisons are often biased in one or both of following ways:

  1. Attentional (or subject) bias occurs when we make comparisons with someone “attractive” while ignoring others who are less “attractive.” This bias comes from selective attending, which means only paying attention to features or people you consider relevant (e.g., thinness, thin people) and ignoring others.
  2. Assessment bias occurs when you evaluate others differently from the way you evaluate yourself. With regard to body image, people tend to make more generous snap judgments of others’ bodies whereas the evaluation of their own body is prolonged and critical. For example, walking past someone in the store we might take a quick glance and think “her legs are so thin” or “he is so built,” however at home we spend over half an hour in front of the mirror inspecting and harshly judging all our body parts we dislike.

Fortunately, the way we make social comparisons can be changed. We can learn to see our cognitive biases for what they are (Dalle Grave & Calugi, 2020):

First, try selecting your targets for comparison so that you end up with a more varied and realistic sample. Take a walk down the street and compare yourself with every third person you see that is about your same age and gender instead of only the thinnest and fittest people. Afterward, think about what you discovered. Is everyone thinner and more attractive than you? Are some people with different (larger, softer) body shapes  attractive? Is attractiveness only related to thinness or fitness, or is it also related to hair, fashion, and aspects of personality like kindness or sense of humor? What makes a person attractive is actually quite varied, and by stopping yourself from only making comparisons with people you judge to be more attractive in one way (e.g., thinner) than you, you will feel less insecure about yourself. If you want to feel better, social comparison researchers would suggest you try comparing yourself only to people whom you think are less attractive than you (a downward comparison). However, I would also suggest that you work to reduce the importance of thinness or physical beauty in your self-evaluation system by broadening your interests and honing your talents in other non-appearance related areas so that your “success” in life isn’t primarily based on appearance.

Next, go into a shared changing room at a gym or the YMCA. If you don’t have access to a shared changing room, you can watch an episode of Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid on Hulu or a similar show. Pick someone who you think looks “good” with clothes on and then (discretely!) look at the same parts of their naked body that you dislike about your own. Do people that appear attractive at first glance have “flaws” if they are studied more carefully and critically (i.e., in the same way you study your own body)? Do people who initially appear flawless upon closer examination have thigh dimples, stretch marks, rounded stomachs, saggy butts, scars, excessive body hair, bacne, or saddlebags under their clothes, too? What you “see” is influenced by the way that you assess your own body. Whether looking critically at others or yourself, if you go looking for a flaw you will find it.

With regard to media images, we can remind ourselves that celebrity photos are heavily manipulated with Photoshop to hide any “flaws,” which makes us (the consumer) want to buy what they are selling all the more…their latest movie or album, their clothing or perfume or shoes or makeup line. Many teens and young adults edit their own photos with Photoshop, Facetune, and other appearance-enhancing apps in order to get more “likes” on social media, and so will be familiar with this concept. A quick Google search turns up many examples of “before and after” Photoshops that parents can use to educate kids about unrealistic media images such as this one. Discussing with kids whether real women or men look like their fashion dolls or cartoon movie characters or favorite celebrities, as well as why the people who made or styled them didn’t make them look like real people, can help increase kids’ media literacy by understanding media’s role in consumerism. Ask them whether they think all men or women should look this way and why or why not. But if you or someone in your home is struggling with body image, it is often helpful to avoid looking at these types of misleading, unrealistic media images altogether. Remove fashion magazines from your home, choose the curvy Barbie instead of the less realistic one, go through the media-free check-out aisle at the grocery store, stay off Instagram or Pinterest, and unfollow celebrity accounts. Taking a break from social media while you are working on improving your body image can help reduce harmful comparison-making as well.

So, comparison can be a thief of joy if you fall prey to common cognitive biases. If you can learn to catch and correct your cognitive biases about appearance by adjusting your target, you will likely start to feel better about your own real and perfectly imperfect body. Sometimes upward comparisons can be inspirational if we think about what realistic and healthy steps we need to take to reach our goals…but if comparisons are stealing your joy, it’s time to make a change in the way you compare yourself to others. Try changing your perspective by thinking about people that have it worse than you – like those born with life-altering deformities or afflicted with degenerative diseases – and write a list of what you are grateful for about your body. Or perhaps, rather than comparing, spend some time thinking about your own positive features instead.


Dr. Rebecca Swenson is a licensed clinical psychologist and parent coach who works with children, adolescents, young adults, and families in Northern Michigan. If you or your child are struggling with body image, contact Dr. Swenson to learn more about evidence-based treatments for eating disorders, overweight/obesity, and body dysmorphic disorder.



Gerber, J. P., Wheeler, L., & Suls, J. (2018). A social comparison theory meta-analysis 60+ years on. Psychological Bulletin, 144(2), 177–197.

Dalle Grave & Calugi (2020). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Adolescents with Eating Disorders. New York: Guilford Press.