How to Stop Comparing Your Current Body to Your Former One

It’s easy to romanticize the past, but we’re not meant to look the same our whole lives.
Graphic of two bodies with backs against each other
Daryna Zaichenko/Getty Images

A mindless scroll through your camera roll can bring about mixed emotions. You may feel joy and nostalgia when looking back on that super fun friends trip, say, or all those late-night outings from your college days. On the flip side, this stroll down memory lane can also trigger some harsh self-comparison. “Wow, look at how toned my abs were ten years ago.” “My skin was so much tighter and brighter back then.” “I can’t believe I used to be such a fit and fast runner. What happened?”

Chances are, you don’t look the same as you did 20, 10, five, or even two years ago. Maybe you had a baby within the past decade or recovered from disordered eating. Or perhaps your metabolism just doesn’t work the way it did when you were a teen. Aside from major life changes, though, your body can also outgrow itself simply because that’s just a natural part of getting older, Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C, therapist and founder of the Eating Disorder Center in Rockville, Maryland, tells SELF.

“The same way we mentally mature over time, our physical body also changes as we go through pregnancy, for example, menopause, or even just plain old aging,” Rollin says. Yet most of us forget (or have trouble accepting) that it’s not only normal but inevitable for our bodies to evolve.

Of course, it can be incredibly hard to embrace weight gain, say, fine lines, or other changes to your appearance in a culture that’s constantly shoving a certain “ideal” look in your face. It would take real systemic change to shift that toxic messaging—which, unfortunately, isn’t such a quick fix. On an individual level, however, it is possible to challenge some of those harmful ideas about how you “should” look so you can feel more comfortable in your skin.

Here, body image experts share their best advice for accepting the whole “getting older” and “looking different” process that all of us, if we’re lucky, will have to navigate.

Challenge negative thoughts by grounding yourself with the facts.

“I used to be in way better shape.” “I was much prettier when I was younger.” Sometimes, negative self-talk is so automatic that we don’t even realize how unkindly we speak to ourselves. I mean, would you turn to your friend, say, or parent and critique their appearance so harshly? Essentially tell them they were more valuable human beings five years ago when they were a little bit younger and looked a little different? Probably not.

Rollin says the first step toward stopping unhealthy self-comparisons is recognizing them in the first place—which, no, isn’t as easy as it sounds. Notice when you’re convincing yourself you’d be more lovable if you looked like you did at 20 years old, say, or obsessing over how “unrecognizable” you must be to those who knew you in college. The next time you’re bringing yourself down in this way, remember that these thoughts are not facts based in reality, but rather superficial, biased, and sometimes distorted feelings (just feelings) stemming from insecurity, Rollin suggests.

“You don’t have to argue with your inner critic but, instead, practice mindful awareness by noticing your thoughts and consciously deciding that you’re not going to let this unhelpful, irrational mindset of self-criticism affect your sense of worth,” she says. So rather than staring in the mirror and gasping at your sagging skin, you might instead tell yourself, “Yes, my skin isn’t as tight and bouncy as it used to be, but that’s completely normal for someone my age and doesn’t make me any less valuable or attractive.” The more you actively challenge that mean little voice in your head, the easier it’ll be to tune it out.

Reframe your relationship with your body by focusing on its function.

In the moment, those new stretch marks or that extra flesh on your belly may make you feel as though you’re no longer in your “prime.” And it’s not your fault for thinking this way: We live in an anti-fat society that’s obsessed with staying young, Samantha Kwan, PhD, associate professor at the University of Houston and co-author of Framing Fat: Competing Constructions in Contemporary Culture, tells SELF. “This, in part, is because youthfulness is a central aspect of our culture’s beauty ideals, and despite modern discourses about body diversity, neutrality, and positivity, social media and pop culture still largely celebrate and prioritize thinness.

Self-acceptance is definitely easier said than done, especially when some of us have spent the majority of our lives trying to meet an impossible beauty standard. And you can’t exactly force yourself to appreciate every single part of your body. What you can do, though, is try to reframe your physical changes as natural and inescapable progressions of life, rather than problems to be fixed, Elizabeth Daniels, PhD, professor at the University of the West of England’s Centre for Appearance Research, tells SELF.

What does that look like in practice? Let’s go back to the example of stretch marks. Aesthetically, they may be very visible signs that you’ve grown and changed in size. But if you’re a mom, say, they’re also a lasting imprint of the beautiful life created inside of you. And those wrinkles around your eyes or mouth: Sure, it’s an obvious sign of aging, but it’s also proof that you’ve smiled a bunch and laughed your ass off, despite the hardships along the way. Or maybe your larger body is a reminder that you’re much healthier and happier than when you struggled with restrictive eating.

No matter what your physical changes represent, the key is to see them for what they are: signs that you’ve lived and evolved, not evidence that you’re less worthy. “This approach can make self-compassion a little bit more manageable and realistic,” Dr. Daniels says.

Write down what you really admire about yourself.

Love yourself! We know, this advice is pretty cheesy and may be entirely unhelpful when you’re freaking out and mourning your former self. But there’s actually research to support that physically writing down (not just thinking about) what you appreciate about yourself can prevent you from spiraling during moments of insecurity.

