'I Feel Fat': The Real Story Behind Body Image Research

I feel fat. It's the absolute worst thought to have while getting ready. That, or possibly, I hate my muffin top!

Isn't it amazing how many vocabulary words have been created to describe undesirable areas of fat on a person's body? Muffin top, bat wings, love handles, fupa, cankles...

Yesterday, I was going through my usual get-ready routine -- I shined my lips, de-shined my forehead, fluffed up my hair, patted down my bangs, lifted up my boobs, pulled down my hem -- and after all that, I still didn't feel all that great. I slammed down my curling iron and said, "This has got to stop."

I wanted to do something to make me feel good on the inside, not just look good on the outside. So, to get some ideas on improving my body image, I went online. A cursory Google search led me to the Yahoo Answer forum, "How to stop feeling so fat and ugly" (yes, really). You might not be surprised to hear that there was absolutely nothing helpful there.

Next, as a research junkie, I turned to the studies. There had to be some science on body image boosters that I could use while getting ready in addition to (or ideally, in lieu of) my makeup and hair routine.

First, I learned that I'm not the only one with body image on the brain -- a survey of more than 45,000 Australian youths found that they ranked body image as the third biggest concern in their life. This was not surprising, as "grow boobs" was number one on my New Year's resolution list for at least seven years. At 22, I finally gave up and put "get a job." It took a while, but I finally got my priorities straight.

Next, I found a ton of completely ridiculous studies on the negative impact certain activities have on body image. Really, looking at skinny models make women feel fat? Shocking.

According to my online research, here are some of the other groundbreaking things destroying women's body image:

• Going on Facebook
• Looking at fashion magazines
• Looking in the mirror (Well, that's sad.)
Friends with bad body image
Chick Lit

These findings are not exactly easy to apply in real life. How much would it suck to dump a friend just because she has bad body image? That seems kind of harsh. What would I even say to her? "Umm, yeah so we can't be friends anymore because you think you're fat."

And now, looking in the mirror hurts body image? Does anyone else think that this is the saddest finding ever? Not to mention how hard it would be to stop looking in the mirror. But brave Kjerstin Gruys did it for one whole year!

We need some practical body image boosters that actually work. I combed the positive self-esteem and body image studies and attempted to squeeze applicable nuggets out of them. Could any of these so-called body image boosters actually work in real life?

I decided to test these body image claims as the latest installment of "Human Test Tube," a column in which I take scientific research and see if it works in the real world. While the results are only occasionally successful, they are always hilarious.

My goal is to see if my readers in real life could actually apply any of the academic research.

The research on what helps body image is a bit less ridiculous, but not by much. Here is what supposedly helps body image:

Working out
• Listening to your heart
• Lifting weights
Skinny celebrities (What the what!? Other research says the exact opposite -- don't worry, I plan to investigate.)
Friends with good body image

So, I picked the studies that actually have practical application and went about testing them on myself, your humble human test tube.

Operation Inside Out

I wanted to test these out during the time we most want to feel the like rockstars: Before a big night out. Whether I'm getting ready for a big date, a networking event or a job interview, I tend to think mostly about how to enhance my appearance to make a good impression. I wondered, in addition to primping and prepping my appearance for a night out, could I also primp and prep myself on the inside for a night out?

Could I use some of the self-esteem boosters from the research as part of my getting ready routine? I'm going to find out if prepping my inside is just as helpful as prepping my outside.

8:34 a.m. Confirm RSVP for a major networking event that charges me a stupid $30. This better be worth it... because it is the perfect event to try Operation Inside Out.

10:02 a.m. In addition to thinking about hair and outfit, I plan my inside out prep pre-event. Here is what I plan on trying (the most applicable take-aways from the body language studies):

• Working out with weight lifting
• Listening to my heart
• Looking at pictures of my favorite skinny celebrities
• Talk to some friends with good body image

12:34 p.m. Begin to gather materials. I borrow some free weights to do a light workout and ask around for a stethoscope to listen to my heart. My neighbors think I am crazy, and I have no luck finding one. I will have to use my fingers on a pulse point (boring!), but it will have to do.

3:18 p.m, Text my friend with the best body image of anyone I know and ask her to chat with me while I get ready for my Human Test Tube column. She agrees!

4:26 p.m. Put pictures of skinny celebrities on my iPad so they can scroll automatically while I am getting dressed. I feel silly already.

