Having a positive body image is crucial to our overall health and wellness. If you feel good in your skin you are more likely to do activities that you enjoy, wear clothes that you feel good in, and feel better all-around mentally. Body positivity addresses how body image influences our overall well-being and mental health. This concept may sound foreign to you! Many people have heard negative messages about their bodies, have been inundated with messages about the ‘perfect’ body, and have internalized these messages and learned to feel negatively about their bodies. Many people become dedicated to achieving what they feel is an accepted body, no matter the cost of it mentally and physically.
Body image is a term used to describe how you view your body and the emotions tied to it. Someone with a positive body image feels comfortable in their skin, accepts their flaws and imperfections but appreciates what their body can do for them, and takes care of their body by listening to what it is telling them such as feeding it when it is hungry, resting when it is tired, and so on.
Many people, particularly women, struggle with having a positive body image. Some studies show that kids as young as 3 years old can start to feel as if their bodies do not fit the image of what is expected. Research has shown that having a negative body image is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other psychological conditions.
A negative body image can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. It can lead to eating certain foods just because you heard it might help you lose weight even though you don't like the taste, stressing about calories, getting on the scale multiple times a day only to feel frustrated and defeated. It can make you feel uncomfortable going to social events, feel trapped with your restrictive choices, and lead to a vicious cycle of guilt-restriction-overeating.
Media and advertising can lead us to believe that we should all look a certain way. Most of us realize that this is unrealistic and unhealthy but even with this awareness it still changes our inner dialogue and how we feel we should look. All of our bodies are unique and we all deserve to feel good about our bodies even if our body is different from how popular culture views an ideal shape, size, and appearance. There has been pressure on the media to make the images they portray to be more realistic and we have come a long way but many individuals, particularly women, still feel this pressure.
The body-positive movement started in the mid-1990s when a psychotherapist who had been through treatment for an eating disorder founded the website thebodypositive.org. The focus was on helping people feel good about their bodies while taking the focus off of using unhealthy diets and exercise to lose weight.
This movement has grown and changed over the last 25 years with a focus more accepting all bodies as beautiful. Some of the main messages of this movement are appreciating your body despite its flaws, accepting your body’s shape and size, feeling confident, and not feeling negative about natural body changes that occur with aging, pregnancy, or other lifestyle factors.
The body-positive movement has not been without criticism and this criticism brought about the idea of body neutrality. This is the idea that you don’t have to love everything about your body but you recognize and believe that your value as a person is not tied to your size or other aspects of your appearance. The goal with body neutrality is to focus on who you are, what you can/do contribute, and other positive things about yourself other than your size and looks and try to avoid negative thoughts that contribute to bad body image.
Working on being more body neutral can help you make more decisions that help you feel better about yourself and improve your feelings about food, physical activity, and even how you view others. It may feel impossible to move from years and years of hating your body to loving or accepting your body. Just as the idea of changing your genes to look like someone else is unrealistic, moving drastically from hating to accepting your body is unrealistic too!
The goal is to start loving (or just liking!) your body with some small steps. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Find something positive about your body.
Start small. If you have years of disliking and fighting your body, it will probably be hard to find something you like about your body. Maybe it is your eyes, your hands, or your smile. Find something you like and focus on that. Once you can practice with one part of your body you can slowly find other areas that you like. If you are struggling to find a body part you like, try focusing on something your body allows you to do that you enjoy. For example, my legs allow me to ride my bike which is something that makes me happy. Or my hands paint beautiful pictures so I appreciate my hands for creating art I can feel proud of and enjoy.
Start listening to what your body is telling you.
Are you tired, hungry, or uncomfortable? Often when someone has a negative body image they learn to deny these feelings or equate having these feelings to being a failure. When you listen and respond to what your body is telling you and rest when you are tired and eat when you are hungry you are giving your body what it needs to feel its best. Pushing yourself past the point of exhaustion or denying yourself food when you are hungry can lead to mental instability, overeating, feeling weak, and other negative consequences. Finding the eating schedule and exercise patterns that works for your unique body and preferences is the best program, not what the current fad or celebrity is embracing.
Get rid of the clothes that don’t fit.
Wearing clothes that are too tight is not only uncomfortable but also can worsen bad body image. It makes you more aware of your body and increases frustration that your clothes don’t fit because your body is not the right size. Finding some items that fit your body well and are comfortable will allow you to do things you love to do without feeling restricted. If you usually wear pants and long sleeves, even in the height of summer, find some cooler weather clothes. This could encourage you to be more social, engage in activities that you enjoy, and just feel better about yourself in general. Get out a trash bag and donate all the items that don’t fit or don’t make you feel good. Invest in some new clothes in your favorite colors and patterns.
Give yourself some space from people that make negative body comments.
When you are surrounded by others who are critiquing themselves and others all the time because of the way they look, you will naturally be more focused on these things too. Surround yourself with people that accept and support you and others. If you working towards losing weight or making lifestyle changes, having positive people that encourage you but aren’t judging you will help you feel more comfortable talking with them about struggles and successes. Of course, we all have bad days when we all feel weak and dislikes certain things about ourselves and this is okay. But we want to avoid having those days turn into the sole focus of conversation or a theme that leaves you feeling depressed and worthless. Remember, this includes social media accounts too!
Each of these steps can be hard. Start with taking baby steps to treat your body a little better and to respect its signals. This will slowly help you feel better in your skin, stop unhealthy crash diets and overexercising, and improve your outlook on living. Maybe you’ll actually join your kids in the pool (which is great exercise and FUN!). Maybe you’ll stop the restrict/binge cycle you have found yourself in, which in turn improves your digestion, yo-yoing weight, and improves your relationship with food. Maybe you’ll feel better in your clothes because you start buying clothes that actually fit YOU, which improves your confidence. There are many possibilities when you can slowly work on loving or accepting your body (even just a little more!).
If you are unhappy with your current weight or have goals to change your lifestyle to improve your overall health and feel better, the first step is accepting where you are now and working towards feeling good in your skin. Approaching this turning point with negativity towards yourself and your body and viewing food and exercise as your enemy or as a punishment will not lead to long-lasting change or a positive mindset down the road.
When we focus on accepting our bodies during our journey, we are also able to notice the other positive changes that occur with improving our eating and activity patterns. I talk to a lot of people so bogged down by the number on the scale and frustrated with their bodies, they forget to pay attention to all the good that is happening inside and out. I ask them besides the number on the scale or how they feel about ‘fill-in-the-blank body part’ how they feel since starting committing to a healthier life. Once they can separate from their negative body image, they proudly list all of the wonderful changes they have noticed but were distracted from. These changes could be more energy, improved digestion, more restful sleep, clearer skin, less stress, and so on. All of these changes are amazing and need to be celebrated!
According to the National Institute of Health, a focus on approaches that can produce health benefits independently of weight loss may be the best way to improve the physical and psychological health of Americans seeking to lose weight. If you are solely focused on losing weight and not paying attention to your overall health you can end up making changes that negatively affect your overall health and mental state. We need to respect and appreciate the diversity of body shapes and sizes and remember that there is no perfect body!
Feeling negative about your body can get in the way of doing things that are good for your overall health. When you feel more comfortable in your skin and accept yourself at the moment, you may feel more confident exercising and being active with other people. You may buy and wear clothes that fit you and make you feel good, rather than trying to squeeze in clothes that are too small and uncomfortable or hide your body in clothes that are too big. Learning to love and accept your body even while you are making healthy lifestyle changes may help you reach your goals and feel better mentally and physically…one baby step at a time!