Sure, you might love your eyebrows, say, or your long legs, but try to also think about qualities that aren’t so tied to what’s on the outside (because even fixating on your favorite physical traits is just another way to attach your value to your appearance). Instead, you might scribble something like, “I don’t look the same as I used to, but I have great friends and a fantastic new job that I’m proud of.” Or, “I may not have a six-pack anymore, but I’m in a healthy romantic relationship with a partner who loves me for me.” By jotting down (and revisiting) these affirmations, you’re arming yourself with a new secret weapon for fighting off intrusive, negative body thoughts: a healthier, more optimistic perspective and a boost of confidence, Dr. Daniels says.

Think of your inner child or future, older self.

Remember when we asked if you would be as harsh to your loved ones? Rollin says it can be an effective exercise in self-kindness to also consider your inner child, or even your elderly self (a.k.a. you as a cute-as-hell old person in 30, 40, 50 years).

You can hang up a favorite photo of adorable little seven-year-old you near your bathroom mirror or maybe set it as your phone background—a reminder that this sweet, innocent kid doesn’t deserve unkind words about their thighs, say, or their under-eyes—and neither does your adult self.

If you’re not a big fan of the whole “healing your inner child” thing, not a problem. Instead, Rollin suggests imagining when you’re 80 or 90 years old after having lived a long, full life and asking, “What’s going to matter most to me in my final days?” Is it going to be the wrinkles and fat on your body—or the lack thereof during your younger years—or the friendships you’ve made, the goals you’ve accomplished, and the memories you’ve cherished? (Hint: It’s probably the latter.)

Resist the temptation to constantly scroll through your camera roll.

Perusing old Instagram posts or camera-roll photos can be heartwarming on occasion, but this habit can turn self-destructive if you’re obsessing over evidence of your former body.

“Many of us are guilty of zooming in on our stomachs, faces, legs, or arms and then critiquing them,” Rollin says. If you’re regularly tempted to search for proof that your body was definitely “better” back in the day, there are ways to manage these harmful behaviors. One example is to zoom out and actually look at the full image (including the sky and scenery, for example) so that you can see yourself similarly to how others see you: As a whole person, and not just isolated, magnified body parts.

If the urges to pick your photos apart or create side-by-sides of your past and present self are just too strong, you can also straight-up eliminate your ability to act on them. Dr. Kwan recommends transferring any triggering images onto a hard drive, say, or adding them to a Google Drive folder. We know you probably won’t want to permanently delete these memories, but tucking them away can ensure that you’ll still have access to them—just not right at your fingertips, 24/7.

Reevaluate who you’re following on social media—and who you’re surrounding yourself with IRL.

Even though you’re comparing yourself to yourself, the expectation that you should look the same as you did in 2013, say, is probably at least partially stemming from external factors, like a loved one's negative body comments echoing in your mind or that pervasive cultural pressure to “slim down” we keep mentioning.

As Dr. Kwan says, that inner dialogue (the one that’s convincing you there’s always something to improve) can be influenced by the people around us IRL as well as the ones we follow online. And if your feed is filled with influencers and celebs, in particular—who may or may not be retouching themselves with filters and Photoshop—it’s no wonder you’re feeling pressured to appear how you did 10, 20, or 30 years ago. That’s why it’s so important to open your eyes to the realistic, diverse, and equally valuable range of bodies that exist in reality, which can help you deprogram your narrow-minded vision of what is “beautiful,” Dr. Kwan adds.

For example, if you notice that a certain model’s posts makes you feel like crap, don’t be afraid to hit that unfollow button (because why would you want to keep seeing something that makes you sad and anxious?). Similarly, curating a more balanced following list—filled with people of a variety of ages and sizes—can remind you that hey, beauty doesn’t have one look, and there are actually tons of fabulous people in this world who are growing and changing along with the rest of us.

These boundaries should also extend into your real life, says Dr. Daniels. She recommends evaluating the people you’re surrounded by and considering keeping your distance from friends or family members who constantly gossip about others’ bodies or make you feel bad about your own. “It’s helpful to hang with those who support you for what’s on the inside and not just the outside,” she says. However, it’s not always possible to avoid body shamers, of course, which is why it’s equally as important to learn how to navigate their hurtful comments so they’re not so triggering—perhaps by changing the subject to that eye-opening podcast you’re hooked on or having a direct, honest sit-down conversation about why their critical words aren’t acceptable.

Don’t punish yourself with clothes that no longer fit or feel comfortable.

It’s a lot harder to focus on the present if the waistband digging into your hips or the material clinging to your arms is a constant, uncomfortable reminder of the past.

That’s why wearing only those clothes in your closet that fit and make you feel good (and tossing or donating the rest) can be a powerful step toward embracing your present self, Rollin says. If you can afford to, you can also buy some new comfy items that give you a body image boost. (If you’re overwhelmed by the mere thought of reassessing your wardrobe, try these therapist-approved closet organization tips.)

Still not convinced that you can feel good about your current form? Know that you’re certainly not alone. Even if you actively work on your body image using the tips above, you might very well still have bad days where you relapse back into that toxic, comparison trap—which Dr. Kwan says happens to most of us. “These suggestions focus on individual behaviors, but it’s important to emphasize that cultural changes, like uplifting more diverse images, are needed to dethrone the importance of appearance.”

In other words, it makes total sense why it may feel like your worth really is tied to how you look. But we—and all of the experts we spoke to—can assure you that’s a result of toxic programming from our appearance-obsessed culture. The truth is, your value lies in your personality, your humor, your kindness, your passions—whatever makes you, well, you.