Something that I don't talk about very often is my relationship with my body. It sometimes seems strange to me that my body is always what I am perceived as, above all else. My thoughts, ideas, health, and personality have no meaning to the average stranger. To them, I am this body and nothing more. When so much worth is placed on our bodies, it's easy to become obsessive and self critical; especially with all the body policing we are exposed to with popular media. To me, the first step in overcoming a negative relationship with my body has been recognizing that my worth is not tied to my appearance.
That is not entirely a simple thing to do. As women, we are well aware of the scrutiny of our bodies and our worthiness associated with their condition (as determined by our society/culture). I've struggled with body image for most of life. When I was really young, it was that I was too thin. Then, as I grew, it was that I was the wrong kind of thin; the growth spurts meant stretch marks and awkward limbs. Then it was my "strangely" proportioned body. Then it was the acne. Then it was the weight gain. There was always something that was deemed not right by those around me and inevitably seen as wrong by myself. Why did there always have to be something wrong about my body? Couldn't my body just be a body?
Body acceptance is not about denying the existence of health problems. It is not about ignoring steps you could take to feel or even look better. Rather, body acceptance is about acknowledging that our bodies are what they are, and processing that without judgment or criticism. It is about accepting that are bodies are here to stay. That they aren't constant, but changing. That they sustain us and are us. Here are my favorite recommendations for achieving a body positive attitude:
When I began my journey toward body acceptance, it seemed a rather unfamiliar concept. It was definitely something I wanted to achieve, for my confidence, self-worth, and happiness. But years of internally telling myself that I was not good enough, and believing it, was simply brainwashing. You have to begin by investing time into your relationship with yourself, just as cautiously and lovingly as you do in your relationships with others. You have to switch that internal conversation from focusing on your flaws and faults to now obsessing about all the things you like about yourself. You have to feel validated beyond how you look. Find qualities, talents, attitudes, accomplishments you are proud of and build from there.
While your relationship with yourself is the most important thing (and what should be worked on the most) in your body acceptance journey, it is no doubt that other relationships in your life can have an affect on your body perception. After all, it is often negative comments from others that we internalize and play over and over again, that take the largest toll on our spirits. We are far more likely to love and appreciate our bodies if we believe they are accepted by others. You can't control the minds of others, and it is difficult to stop negativity about bodies amongst the general public. But, you can chose the people of importance in your life. Spend time with people who love you regardless of your size. Minimize contact with people who criticize your weight or appearance. If you're feeling particularly brave and there are specific people who critique your appearance regularly, try letting them know how it negatively affects you.
Eating should be fun and an enjoyable experience. You should savor a full range of foods without depriving yourself or forcing labels onto different groups ("good" foods and "bad" foods). I enjoy pizza and ice cream more than most other foods, but I'm done feeling guilty when I do indulge in them. Learn to keep negativity away from your food as much as possible (like, seriously, don't feel bad about eating that cookie). Practice healthy intuitive eating (post to come on this soon), meaning that you should eat foods that you like and that make you feel good (energized, nourished, strong, full). Learn to recognize your body’s hunger and fullness signs, and respond to them.
Health is the most important thing, always. Don't deprive yourself of food just to loose numbers on a scale. Diets don't work, lifestyles do. That number on the scale is just a number; in fact, let's just stay off that scale as much as possible. There are far better determiners of health — like what you are putting into your body, your activity levels, cholesterol levels, etc. Guess what? You can be healthy and fat! Just as the opposite is true, you can be thin, average, whatever size, and be unhealthy.
Being bombarded with media that critiques and attempts to police our appearance, it is easy and common to turn to comparison and negativity about our bodies and the bodies of other people. Try to avoid those sources of negativity and extreme photoshop and work hard to watch what you say about yourself and others. If you hear another woman criticize herself, refuse to join in. As women, we often try to console by one-upping like "Oh please, you don't look fat. I, on the other hand, feel like a whale and could barely pull these jeans over my ass this morning." Instead, stop the negativity by starting a conversation about influences that tell you you're not good enough because you don't look airbrushed, or offer her a sincere compliment. Above all else, focus on the nonphysical qualities that make people lovely and beautiful and unique. Sincerely compliment people on their achievements, personality, attitude, perseverance, spirit, talents... Below, I've included 6 things to stop doing to others.
1. Stop saying things like, “She would be so pretty if…”
2. Stop judging other people’s clothing choices.
3. Stop making up body parts to degrade, i.e. muffin top, cankles, saddle bags. And stop placing women in categories like pear shaped, apple shaped, etc. And please, please, please, let's stop the terms "baby making hips," "good breeding stock," etc. A person is a person, not a baby-making machine.
4. Stop avoiding the word fat. Sensitivity around the word only implies that it so horrible, so much so that you can't even talk about it. End body shaming by refusing to dance around the word and stop using replacements. Body size and having/being fat does not indicate the state of anyone's health!
5. Stop using phrases like "real women have curves," making it an "us versus them" thing. Real women come in all types, shapes, and sizes.
6. Stop assuming someones exercise routine or diet by body size. Don't casually suggest to thin people that they "must spend all day at the gym." Don't suggest exercise habits to fat people, like "maybe you should start by trying something simple, like walking more?" Stop telling women to be cautious of "bulking up" when they want to weight-train. The same is true of food, never tell someone to eat more or less.
The less you focus on your looks, the more time you have to focus on how your body is functioning and feeling. Switching to this perspective will allow you to appreciate all that your body does, and can do, so much more. As women, especially, we've been expected to accept this mysticism surrounding or bodies — particularly in regard to sexual/reproductive health and menstrual cycles. I urge you to learn as much about your body as you can. I certainly know that the more I know and appreciate all that my body can do, the more I treat it kindly — and consequently I feel far better about myself.
Going back to the first and second points of nurturing your relationship with yourself, do it often and in the same way you would nurture your relationship with other people. Do nice things for yourself and your body. For suggestions, check out the previous Learning Happy & Heathy topic, Practicing Self Care.
Good luck on your journey!