The Radical Practice of Body Acceptance
You don’t need to love your body to accept it.
If you’re anything like me, you have feelings about your body. You appreciate it for what it does; you also wish it were different in certain ways. And sometimes your inner critic gets loud.
Well, you are not alone.
I distinctly remember when I began to finally appreciate the “neck-down” portion of myself after years of over-exercising and under-nourishing my body in my early 20s. Pregnant with my first child, a wave of deep gratitude and acceptance washed over me as I looked at my unborn son’s tiny fingers and toes on the ultrasound images in front of me. I made peace with the thing I had tried to control for so long.
Since then I have also tried to eat healthfully and intuitively. I exercise when I feel like it and when I have the luxury of time, and not as a punishment for overindulging or slipping into less-than-ideal habits. I am also a work in progress when it comes to this stuff. So today—in the midst of the holiday frenzy—I invite you to join me on this path.
Ann Jacob Smith, Ph.D., LCPC, is a DC-area psychotherapist who specializes in body image issues, disordered eating, and trauma. She and I have shared patients for almost two decades. She is also a dear friend. She wrote this two-part guest post, and I hope you find it helpful – this week and next.
Please share it widely!
The Radical Practice of Body Acceptance
By Ann Jacob Smith, PhD, LCPC
As an eating disorders therapist for 29 years, I witness daily the profound suffering rooted in negative body image, particularly in women and girls. Our culture dictates that it is normal to criticize and manipulate our bodies, and society worships female bodies in states of near-starvation. We go from diet to diet, ruining not only our metabolism, but also our relationship with food, when all the scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that diets don’t work.
Body image — this psychological phenomenon of how we think about, feel, and behave related to our own bodies — is influenced by a constant bombardment of misinformation and diet culture. Body image shifts daily, depending on our mood, hormonal state, what we have eaten, our outfit, whether or not we have exercised, social comparisons and self-talk, among many other variables. We allow the media and the entertainment industry to set unrealistic and oppressive body standards. As we ruminate on our negative body image, the $150 billion diet industry preys on our vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, as Dr. McBride has written about, the medical community continues to inappropriately use BMI as a barometer for “health” when health is about more than a number on the scale.
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This might sound surprising, but you don’t need to love your body to accept it.
With a little work, we can learn to adopt a neutral, non-judgmental stance, and practice accepting and caring for our bodies as they are today. We do this not because of looks or size, but because all bodies are worthy of respect and care. Body neutrality challenges the very idea of a beauty standard.
Body neutrality is a practice, not a destination. It requires rejecting outdated societal and gender-based norms. It asks simply for acceptance of what is, rather than rejecting one’s present body for an imagined future body. Marsha Linehan, creator of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), coined the phrase “radical acceptance” to describe the process of “letting go of the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging.” Never have I seen a greater need for radical acceptance than in people who have struggled with their body image for decades. Yet despite maintaining the same weight status for years, clients often react with surprise or anger when I suggest they simply accept their current weight.
To be clear, acceptance isn’t the same as complacency, and neutrality does not mean to neglect your body. On the contrary, it is about taking care of your body without judgment or punishment. Ayla F. Ghibaudy offers great advice in her small but mighty book, “Body Neutrality.”
Here are some tips I give my own clients to help them accept their body:
Be mindful of your self-talk.
Pay attention to your internal body image dialogue. Reject or reframe any unkind or abusive commentary to be neutral and more self-compassionate. For example, rather than deciding: “I look fat in this outfit,” ask yourself: are you comfortable? Are you confident? What do you love about this outfit? We want to dress appropriately and feel confident, but our purpose for being there is not to provide others with viewing pleasure. Mirrors are a minefield, so be extra mindful when using. If you catch yourself beginning negative dialogue, practice your newly acquired body-neutral language.
Consider dressing yourself to flow, not constrict.
The world offers constant reminders of diet culture, but even what we wear can contribute to excessive body consciousness. Body acceptance doesn’t mean wearing a sack, unless you simply enjoy that style. One can be confident, stylish and comfortable. Better to remain focused on what you are doing, than being distracted by biting waist bands or exposed midriffs that require you to suck in your stomach. In my opinion, constricting shape-wear should be outlawed as cruel and unusual punishment, and yes, I’m talking to you, Spanx!
Stop using judgmental labels for food.
Changing language around the topic of food is critical to body acceptance. Foods should no longer be labeled “good or bad,” “clean or dirty,” “junk” or “crap.” Try to use less judgmental language to avoid the inevitable psychological leap from, “I am eating bad food” to the internalized message of, “I am bad.” Food does not have moral value. When in doubt, fall back on the adage, “If you can’t think of anything nice (or neutral) to say, just don’t say anything.”
Stop using discriminatory language.
Negative discussions about body size, food and exercise habits — otherwise known as “fat talk” by the anti-diet community — run rampant in our culture. Children hearing disdain for larger bodies will internalize the message that to be in a larger body means they are deficient or inferior. Disparaging others or yourself about weight and body shape and size is discriminatory, harmful, and perpetuates the very problem that causes so much suffering.
And finally, care for your body with kindness and respect.
Check back here next week for a brief tutorial on how to begin a workable and practical body image self-care regime.
Let me know what you think so far. I welcome your comments, as always!
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are entirely my own. They do not reflect those of my employer, nor are they a substitute for advice from your personal physician.
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