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Body Positivity: Working with your Body to Create Healthful Changes

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Body Positivity: Working with your Body to Create Healthful Changes

Laura Brown

Body Acceptance

So, you want to change your body, but you’re eager to do it differently from the myriad of ways you’ve tried in the past. Or perhaps this is your first attempt at change, and want to make sure you’re taking the best approach possible –  so you’re doing a little bit of research.

Maybe you’ve heard of the terms “body positive” before, and you want to learn more about what it means, particularly within the context of weight-loss and body change.

Long story short, body positivity is a movement that supports all people in loving and accepting their bodies, no matter their size, shape, or appearance. It is focused on finding ways to experience genuine self-acceptance and self-love in the face of popular cultural ideas that suggest we ought to feel “less than” if we don’t measure up to the “ideal” standards of beauty.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are likely pretty familiar with the world of weight-loss. It’s big business. The most common approach to weight-loss and body change is to go on a diet, add in some exercise, and let those pounds melt off the body.

The prescription might be dressed up in different clothes (Paleo, Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, Macros, Body Building), but the underlying message is the same. If your body looks and weighs more than the “ideal” standard range, then you are automatically deemed unhealthy and in need of a dramatic lifestyle change.

Not only does the culture of diet and weight loss lead people to experience a great deal of shame and insecurity over the size and appearance of their bodies as they are, but it also creates space for people to feel ashamed if they aren’t able to adhere to a regimented, oppressive diet or exercise program.

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For a long time, I believed that I could punish my body into transforming into the size and shape that would put me into the category of “socially acceptable” and therefore beautiful. This was my solution to the shameful, insecure, hate-filled body image I held. I genuinely thought I was smarter than my body, and that all I needed to do was tell it who was boss, exert some will power to eat and exercise differently, and that it would easily submit to these constraints.

What I didn’t plan on was my body rebelling in pretty noticeable and significant ways. I can recognize now that my body resisted the oppressive nature of dieting with increased hunger and cravings for “unhealthy” foods that worked against the achievement of my goals (for a six pack and size two waist). I developed a thyroid autoimmune disease (hashimotos) that slowed down my metabolism, left me feeling lethargic, and all around crummy.

I experienced depression and anxiety, likely due to the limited nutrients and energy I was providing my body, along with the emotional toll of consistently trying and failing at an unattainable task. For a long time, I ignored my body’s rebellion. Instead of paying attention to the reasons my weight loss efforts weren’t working for me or my body, I chose to restrict further and further, rebounding with bouts of bingeing and purging, all while hoping that somehow it would all just magically work.

It wasn’t until I worked towards a collaborative, body positive approach, working with my body to improve my overall physical, mental, and emotional health, that my body easily and willingly changed and gave up some of the fat that was weighing me down.

Strengthen your relationship with your body

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If you’re anything like me, you may have experienced a period of feeling incredibly disconnected from your body. For me, this consisted of ignoring pain and physical discomfort, overlooking my digestion and other general health markers, and discrediting feelings of hunger and fullness. I didn’t provide my body with any space to communicate its wants and needs to me because I needed to be in control as a means of getting to my ultimate goal of thinness.

I want to highlight that the reason for this disconnection was not random or by happenstance. Instead, there was a very understandable and logical reason for avoiding being in my body.

For me, disconnecting was a sure-fire way to resist the emotional pain from being a victim of sexualized violence. The more I could numb and avoid my feelings by indulging in or restricting food, the safer and more in control I felt. At the same time, this resistance became a prison, where I felt trapped by my drive to escape, in concert with a desire for my body to look and feel differently.

I share this piece with you so that you can reflect on the very good reasons you may have for being disconnected from your own body. This is when talking about the bigger stuff, the reasons for disconnection, can be incredibly helpful in the process of shifting the relationship with your body. It can be worth considering how you can set up safeguards for you to explore how you can feel safe and secure in your body in a manageable and reasonable way. This could look like reaching out for support from someone you trust to talk through what you have experienced or engaging in some self-care practices that are focused on healing your body from past hurts.

By working through the cause of disconnection, you create space to bond with and support your body more freely and genuinely. This can provide you with the freedom to consider all that your body does for you, and how you can honestly appreciate its existence.