5:20 p.m. Go over my old getting ready routine with new body image study suggestions and decide it will be easy to chat with my friend during makeup and scroll through pictures while getting dressed, as these would be the easiest things for my readers to incorporate into their routines if they are worthwhile.

6:15 p.m. I pump some Britney (don't judge) and get my mini-workout on. I'm feeling pretty jazzed -- until I hit my elbow on my desk trying to be Xena, Warrior Princess during my squats. Maybe I can match my eye make-up to that bruise.

6:30 p.m. Hop in the shower and notice that I'm moving at a much faster pace than normal. Perhaps the mini-workout will speed up my prep routine to make-up for the extra time the training session added... the adrenaline definitely helps keep me moving. Sing, "I Feel Beautiful" in the shower -- none of the research studies suggest this, but the acoustics of my bathroom make my voice sound amazing while singing this song.

6:47 p.m. I dial my favorite confident friend and blab with her while doing my makeup. (She's on a boy diet after a bad break-up, is embracing the color purple and is going try being gluten-free). I notice it is way harder to concentrate, but I'm having way more fun going ready -- wow, time flies. I have to get a move on!

7:02 p.m. I get dressed and while doing my hair, look at some of the pictures on my iPad of my favorite skinny celebs. According to the research out of the University of Buffalo, admiring skinny celebrities that we like can make them feel more relatable -- and therefore thin. I look at the iPad pictures of Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey and Jessica Alba all glammed up. I feel absolutely nada, zilch, waste of time. But I think of Tina Fey's Bossypants and start to giggle. That's a plus.

7:09 p.m. Time to listen to my pulse, which is, in my opinion, the oddest suggestion of all the studies. But, I sit down on my bed and count my heartbeat for three short stints of 25, 35 and 45 seconds, like the participants in the study for a total of just under two minutes. Amazingly, this completely centers me from all the running around I had been doing for the last 45 minutes -- or 8 hours, if you count the work day.

7:15 p.m. Off to my event and even though my getting ready routine took a little extra time, I feel really good. Excited from talking to my friend, still motivated from the workout and quite grounded after the meditation. Maybe there is something to this!

The Take-Away:

Surprisingly, except for looking at pictures of skinny celebrities, all of the suggestions helped my confidence and two colleagues at the event said I looked "tan" and "rested," neither of which were true. Score!

In the end, looking at celebrities wasn't helpful, but I decided to start incorporating the three suggestions that worked -- mini-workouts, talking to friends and listening to my heartbeat -- into my getting ready routine over the last two weeks. And here is what is worthwhile to try:

1. Schedule "Phone Dates" With Your Friends While Getting Ready

Let your friends know about the positive effects of confident friends and ask them if you can schedule phone catch-up dates with them while getting ready for big nights out. I have noticed that not only do I look forward to getting ready now, but I also get to catch up with people and giggle while getting ready -- if that doesn't boost your mood, nothing will!

2. Plan Your Workouts Pre-Event

I never usually exercise before a big night out, but it is a great way to work out nerves and there is something to those studies on lifting weights -- I look and feel more toned. The adrenaline and positive endorphins post-workout are a great mood and self-esteem booster.

3. Meditate Before or After

Listening to your pulse is another form of meditation and I have really fallen in love with doing it before going out. Whether you do this before your routine or right before walking out the door, there is something to be said for grounding yourself and pausing to reflect on your inner state as well as your outer one.

4. Get Ready With Friends

I used to get ready with friends all the time in High School, but I never do it anymore. If you have a big night out, start it a bit earlier and get ready together. Blast some music and you can even get a mini-workout in.

5. Mini-Workouts At Home

You don't have to do a huge workout to reap the benefits that exercise has on your self-esteem. I have gotten some great workout videos online and a mini set of weights -- even soup cans work well for weightlifting. Even 15 or 20 minutes I have found is enough to boost the heart rate and snap you into a feel good mood.

Overall, it seems the body image research wasn't too far off from the truth. The most important take-away I got from this human test tube column was how just being aware of how I feel about myself was even more important than what I did about it. We so often focus on the outside, we forget about how we feel on the inside. Not paying attention to the negative thoughts doesn't mean they aren't there. Locating and then combatting them, no matter how you do it, seems to be more empowering than anything else.