While it may not have been the first time I was critical of my body, the first time I remember being critical of my body, or of objectifying my own body, is when I was 8-years-old. I was watching something on TV and it was definitely not a show for children. On the show, the it-girl started talking about her weight loss, going as far as to name how many pounds she weighed. I remember thinking that I weighed less than her, and equating that to mean that I could be attractive too… It’s painful to think about my 8-year-old self already learning to equate thinness and weight with my worth, but that’s exactly what was happening. My relationship with my weight and with my body has been complex, and riddled with disordered eating and periods of self-loathing. And I know that I’m not alone. So many of the people in my life and the clients that I work with, people that are strong, intelligent, and creative, also struggle with how they view their bodies and how they care for their bodies. For many, this is especially true at the start of the year.
Every year we receive countless messages about setting “new year resolutions” and embracing the idea of: “new year, new you.” The pressure to start a new diet or exercise routine at the beginning of the year is something we all know well. We are inundated with emails and targeted marketing telling us that the new year is a time for transformation, a time to really commit to exercise, dieting, or both. We are encouraged to shed all of the worst parts of ourselves from the prior year including, in many cases, any weight we may have gained and to become newer, better, thinner versions of ourselves. And as much as we may understand that the messages are really focused on making us feel poorly about ourselves so that we will spend on our money on what is being sold (a new diet, a new gym membership, etc), we may also internalize the message that our weight is synonymous with our intrinsic worth. Or that something is wrong with us and that it can and should be fixed.
This can be incredibly damaging as many people do turn to all manner of unhealthy fad diets and punishing exercise routines in the hopes of being ‘better’, and even happier and more successful, than they were the year before. This way of thinking also affirms that the way our ever fluctuating bodies look at the beginning of the year is something to blame ourselves for and that our bodies aren’t good enough as they are. Ultimately, if and when we struggle to keep up with these new diets and routines, that blame and guilt just becomes compounded, resulting in serious harm to our self perception and self esteem. And the tricky thing is that even for those that are media literate and that are critical of the messaging (i.e. those who do not pursue a new diet or sign up for a new gym), there have been studies that show that they are still left feeling less happy about their bodies when they are exposed to something with this intended outcome.
It’s important to note that so many of these messages have been steeped in fat phobia and anti-fat bias, which has come to light over time and has slowly changed the conversation. While the shifts started in the 60s, it wasn’t until the past few years that we as a society have become more critical and more conscious of the impact the media has on our body image and sense of self. The movements have morphed and changed, and they started with the fat acceptance movement, which was focused on ending the culture of fat shaming and discrimination based upon one’s size or body weight.
Next, came the concept of body positivity, which grew out of a very real need to offer an alternative to the toxic societal standards of beauty and body image that was the norm for many generations. It focuses on being positive about one’s body, irrespective of how it does or does not fit into societal standards. The idea here is that all bodies are beautiful, and that all bodies should be celebrated. This is true for bodies of different sizes and for other margnizalied bodies, including BIPOC bodies. Over the years there have emerged many deviations from body positivity in the realm of critical thought around body image. Body acceptance, body neutrality, and the concept of health at any size, just to name a few, offer different perspectives that stem from the mainstream body positivity movement.
While body positivity is still mainly focused on how the body looks relative to others, body acceptance may be more personal. It allows us to look at our bodies and find contentment and compassion for all of its perceived imperfections and flaws. With body acceptance, our stretch marks, cellulite, scars, body hair, etc are all deserving of care and kindness. It also encourages the practice of radical self love, wherein we find internal sources rather than external for our sense of worth.
Body neutrality, on the other hand, works to uncouple our physical traits with our idea of self-worth. Born out of a response to body positivity, the aim of body neutrality is to shift our focus away from how the body appears, especially as it relates to eurocentric standards of beauty. Fat rolls are just fat rolls- they’re not good or bad. Instead of putting value judgements on individual characteristics, you simply accept their existence without judgment. For some, the potential advantage of body neutrality over body positivity is that as a tool it is not as heavy an emotional burden to yield. Being positive is a challenge when there are so many external factors trying to present their contrary opinions on the matter. It can feel like a constant battle. But deciding to simply remove yourself from the war? It’s a very powerful move and for some, it’s also more manageable. There is a much shorter distance between hate and indifference than there is between hate and love.
