If you dislike your body, feel shame about it, or downright hate it, you’re not alone. So many of us call our bodies disgusting and don’t look in the mirror (or grimace at our features when we do).
So many of us miss special events (like holiday gatherings) or fun activities (like swimming at the beach) because we aren’t what we think we should be. We spend a whole lot of time and effort, and our hard-earned dollars on diets, diet books, meal replacement shakes, and workouts we don’t enjoy.
We do this in the hopes that we will finally be able to embrace our bodies, or at least stop ruminating about its many flaws.
In her adult life, Amy Pershing, LMSW, has been 10 different clothing sizes, and no matter what she looked like, she was never happy with her body. Because the striving never stops.
“The messaging all around me said there was more I could do to look ‘better,'” she said.
Now in middle age, she noted, “the demands have become even greater to change my appearance, and more costly. I am supposed to erase all the signs of a life lived. The presence of shaming body messages—and the selling of solutions for the ‘problems’—does not let up across the lifespan.”
A therapist in Ann Arbor, Mich., Pershing has found that most of her clients can’t imagine feeling at home in their bodies as they are. Therapist Judith Matz, LCSW, has seen the same thing at her private practice in Skokie, Ill.
Matz and Pershing are the authors of The Body Positivity Card Deck: 53 Strategies for Body Acceptance, Appreciation and Respect, which features thoughtful, empowering cards in four categories: self-compassion, body image, mindfulness, and self-care.
What is Body Positivity?
The term “body positivity” gets thrown around a lot, in articles, on social media. But what does it really mean? According to Matz and Pershing, “Instead of seeing our body as a billboard for the approval of others, body positivity invites each of us to experience our body as our home first and foremost.”
And it’s a home that we accept, appreciate, and respect, rather than criticize, shame, or hate, they said.
Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean that we must love our bodies all. the. time. After all, that’s not realistic, and it’s too much pressure. Instead, body positivity “invites us to unhook our body image from our value as a human being. We can ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ certain things about our bodies, but according to body positivity, these feelings change nothing about our body deserving the best care and respect we can offer.”
In other words, we are kind to our bodies, nourishing and tending to them, regardless of their shape, weight, or size, regardless of whether we woke up in love with our physical traits or struggling to like anything.
How to Cultivate Body Positivity
Practicing body positivity might feel like a tall order, especially if you’re drowning in negative thoughts and feelings about your body. So, where do you start?
Try these helpful suggestions from Matz and Pershing, starting with whatever strategy resonates most:
- Think about the origins of your negative body image. “Babies aren’t born thinking one size is better than another,” said Matz and Pershing. “Instead, we learn messages from the culture—including parents, peers, health professionals, and the media—that promote weight stigma by valuing a thinner body.” And then we internalize these messages as gospel. Reflect on these questions: What have I learned about how my body “should” be? What assumptions do I hold about weight? How do I decide what is “healthy” for my body? Do I judge others about their bodies or perceived health? Where do these beliefs stem from?
- Start connecting with others in nourishing ways. Many of our conversations are centered on calories, foods we can’t eat, weight loss, and diets we’re trying. Instead, Matz and Pershing encourage us to find “authentic ways to connect around lived experiences, challenges, interests, and dreams.” What conversations feed your soul? What do you want to share about yourself? What do you want to know about others?
- Declutter your social media (and any other media you consume). “Social media has a huge influence on body positivity, for better or worse,” according to Matz and Pershing. Scan the people, websites, magazines, and other media you’re following. Which ones promote weight loss and narrow standards of beauty? Which ones encourage you to care for yourself, whatever your appearance? Which ones do you want to look at, listen to, and consume? Be ruthless with your deleting and unfollowing.
- Shift your attitude to include all bodies. Consider that all bodies deserve appreciation, acceptance, care, and respect. This might look like: speaking up when someone makes a fat-shaming comment; teaching your kids that beauty, strength, and health come in all shapes and sizes; supporting organizations that are working toward ending weight stigma; and reading stories about people whose bodies have been marginalized. As Matz and Pershing put it, “You can cultivate body positivity even as you struggle with your own body image.”
You don’t have to change anything about your body to practice self-care or enjoy your life. If your mind is slow to get that memo, try to start acting as if you’ve already made this shift. In fact, jot down all the things you’d do if your body finally looked the way you (or society) thinks it should. Then, without making any changes to your weight or shape, move down your list, creating fulfilling days precisely as you are right now.
Judith is a nationally recognized speaker on the topics of diet culture, binge eating, emotional eating, body image, and weight stigma. She is co-author of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook and Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, and author of the children’s book Amanda’s Big Dream.
Amy is the founder of the Bodywise Binge Eating Disorder Recovery Program and Clinical Director of the Center for Eating Disorders in Ann Arbor, Mich. She’s an internationally known pioneer in the treatment of binge eating disorder, weight stigma, and body image; and author of the book Binge Eating Disorder: Journey to Recovery and Beyond.