“Body image issues” are rampant
Studies show that 90% of people in Western countries dispise their bodies! 90%!! This is bad enough, but hating your body can easily lead to depression and low self-esteem. WTF is this? How did we get here? Why can’t we all just exist, look differently, know that we are valuable, and take care of ourselves as such? The answers to these questions are the key to feeling more comfortable in your body.
It’s not about changing your body – it’s about changing the way you think about your body, the way you treat your body, and maybe about understanding what need is being filled by you worrying about your body. This last bit can get a little complex, so stay with me. If you struggle with feeling comfortable in your body, have days where you just literally hate your body, and you’re desperate to stop feeling this way, hopefully you can take something valuable away from this post.
the problem with body image in our society
The promise of feeling amazing or of a “new-and-improved” version of yourself because you’ve “fixed your flaws” is an illusion that the multi-billion dollar diet industry has been selling you. There is nothing wrong with the way you are. But if you’re reading this, it’s likely because you feel deeply that there is something wrong with your body and it is making you uncomfortable, or even miserable.
We live in a society that artificially places some bodies as more culturally valuable than others. And that sucks… so we feel stuck trying to climb the ladder to a place where our body will be treated better, deemed more valuable. And this is totally understandable! But there is a cost.
The more we cling to the idea that changing our body would make us more comfortable, happier, more valuable, the lower our self-worth can become and the less comfortable we can feel in our own skin.
So how do change our perception of our bodies? How do we feel amazing, even though we currently think we’ll be happier if we were smaller (thinner, more toned, have more curves, lose x lbs, etc). The answer to these questions is quite complicated. And obviously, I do not have all the answers.
But my opinion – I believe that feeling amazing comes from living your life the way you want, having experiences that affirm who you are, protecting your boundaries, experiencing connection and reciprocity from the community you’re in, and your ability to love and care for yourself and your body. Not from trying to adhere to a social construct.
This is certainly a privileged list, and I’m sure plenty would argue it. A younger or older version of me may as well. First I want to explore what body image issues are, anyway.
Body image issues are not about your body
Obviously, this isn’t 100% true. It is absolutely true that some bodies are treated better in our society – young bodies, white bodies, thin, able, cis-gender bodies. In many ways, not fitting this body ideal is definitely about your body. But the fact of your body being different than the ideal is not an indicator that there is ACTUALLY something wrong with your body. There is something wrong with the ideal.
If we stay complicit with the system that gives unearned privilege and moral authority to some bodies, we are harming ourselves and actively disconnecting ourselves from feeling comfortable in our our skin. If we hold our own body to the same oppressive system that puts some bodies on this hierarchy, we are devaluing ourselves, even if we are, at times, acting out of self-protection.
Body image research shows that the closer we get to achieving our “goal body”, the more miserable we are and the more we view our self-worth as conditional. The problem is, our conditions are constantly changing as we age and experience, um… life. Plus the “in body type” of the moment changes with whatever celebrity we are currently obsessing over. barf.
I gotta ask, have our cultural power structures actually made being thin more important than loving ourselves?
On self-love and loving yourself (and your body) better…
I’ll let bell hooks speak:
In her essential book, All About Love, she devotes a chapter to self-love and has, perhaps, the most useful advice I’ve ever read on the topic.
“When we can see ourselves as we truly are and accept ourselves, we build the necessary foundation for self-love. The more we accept ourselves, the better prepared we are to take responsibility in all areas of our lives. Taking responsibility means that in the face of barriers we still have the capacity to invent our lives, to shape our destinies in ways that maximize our well-being. Every day we practice this shape-shifting to cope with realities we cannot easily change”.
I find this a bit of a harsh truth, but also quite freeing: Accept yourself now. There is no easier road.
Self-acceptance as the way toward positive momentum in your life is literally the opposite of what mainstream fear-mongering health tyrants believe. They think that shame is the pathway to change.
This is oppressive, anti-feminist, hateful bullshit.
I think they WANT folks who aren’t thin to hate themselves. They believe (maybe because they were shamed as children instead of lovingly taught) that shaming folks for not being thin is a way to “help”, but what this really is, is exercising power and privilege. And it is harmful.
Back to bell.
