Struggling with body acceptance – It’s Not Your Fault But It Is Your Problem
Most of us are socialized to be critical of our bodies. Whether it’s our families, communities, or our culture at large, we are bombarded by messaging regarding what constitutes an acceptable body. Children as young as preschoolers learn that certain bodies (often thin bodies) are more desirable than other bodies (often fat bodies). It’s not surprising that by the time children are in elementary school, many feel bad about the way they look and want to lose weight.
These concerns typically linger – and often intensify – as children grow into adults. One survey found that 97% of women have at least one “I hate my body” thought per day, and on average, 13 of these thoughts per day. That’s almost one negative thought about their body each hour. Some have significantly more.
A recent University of Missouri study of almost 900 young adults surveyed during the coronavirus pandemic found that over 40% believed it would be worse to gain 25 pounds during quarantine than to be infected with COVID-19. To be clear, almost half of the participants would prefer to contact a potentially deadly virus than to gain weight. This statistic highlights our collective body image struggle, as well as the cultural fatphobia that feeds it.
While you aren’t responsible for the cultural conditioning to which you are subjected, you (and we all together) are responsible for the fix. If you’re interested in improving your body image – for yourself, your children, or our culture at large – we’ve pulled together some actionable steps from Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and the body liberation movement.
Steps Toward Body Acceptance
1. Fight back: Learn about the cultural factors that contribute to your body image distress. Realize that you didn’t come into this world hating your body. But almost from the time that you were conscious that you had a body, you encountered training and direction about how your body should be. You were brainwashed – slowly and systematically – that there are only certain acceptable types of bodies. Understandably, you internalized these beliefs. With awareness and likely some rage, you can radically confront the forces that have corrupted your innate sense of self, the ideas that interfere with your inborn experience of yourself as acceptable and lovable. Oppressive systems like patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism negatively impact our experience of our bodies. Think about it: for every bad body thought you have, some system or industry will benefit. Educate yourself about the connection between oppression and body distress. True body liberation requires dismantling these systems through learning, advocacy, and ally-ship (particularly with folks who are more oppressed), in tandem with addressing how we think and feel about our bodies.
2. Curate a body-inclusive feed: If you’re only seeing thin or “perfect” bodies all day, it can be challenging to accept your body as it is. Diversify your feed. I’m not talking about the watered-down version of body positivity where thin, white women demonstrate self-acceptance despite those “additional 10 pounds.” I’m talking inclusion (and celebration) of all bodies – bodies of different sizes, races, ethnicities, genders, abilities, and more. Include a wide range of bodies on your feed. Even the mindless scrolling that many of us do at times can have a negative impact on our body image if the bodies we’re seeing are homogenous and culturally idealized. One study found that scrolling through body-positive Instagram accounts (as compared to “thin ideal” or “appearance neutral” accounts) resulted in improvements in body satisfaction and body appreciation, as well as positive mood. Make sure your feed is nourishing and supportive of you and your mental health.
3. Stop the attacks: Notice yourself engaging in bad body thoughts. Without judging yourself for having these thoughts, acknowledge them and try to unhook from them. Say to yourself, “I’m having a bad body thought,” or Ah, it’s the bad body narrative again.” Focus on observing the thoughts rather than the thoughts themselves. Recognize that you are not your thoughts. Every bad body thought you’ve ever had has left your consciousness. Commit to not engaging with these thoughts. While they might return later that day, hour, or minute, you can choose how much to engage with them. Say to yourself, “I’m not engaging with this” and allow your attention to continue to wander to another thought, feeling, or sensation. There’s no need to focus on body-positive or self-loving thoughts during this practice. Neutrality alone – the cease-fire of attacking thoughts – is enough.