Taking a position of body neutrality can look different for people with different bodies, including differently abled bodies, but it can also include taking the time to honor what our bodies can do for us. While some may elect to focus on strength and ability, we can also consider our organs or other body parts: how our eyelashes keep sweat out of our eyes, how our intestines allow us to digest our food and extract what we need, how our bodies can cool themselves by sweating when we are warm, et cetera.
Finally, the idea of health at any size focuses on the fact that size does not equate to health and vice versa. In order to be considered healthy we have long been told that we need to have a certain amount of body fat, fit within what is considered a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) for our height and wear a certain size of clothing. The idea being that if you fell outside of these parameters, you would most certainly be suffering from a variety of associated health conditions. Advancements in medical understanding have since debunked this theory and proven that you can exist well outside of any of these metrics and still live a full and healthy life. Additionally, this invited us to consider how the medical model may have offered a smokescreen for fat phobia and anti-fat bias. While people can easily name health as a concern when it comes to folks who are “overweight” (Over whose weight? Over what weight?), the same concern does not always seem to be extended to folks who are restricting food or are experiencing mental health challenges due to the standards of health and beauty that were established and reinforced.
Traditional standards of beauty can have very real consequences for one’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Body dysmorphic disorder (“BDD”), for example, is a fairly common condition wherein an individual cannot refrain from obsessing over perceived flaws they find with their bodies. This could look like anything from fixating on how many moles they have or obsessing over the way their stomach isn’t as flat as they think it should be. While there are many reasons why BDD can manifest, a component of it is almost always connected to low self worth/self esteem. Treatment of some kind is usually needed to combat BDD effectively but a part of that will focus on changing the ways we talk to ourselves about our own bodies. Body positivity could be a stretch for many with BDD but body neutrality may still be achievable.
So how do we change our relationship with our body?
- A vast majority of how we experience our bodies is rooted in what we internalize and the, largely negative, self talk we engage in. It can be deceptively hard at times to find our way out of the rabbit hole of negative thoughts and perceptions of our bodies. The first step is to try speaking to ourselves with more kindness and compassion. This could mean telling yourself that your body is there to help you, to carry you from one day to the next and that it isn’t there to be picked apart. Or telling yourself that you’re allowed to love your body for what it does for you, rather than how it looks. By doing so you can begin the process of unlearning all of the harmful ways you were taught to think about your body.
- When trying to practice body acceptance, a good habit to adopt is to regularly remind yourself of all of the things about your body that you do love, especially the things that are unique to you. It could be the shape of your eyes, the definition of your legs, or even something as specific as the arch of your feet. Take some time to consider why you love these things, why they make you happy and how you can celebrate them more in the future.
- Examine the impact your relationships have on the way you feel about your body and how you treat your body. If spending time with certain family or friends means that you are being told about their recent diet and, in turn, you leave feeling worse about yourself and your body, it could mean that these are relationships you want to reevaluate. You may consider naming how you are trying to develop a new relationship with your body and that you’d prefer that dieting, exercise, and/or negative comments about anyone’s body (including yours) be left out of the conversation. If that doesn’t work, you could also consider how often you want to engage in these relationships.
- Consider the media you are exposing yourself to, and what you’re consuming. As we mentioned earlier, even if you are conscious of the intention behind the media (which is almost always to make money), the impact doesn’t go away. So if you’re on social media, try to follow folks with differently sized bodies and who also embrace body neutrality. If you’re watching a new show, try to find one that has characters with different sized bodies and with marginalized bodies.
- Think about how you’re taking care of your body and why. Are you listening to your body? Are you ensuring that your body’s needs are being met? That includes the need for rest, the need for nourishment, the need for care, and the need for movement.
Ultimately, however we choose to change our thinking around our appearance, the most significant thing to remember is we are always our own harshest critic. Without a doubt, societal expectations have a big role to play, but the ways we internalize those expectations of our appearance, and the ways we can do away with those thought patterns are up to us. So strive to offer yourself care and compassion.
If you need help challenging your old patterns and your prior relationship with your body, please know that we are here to help. If you established these thoughts or patterns years ago (as I did), it can take a lot of intentional work to create change, but it’s definitely possible!