Laying this foundation of understanding and collaboration allows you to work with your body, as opposed to against it. A great next step is to put your detective cap on (do detective still wear caps?) and investigate all of the different ways your body communicates its likes, dislikes, and needs to you.

Some guiding questions you can use to explore your body include:

  • How does your body communicate its wants and needs to you?
  • What sensations help get these messages across, and how does it feel when you take care of them?
  • When does your body feel best?
  • When does it feel strongest?
  • When does it feel most relaxed?
  • When does it feel most well?
  • How does your body’s physical appearance represent its health and wellness, and to what extent?
  • What feels right for your body? How does it enjoy being treated?
  • At what point does the amount of body fat impede or support your body’s wellness?

As you build a stronger relationship with your body, it will become far easier to determine what you and your unique body deem to be “healthy”.

Collaborate with your body to create goals that serve you and your body’s best interests

Working with your body to create goals can support you in cultivating a foundation of health and wellness far beyond a number on a scale. For example, considering how your body feels, beyond being a certain size, provides you with greater feedback for your efforts.

You can consider the various ways in which your body communicates through:

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  • sleep
  • digestion
  • energy
  • concentration
  • mood
  • hormones
  • body temperature
  • hunger
  • strength
  • immunity
  • cardiovascular conditioning
  • breathing
  • hair, skin, nails

Standard health meters, such as heart rate, sleep, and digestion, can be starting points for exploring your body and how it is presently living. At the same time, it’s important to remember that these measures are based on the norm, and as such, cannot provide a full, detailed explanation of your unique body’s wellness.

To go a step further, you need to reflect on what these health metrics mean to you:

  • How does it feel in your body to be living in this way?
  • What would it feel like to have deeper, more restful sleeps?
  • What would it feel like to have the opposite?
  • What would it feel like to have consistent energy throughout the day?
  • What would you be able to do?
  • What would it feel like to have energy crashes throughout the day?
  • How would you respond to this?

The benefits of taking this approach include gaining a clearer understanding of what you and your body are working towards, and how you will be able to know when you get there. Further, setting goals like these stands in contrast to the cultural ideas that you are working to resist (like that ideal health is only achieved in a thin, slender body).

By engaging in this type of body positive approach, you can take pride in knowing that you are taking a stand against principles that you don’t agree with.

Create goals that are measurable, attainable, and maintainable

Slow and steady truly wins the race, particularly when it comes to your body. Your body is designed to hold onto fat to keep you alive when food is scarce, and it will rebel (i.e. save your life) when it believes you are starving.

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Measurable feedback beyond weight and size is more indicative of overall health, and provides you with positive reinforcement of the great care you’re taking of your body (even if it doesn’t show up as pounds lost). For example, choosing foods that leave your tummy feeling great and energize you for an entire work day provides you with feedback that your body is happy and supported to live the life that you want.

One way to go about goal setting in a reasonable way is to begin by separating a page into three columns. In the first column, write out a list of all of the ways you and your body would like to change.

In the second column, write out the actions that would be necessary to meet those goals.

In the third column, write out how you will know that you are on the right path to reaching those goals.

Reflect on that list and consider the actions that would have the greatest overall impact on meeting your goals.

  • Is it realistic for you to make this change?
  • Is it maintainable long term?

Start with one thing that you can do differently to meet your goals, do it as consistently as possible, and reflect on the differences it makes to you and your body each day.

By starting small and achieving that task, you will build confidence, momentum, and pride in knowing that you have the ability to make positive changes that meet both you and your body’s needs.

It’s important to remember that this is a dramatically different approach to changing your body than the standard “eat this, not that” doctrine. It’s about adopting body positivity and shifting your relationship to your body as a means to support sustainable, positive physiological changes.

Creating this shift can take time because it is so different for most people. Therefore, this is an opportunity to be kind and patient with yourself as you take on this courageous journey.

Remember: YOU CAN DO THIS! And, the reward of feeling good IN your body because you have a great, collaborative, and communicative relationship far exceeds any benefit to finally hitting that ideal number on the scale. 

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