As a nutrition coach, I often hear things like:
- “I just can’t accept my body at this size.”
- “I need to lose weight so that I can feel more confident.”
- “I will [start dating, apply for that new job, try that new class, etc.] after I reach my goal weight.”
The trouble with these statements and the fantasy of how amazing life will be at a smaller size is that they require us to put our life on hold, they perpetuate the weight bias in our culture, and they support the belief that we can shame our bodies into changing.
When people say they want to lose weight, they often mean I want to be respected. I want to be loved. I want to be seen. I want liberation from fear and self-loathing. Weight-loss culture will never give us those things because it is founded on fear/hate-based systems like sexism, racism, classism and ableism. — Virgie Tovar, Fat activist
Sadly, we live in a thin-privileged society. This means that living in a smaller body one gains privileges and access to things that those in a larger body don’t. Thin privilege looks like:
- Being able to find reasonably priced and in-style clothes in your size at most every store you visit.
- Not having negative health assumptions made about you based on your weight.
- Not receiving commentary on what you order while out at a restaurant or being judged for what you put in your shopping cart.
- Being found more attractive by society.
- Being more likely to get a raise or promotion at work.
- Not having your body shape be described by the media as part of an “epidemic.”
Because of this thin privilege and weight bias in our culture, the smaller you are, the greater the sense of “fitting in” you will have. But it doesn’t matter how small you are if you still struggle with critical self-talk, comparisons, and inner judgment. Not to mention, there has never been a research study that has demonstrated long-term maintenance of weight loss from dieting for any but an extremely small minority .
As you have likely experienced, the relationship that you have with your body is complex and ever evolving. You aren’t ever going to get to a place where every single day you love yourself. However, you can learn to treat your body with respect regardless of where it is at and how you might feel on any given day.
Below are five strategies to get you started. Disclaimer: this work isn’t easy and shifting the way you treat yourself won’t happen overnight, but at the very least you have far better odds in cultivating body respect than you do achieving sustained weight loss through dieting!
1. Consider Your Clothing
Take a look in your closet. What percentage of the clothes in there fit your current body? Of those clothes, what percentage do you actually enjoy wearing?
Every time you squeeze yourself into something that is slightly too tight or find yourself adjusting your shirt or pants or bra during the day, not only is it uncomfortable, but it perpetuates the message to yourself that you need to change your body.
But doesn’t getting rid of the smaller clothes mean I’m giving up? Accepting my body as it is now? But I just can’t accept this body!
Giving up and letting go are two different things. Wearing clothes that fit is an act of body respect. Hating and rejecting your body hasn’t worked well so far, so why not dress comfortably? Also, you can both feel frustration and conflict about your body and still take care of it.
Experiment: Conduct a closet edit. Donate (or pack away if completely letting go feels like too much) all the clothes that don’t fit or that you don’t like. If you want to keep a size up and down from where you are to allow for natural body fluctuations, that can be helpful, but put those clothes in a box elsewhere.
2. Embrace Joyful Movement
When you move your body in a way that is fun or empowering, you connect with what your body can do and how movement makes you feel. This helps shift the focus away from “cosmetic fitness,” or the use of movement to manipulate body shape or compensate for food. We are far more likely to continue a movement routine if we find it overall positive versus if we are solely doing it to burn calories and lose weight.
But at the end of a long day I struggle to get started with my workout regardless of whether I enjoy it or not. Are you saying that I will always feel motivated if the movement is joyful?
No, it doesn’t mean that it will be easy, but there is a difference between willpower and discipline. Discipline is challenging ourselves to get out the door to do what we know will feel good, versus willpower which is the motivation used to get out the door to power through a punitive form of movement. Discipline is sustainable, but willpower is a limited resource.
Experiment: If movement had no impact on your external appearance, what type of movement and how much would feel the best? What would you most enjoy?
3. Practice Self-Compassion
If every time you look in the mirror, your inner commentary goes something along the lines of “ugh gross” and then some pinching and poking happens, you are perpetuating the belief that your body should be different.
Kristin Neff is one of the leading researchers on self-compassion. Neff’s research shows that “self-compassion is associated with more intrinsic motivation, learning and growth goals, curiosity and exploration, and less fear of failure” . It helps people improve body image and eating behaviors.
But isn’t self-compassion just an excuse not to be healthy?
Quite the opposite. We don’t take care of things that we hate or dislike. Criticizing and judging our bodies only makes us feel worse. Taking out the judgement in our language allows us to still honor what we are observing without getting stuck in self-shaming.
Experiment: For one week, practice neutralizing your negative self-talk.
Instead of: “Ugh my stomach is so fat. I hate my muffin top.” And then analyzing yourself from a few different angles in the mirror.
Try: “My stomach is soft. My pants feel uncomfortable around my belly.” And then put on pants that feel more comfortable or walk away from the mirror and shift your focus to your next task.
4. Curate Your Social Media
As a culture, we engage with social media on a daily basis, some more than others. Media images are full of “fitspiration,” images of “ideal” bodies meant to inspire healthy lifestyle. Media images in general mostly reflect fit, white, cis-gendered individuals.
In 2016, two Australian psychologists did a meta-analysis of 20 previously published studies on social media and body image . The studies showed that use of any social networking site was linked to an increase in disordered eating and body dissatisfaction.
While research is still being done to fully understand these types of findings, the results so far have been alarmingly consistent.
Experiment: Do an assessment of your social media outlets (Instagram, Facebook, magazines you subscribe to, TV shows you watch, etc.). What messages are the images communicating? What types of bodies are you predominantly seeing? How does it make you feel about your body?
5. Choose Intuitive Eating
Intuitive eating is a way of eating that has nothing to do with diets, meal plans, discipline or willpower. It’s about getting back in touch with your internal hunger and fullness signals and learning to trust your body again. It is a lot easier to sustain a way of eating where the goal is to feel well both in terms of satisfaction and satiation.
If you are dieting, you likely are either feeling hungry and deprived or uncomfortably full after a “cheat day” or after unintentionally “falling off the wagon.” When you are dieting it is sending the message on a constant basis that your body needs to be smaller. It also takes up mental and emotional space that you could be putting towards other more important things in your life.
But if I ate whatever I wanted, I would only eat pizza and ice cream and would expand exponentially!
There is a difference between the rebellious inner toddler that wants all the things all the time, and the compassionate parent who understands the difference between physical hungers and emotional needs and is able to balance them.
Experiment: If food has no impact on your external appearance, what types of food and what amounts would feel the best? What would both satisfy you and satiate you?
Start getting reconnected with your internal hunger and fullness cues. For the next two days, check in with yourself before and after meals and gauge your hunger level on a scale from 1 to 10. What do the sensations of hunger and fullness feel like for you?
The relationship we have with our body is ever evolving and complex. In a culture that encourages us to constantly strive to be thinner and prettier, treating our body with respect can be a radical act! Doing so helps create not only a larger societal change, but also allows for greater freedom in your life and positive body inspiration for those around you.
- Bacon, L, PhD, and Aphramor, L, PhD, RD, Body Respect, Dallas:BenBella Books 2014.
- Holland, G, and Tiggemann, M, A systematic review of the impact of the use of social networking sites on body image and disordered eating outcomes, Body Image, Volume 17, pages 100-110, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1740144516300912