Perhaps you have a favorite celebrity or social media influencer who promotes body positivity, a movement that encourages people to love their bodies — flaws and all. Body dissatisfaction can damage your self-esteem, and studies suggest it could be tied to additional problems, like depression and a higher risk of eating disorders. So, body positivity is an excellent idea, in theory, but is it always the answer? Not necessarily. Here is some expert advice for learning how to accept your body, even if you don’t fall in love with every inch of it.
Body positivity encourages you to love your body regardless of its size or other external characteristics. However, while this self-love is meant to encourage a healthier relationship with your body, it does have some downsides. According to Rachel Goldman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine in New York City, there are always going to be things about our bodies that we don’t love. “Nothing in life is that black or white. There’s no way that everything is all good all the time, and it can be harmful to present body acceptance in this way since it can seem unattainable when it’s more likely that most people are not 100% there.”
In fact, for those who are unhappy with their body’s appearance, the idea that you can somehow shift your thinking and feel great about it isn’t practical or helpful. It could even lead to feelings of shame and guilt over not achieving that positive mindset. Additionally, you don’t have to celebrate every aspect of your body to develop a healthier attitude about it. Body neutrality is a way to cultivate genuine respect for your body without loving or hating it. Here’s how it works.
1. Challenge unhelpful thoughts.
Have you ever caught yourself thinking, ‘I hate my thighs,’ or ‘Ugh, my arms are so fat’? “We can pick apart anything,” Goldman explained. But replacing those negative thoughts with positive ones, such as ‘I love my thighs’ isn’t the answer. “We don’t always want to challenge negative thoughts with positive ones,” Goldman said, explaining that it would be difficult for most people to buy into that way of thinking. So instead, “think of things that are more neutral because they’re also more realistic,” she said.
2. Focus on what your body is capable of.
As you work on replacing negative and unhelpful thoughts, shift the focus from your body’s appearance to an appreciation for how your body functions and what it does for you every day. With this approach in mind, instead of thinking ‘I hate my thighs,’ the reframe could be ‘My legs allow me to walk every day.’ Likewise, if you’re critical of your arms, remind yourself that they allow you to hug. When you base your self-talk on your body’s abilities, it can help you find that middle ground of acceptance.
There’s no way that everything is all good all the time, and it can be harmful to present body acceptance in this way since it can seem unattainable when it’s more likely that most people are not 100% there.
Rachel Goldman, Ph.D.
3. Participate in realistic affirmations.
According to Goldman, affirmations become our self-talk, so while they don’t seem automatic or natural at first, the more we practice, the more we start believing what we tell ourselves. And the best part is, the practice can come in handy when those negative thoughts creep up. “When you’re feeling down, it’s hard to challenge your thoughts at that moment and then come up with helpful self-talk,” Goldman explained. “But if you have an affirmation practice, you’ll have a helpful, realistic thought when you need it.” Remember, the goal is to use relatable (rather than positive) affirmations that remind you of a functional benefit.
4. Wear clothes that fit and that you feel great in.
Do you know those jeans that are uncomfortably tight that you squeeze into anyway? Or that baggy sweatshirt you wear when you want some extra cover? You may want to nix both of these options. “Don’t wear clothes that are too big that make you feel dumpy or clothes that are too small and make you feel big,” advised Goldman. If you’re wearing clothes that are too tight, you’ll spend too much energy thinking about how uncomfortable you feel, which draws more attention to your body size. Similarly, very loose clothes might make you feel frumpy. Choose something that’s comfortable, makes you feel your best, and that you won’t think about after you’re dressed.
5. Base your health care on self-care.
Too often, exercise and eating decisions get wrapped into the desire to change your weight or physical appearance, which makes eating healthfully and exercising feel punitive and perhaps even frustrating. How would your workouts change and what would you choose to eat if you based these decisions on self-care and giving your body what it needs to feel good? For example, instead of taking a spin class to burn off last night’s dessert, would you enjoy getting sweaty to burn off some negative energy, or would a gentle yoga class would be more helpful? When you think of eating and exercise as ways to care for your body, you make choices that you enjoy and that serve your body well.
6. Follow a variety of people on social media.
If your feed is filled with images of people who make you feel bad about yourself, it’s time to find the unfollow or mute buttons. You’re in control of who you follow, so filter out any triggering content, whether that’s a conventionally thin friend’s selfies or a health coach’s weight loss advice. Instead, fill your feed with accounts that show a range of realistic bodies and that promote a broader representation of people. While body neutrality isn’t focused on outward appearances, it’s helpful to see images of others like you reflected in your media.
7. Get out of the habit of talking about bodies.
Someone’s body is not a topic of conversation. It doesn’t matter whether that person is a celebrity who has publicly lost or gained weight, or if it’s someone closer to you. “We can’t see from someone’s outward appearance what people are struggling with. We don’t know what people are going through based on body appearance,” Goldman explained. Someone may have lost weight intentionally or due to a chronic illness. Nothing is gained by participating in body talk, and it can be harmful to you and others. If you want to spend less time focused on your own body’s appearance, it’s a good idea to stop remarking on other bodies, too.
Our society values conventionally thin and fit bodies, so it’s entirely natural to wish your body matched this so-called ideal. But, in reality, few people can healthfully and sustainably achieve this aesthetic, and when your body doesn’t fit this image, it can lead to low self-esteem and other problems. Since feeling completely happy about your body can be challenging, a better way to go is to work on body neutrality. Actively practicing these techniques can help you spend less time discouraged or fixated on your body, which can improve your overall well-being.