“Self-acceptance is hard for many of us. There is a voice inside that is constantly judging, first ourselves and then others. That voice enjoys the indulgence of an endless negative critique. Because we have learned to believe negativity is more realistic, it appears more real that any positive voice… but negative thinking is absolutely disenabeling.”bell hooks
Why is it so hard to talk nicely to ourselves? She notices how many of us equate self-love with selfishness and narcissism. She demands we cut this shit out if we want to be free to love ourselves and others, better.
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How I Work On My Body Image
In More Than A Body by Lindsay and Lexie Kite, PhDs, they tell a really interesting story. During their research, they noticed that when they asked participants how it feels to be in their body, most people write about what they fear other people will see about their body, when that was not the question at all.
The question is – how does it feel to be in my body? Below is what I wrote one morning after reading this in their book.
say “I love the way my body feels”.
I love watching the way my hands and fingers move as I write or type or chop an onion. They just know how to do these things so eloquently that my brain wants them to, it’s instantaneous, smoothe.
I love the way my hips swizzle in the pool or when I dance. I love the way my skin feels when it’s gotten a bit too much sun and then right after I deeply moisturize it. I love the way my toenails look without polish on them.
I love wearing silk on freshly shaven legs.
I love the way my body feels when I’m turned on. This is totally an inside job and does not require another person to accomplish it. I love the way my body tells me when it’s time to eat, time to sleep, time to move, time to get out of the house.
I love the way my energy feels when I’m huffing and puffing on a run or a hike. Yes, there is also usually a feeling of ‘damn, this is hard, maybe I should stop’. But then, on a day when I have the energy, a desire to feel that intensity a little more. I know this breathing is shaking something out.me, in my journal
Side note: the whole exercise bit is something I’m still working out. I work toward exercise NOT being about changing the way my body looks for others and more about how it feels to me. It’s working, but is still a work in progress.
All of this feels like loving myself. The way noticing these little things makes me feel is not entirely different from the way love makes me feel.
I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I never have bad body image days, I definitely do. I notice when I’ve gained or lost weight with seasons of life and emotional phases. I notice my hair greying, my wrinkles multiplying. But I know, even in my discomfort, that this is normal and wonderful and nothing to hide.
Now, when my pants feel too tight, I take them off and put on something else. I remind myself that I have immense body privilege, which I did not earn, but inherited, and that this says nothing about me as a person, my worth, or ability to love or be loved.
How to feel comfortable in your body
I believe that if we work on disengaging from the thin ideal, living our lives the way that makes us feel authentically who we are, and loving ourselves more, we’d be a lot less dissatisfied with our bodies. Here’s what I want you to do.
Stop comparing yourself to an unrealistic body standard
This habit dies hard, as we are taught to do it from a very young age. But what we didn’t realize when this habit was formed at 11 years old, is that the comparison was meaningless.
It was a construct made up of capitalist, patriarchal marketing messages. Meaning – the people who originally created these messages were men trying to sell you beauty products, to keep you small, and busy hustling. Thank you, Naomi Wolf for thoroughly detailing this in The Beauty Myth.
Notice how ads to sell you products subtly imply you shouldn’t be happy as you are. Notice how destructive they are. Ask yourself if you agree or disagree with this. Feeling comfortable in your body will require you to dislodge the idea that you have to fit this unrealistic standard in order to be happy and healthy.
And imagine the disruption to the patriarchy!! What if all women, all at once, stopped buying in. I’m not suggesting this is realistic or even necessary, but the disruption gives me chills to consider. Bodies are meant to be different sizes and shapes.
Look for positive body image inspiration
There are loads of people living happy, healthy, fat lives. I know lots of them. They’ve rejected the bs notion that we all should look the same and that their “imperfections” are their fault and a result of some moral failing. They are living their lives. These people are POWERFUL and if you try, you may be able to soak up some of their juice. Read about one of them here.
And if you’re thinking, yeah but shouldn’t they lose weight for their health? You need to take a beat. I’ve got more to say on this here. And sign up for my newsletter to get regular reminders like this to your inbox.
Curate your social feed. Become actively aware of your thoughts and feelings when you see only thin, white, cis, able bodies in media. Notice when the fat character doesn’t have a main or “normal” role, or their character plotline revolves around them hating themselves. Challenge appearance ideals with your friends, your family, your colleagues.
I have a ton of resources on this page to help with body image and a list of fat activists and body image inspiration to follow.
Explore your underneath body image struggle
Even though the body hierarchy exists, there is usually a reason why some people struggle with body image more than others. I encourage you to journal about this, or take it to your therapist or trusted friend. What is that deep longing that you believe will be satisfied if your body was different?