4. Be conscious of and consider eliminating checking behaviors: Many of us engage in repeated body checking throughout the day. Maybe you weigh yourself frequently or try on clothes to assess for fit. Maybe it’s more automatic or unconscious than that – looking in the mirror repeatedly, especially at certain body parts, or using your hands to feel or “check” parts of your body. Each time you engage in one of these checking behaviors, you are reinforcing the idea that you “need” to do it. It might be calming for a bit, but body anxiety is sure to creep up again. Feeling the urge to body check – and then resisting the urge – can lead to an extinguishing of this behavior over time. When the urge occurs, notice it, name it, and offer yourself compassion. Then redirect your attention and behavior to something else. You might have to continue to redirect – as you would a newly mobile toddler – but redirecting over time can mitigate the urge.
5. Practice radical acceptance: Radical acceptance, a DBT skill, involves wholly and completely accepting something with your entire being: mind, body, and spirit. Radical acceptance does not mean that you like something or approve of it, but it does mean you accept it. Radical body acceptance might sound like, “This is my body. I accept my body as it is.” Notice how you might be resistant to radical body acceptance. Continue to “turn your mind” back to acceptance. As you practice radical body acceptance, soften your face and your physique. Unforrow you brow. Unclench your jaw. Lower your shoulders. Assume a posture or stance conducive to acceptance or willingness to engage in this practice.
6. Consider your body as a subject, not object: So much of diet culture encourages us believe our bodies are something to be viewed, flaunted, hidden, judged, or compared. But your body is capable of so much more. Instead of focusing on how your body looks (object), think of what it can do (subject). Create a list of sentences starting with “My body. . .” that are focused on function, not form, capability, not appearance. The more we focus on what are bodies are capable of (e.g., dancing; hugging; creating babies; resting; witnessing the beauty of art, nature, music; connecting with others, ) rather than how they present to the world, the more likely we are to move toward body acceptance.
7. Take a values inventory: What are your core values? What do you stand for? When you’re older, perhaps near the end of your life, imagine looking back on your years. What will you say was important to you? What did you spend too much time worrying about? What would you have wanted to prioritize more? These questions can help you clarify your values. The reality is that many who struggle with body acceptance (sometimes to a degree that it impacts their daily lives) will report valuing family, ambition, adventure, love, or truth – and yet spend the majority of their waking hours focused on their bodies. What do you want said of you at your funeral? That’s another way to assess your values. When you’re clear on your values, you can engage in committed action toward living them. The more time, attention, and energy you spend focused on living your values, the less brain space you have for body dislike.
8. Act “as if.” For a minute, imagine what it would look like if you were accepting of your body. What would you do? How would you think? What would be different? Is there a way to incorporate some of these changes now? Maybe you’re putting off buying new clothes, dating, or have sidelined yourself from participating in something you enjoy. Can you act “as if” you accept your body? What if you challenged the rules you have for yourself regarding your weight and life? What if you approached right now the activities and pursuits you’ve been putting on pause until after you’ve lost the weight?
9. Learn about the Health at Every SizeⓇ movement. The Health at Every Size (HAES)Ⓡ movement is a philosophy and community that encourages self-care, celebrates body diversity, and challenges much of what we’ve internalized about weight and health. The HAESⓇ principles include, 1) Weight inclusivity 2) Health enhancement 3) Respectful care 4) Eating for well-being 5) Life-enhancing movement. How can you incorporate these principles? Can you develop a more weight-inclusive stance regarding yourself and others? Can you pursue health regardless of your shape or size? Can you seek out providers who respect and honor your body? Can you eat both to nourish yourself and to pursue pleasure? After all, food is fuel and pleasure. And finally, can move your body in ways that are fulfilling and enjoyable to you?
10. Practice body gratitude: Every day, find at least one thing that you’re grateful for about your body. If your body could fight back to all of the criticisms, judgments, and abuse you’ve thrown its way, what would it say? What would it want you to notice, to appreciate, to value? Those kidneys potentially rocking their cleansing job? Thank you, kidneys. Your feet, which might have carried you around all day? Thank you, feet. Your skin that allowed you enjoy a massage, a bath, or a loved one’s caress? Thank you, skin. Note that body gratitude is a practice and can be challenging in the face of diet culture. Have patience and grace with yourself.