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How to Respect your Body

(whether or not you feel body positive)

Most of us don’t feel like “every inch of [us] is perfect from the bottom to the top”, and there’s good reason for that. Popular culture versions of body positivity, like Meghan Trainor’s viral song All About That Bass, suggest an unrealistic version of body image focused on feeling good about the shape and size of our bodies. Social media is also littered with posts from conventionally attractive 20-somethings touting messages of self-love — often with a hefty side of privilege and occasional ad placements for CoverGirl and Botox. Though those who deliver these positive sentiments are well-meaning, their message falls flat for the vast majority of us. 

Body dissatisfaction is reported by over 40% of men, 80% of women, and 90% of transgender and non-binary folks (though the data does not differentiate between gender dysphoria and dissatisfaction with body shape/size). With these rates, it’s no surprise that there is minimal response to “your body is beautiful just as it is!” and “boys prefer curves!”

The reason we feel so dissonant toward these messages lies within the social psychological phenomenon of “toxic positivity.” People who feel far from positive about their bodies, themselves, or their situations, may find messages that staunchly combat their negativity to be dismissive, paternalistic, and unrealistic. Imagine being told “happiness is a choice” or “you should smile” when you feel sad – those statements do little to nothing to alleviate your pain. Rather, people tend to respond better to messages that meet them where they are – suggesting that it’s okay to not be okay, holding someone’s hand through a tough situation, offering empathy and understanding. 

For body dissatisfaction, this may look like emphasizing the commonality of body image concerns, challenging the idea that body shape/size is associated with value or worth, and encouraging movement toward a more neutral stance. It makes sense that so many of us feel badly about our body image when we live in a culture that holds body size in such high esteem. When we combat body dissatisfaction with messages that reinforce the idea that the image of one’s body/how they perceive it is the problem, we reinforce the idea that body shape and size are important determinants of one’s value.  I’ve included a perfectly-put message from licensed professional counselor, Rachel Sellers, on this topic below, because I couldn’t have put it better myself.  Click on the image for a link to her website.

As a psychotherapist, I view body image as existing on a spectrum based on our experiences, attitudes, and behavior toward ourselves. For most, learning to like the image reflected back in the mirror can be extremely challenging. So, using the liking of the physical body as a metric for body image is likely to fail us. Instead, I mostly focus on feeling good inside one’s body, regardless of feelings towards the outside. This means that I neither encourage nor discourage people from trying to change their physical body (i.e., weight loss, cosmetic surgery, etc.).  I firmly believe that everyone has the right and autonomy to do whatever they choose with their bodies, and I can very much empathize with the desire to lose weight, get a nose job, or wear a full-face of makeup everyday.  I will, however, challenge clients to think about their reasons for making these changes to their bodies and critically evaluate their expected outcomes.  With weight loss, this can be particularly important as over 95% do not maintain weight loss for longer than 5 years.  In fact, weight loss efforts are more likely to yield weight cycling, weight gain, disordered eating, internalized weight stigma, body preoccupation, and distraction from health goals, than maintained weight loss.  Even in the event that a person successfully maintains their weight loss, they are unlikely to feel satisfied with their body – even when their bodies reflect their initial expectations or goals.  Clinical psychologist, Dr. Kelsey Latimer, describes this phenomenon as a “vicious cycle of not feeling good enough.”  In my experience, weight loss rarely fixes body dissatisfaction, in part because the negative feelings we have about our bodies typically have little to do with the actual image of our bodies.

Instead I work with people to feel empowered in their bodies. See how you can begin to feel empowered in your body, and break free from societal beauty standards:

*Disclaimer: I did not create the Body Image Spectrum and do not claim any ownership/rights over it.  The creators of this spectrum are Alex Raymond, RD, LD, CEDRD and Bobbi Boteler, RD, LD, CEDRD.  Kudos to them for creating such a useful tool that I regularly use in my clinical work!  Click on the image above for a link to the source.

Step 1: Body Hate

  • In this stage, you are treating your body with minimal respect or care.  You may feel that your body has no good qualities, and be withholding nutrition, care, and/or safety from yourself. 
  • Example/s: intentional self-injury; extreme restriction; self-induced vomiting 

Step 2: Body Respect

  • In this stage, you may still feel hatred toward your body.  However, you are able to provide your body with its basic needs regardless of your feelings toward it.
  • Example/s: feeling strong urges to engage in disordered eating behaviors and consistently eating and engaging in acts of self-care anyway

Step 3: Body Acceptance

  • You still probably do not like your body, but you are beginning to realize that trying to change its physical appearance is not serving you.  You may or may not accept the way it looks.
  • Example/s: you don’t like the way your body looks in a new swimsuit, but you accept that you cannot realistically change your body’s appearance before the pool party this weekend, so you wear the swimsuit anyway 

Step 4: Body Appreciation 

  • Still, your body’s physical appearance may or may not be acceptable to you.  However, at this stage, you are beginning to recognize the value your body holds outside of how it looks.
  • Example/s: you feel appreciation toward your heart for continuing to beat, even when you put strain on it through extreme dieting; you feel warmth toward your tummy for carrying a pregnancy; you appreciate your legs for supporting you through a marathon

Step 5: Body Peace

  • You may start to feel more than acceptance and appreciation, but a sense of peace toward your body.  There may be aspects of your body that you feel okay with, and aspects that you do not like, but you still feel peace toward these parts.  You are at peace with the fact that you will not be more satisfied with your body by changing it.
  • Example/s: you hear about a new diet craze and don’t feel tempted to try it; someone makes a negative comment about your body shape/size and you feel anger toward them instead of yourself

Step 6: Body Confidence

  • You may or may not feel confident in the physical appearance of your body.  However, you begin to feel positive and confident within yourself.  You are consistently treating your body with respect, and find yourself spending less time thinking about how you look.
  • Example/s: you try that new workout class you’ve been too insecure to join; you ask for a seatbelt extender on a plane rather than riding unsafely due to shame

Step 7: Body Liberation

  • Notice that this step is not called “body positivity” but rather “body liberation.”  The key difference is that body positivity usually refers to feeling positive about your body’s appearance.  Body liberation is about breaking free from the hold of societal beauty standards.  
  • Defined beautifully by the owners of Courage to Nourish, a group practice of dieticians and nutritionists, body liberation is where “you may not totally love the way you look all the time, but it doesn’t matter. What your body looks like won’t prevent you from engaging in your life, finding love, a dream job, clothes shopping, traveling….etc. You can appreciate all the little things your body does for you. Judgments about your body or other people’s bodies may pop into your mind, but they are often ignored or easily reframed.”

The process of moving through this spectrum does not have to be linear, and does not need to take any set amount of time.  It’s okay if “body liberation” sounds totally unrealistic for you, too.  Personally, I am rarely in a state of “body liberation” and my feelings toward my body change from time-to-time.  The key is to try your best to consistently exercise, at the minimum, body respect.  No, every inch of you is not perfect from the bottom to the top – and that’s okay.  You deserve basic human respect, regardless of your physical appearance.

If you think you might benefit from improving your relationship with food/body image, click here to learn more about working with me.  Check out my social media below for free resources and updated information on my services!

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