Do you think that you’d be more accepted by your peers? Why do you believe that? Maybe you could find some new peers that can accept you for the way you are now (if they indeed do not).
Or maybe worrying about your body obsessively keeps you from feeling other uncomfortable feelings. Even though we have little control over the way our body looks, our culture has made us believe this is totally under our control, so we may be using our body as a way of controlling the uncontrollable.
This is a deep, layered, and complex issue that you can (if you desire) get to the bottom of to understand better. The more you realize why you feel so uncomfortable in your body, the easier time you’ll have building a foundation of love and comfort. I’m fond of Jessi Kneeland’s new book, Body Neutral, for a guided approach to understanding your body image, as well as The Body Liberation Project by Chrissy King.
Change the way you talk to your body
Use the journal prompt that I used above to practice talking differently to your body. Yes, I believe that body image affirmations help sometimes. You can tell yourself that your body is worthy, that you’re strong, and that your body does amazing things for you. That is helpful if that feels accessible to you.
But what I propose is practicing feeling yourself IN your body, which is an entirely different experience than trying to change the way you feel about the way you look. Make sense?
Check your wardrobe for comfort and style
Feeling more comfortable in your body means LITERALLY feeling more comfortable in your body! If you’re holding onto clothes and undies that are too small for you, maybe it’s time to get rid of them. I know this can be really difficult. Clothes are expensive!
If your body has changed a lot, or continues to change, you might not want to totally get rid of clothes yet. Start with getting things that are too small out of your closet, your drawers, and your eyesight. Put them in a box, under your bed, or in the attic.
Consider going shopping and buying clothes that fit your body now, that you feel good in, and that aren’t just ways for you to look smaller. If you are still in a period of weight gain, consider doing Nuuly or Rent the Runway, so you can get clothes for a short-term that fit you now.
Treat your body well, and softly
Make sure you’re feeding yourself enough nourishing food on a daily basis. Don’t skips meals or force yourself to eat salad when you really want a sandwich. And likewise, try not to eat a giant piece of cake when your body is asking for vegetables, when you’re doing 100 other things, or as a means of dealing with difficult emotions.
If you dealing with disordered eating, binge eating, or restriction, or otherwise have a hard time eating in ways that feel balanced, consider working through intuitive eating or reaching out for help with your relationship with food.
Try and move your body some. This doesn’t have to be formal exercise, but if you’re feeling antsy try and go for a walk or something. The more you release the size and shape of your body from the exercise decisions you make, the easier movement decisions will feel.
Go the doctor if you need to. Go to the dentist. Light a candle. Get enough sleep. You know, take care of your body.
Be realistic about your body
Our bodies change. It’s a well-known, but under-appreciated fact of life, especially for women. Flowing with this will feel much better than fighting it.
No matter what you think is “wrong” with your body, is not wrong. It is right. Your body is uniquely yours and was never, ever, ever meant to look like a model. Accepting your body, especially if it doesn’t look like the ideal is difficult, but it is also possible and so worth it. Read this story about Sydney’s journey with rejecting the idea that shrinking herself was the way to happiness.
And if your body does happen to look like a model, you have some serious body privilege. That doesn’t discount the fact that you were taught your body is your worth, and that if you “let yourself go” or gained weight, that your worth would be diminished.
Do the things you want to do in your body – now
I won’t gaslight you. This one is hard. If you’ve been waiting to date until you lose weight, deciding to move forward with the dating app is going to take some deep work. You’ll want to explore what you’re seeking that you think changing your body will help with.
Do you want to go swimming? Go hiking? Wear loud, brightly colored clothing? Wear a crop top? Do these things now.
journal prompt (I did this above): how does it feel to be in my body?
Free write on this. Take a note from Lexie and Lindsay Kite from Beauty Redefined, and be wise not to answer the question… ‘what do you fear someone will see when they look at you?’ That is not the question. The question is: how does it feel to be in my body? Write a couple of pages.
If you’re thinking yeah right that won’t work, give it a chance. Do it for a week and see how you feel.
I offer individual and group nutrition counseling to help people with all sorts of bodies, abilities, and interests heal their relationship with food, their body, and themselves. Book a discovery call if you’re ready to uproot what’s holding you back from eating with peace and feeling better about your body.
Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in intuitive eating, mindfulness-based eating practices, embodiment with food and movement, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps womxn find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her here.