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Originally published on empoweredeatingrd.com; republished here with permission. Get your blog featured!
For this month’s blog, let’s answer some body image questions that come up pretty regularly in my sessions.
What is body image?
Let’s start with the basic definition:
Body image is the perception a person has of their physical body and the thoughts and feelings that result from that perception. Sometimes these feelings are positive. Sometimes they’re negative. And sometimes these feelings can be a mix of both. The way we see our bodies sometimes or oftentimes isn’t always how our bodies truly present in the physical world.
Our emotions can often change how we feel about our bodies.
If we’re having a tough day at work or school or just feeling lonely, it’s possible our body image plummets. But, if you’re having a super fun day, it’s possible body image is more positive (or you’re not thinking that much about it). But, logically, we know our bodies do not change drastically from day-to-day.
In recovery from an eating disorder, body image is a huge component for lots of people.
It can often feel like the driving force to act on certain behaviours. But, if you dig a little deeper, and I encourage you to do this, you’ll find that often times body image concerns are related to self-esteem, self-love, belonging and acceptance. Worries that if one’s body changes, maybe they’ll lose a sense of love and belonging for themselves and with others. Which every human being wants! Every human wants to feel loved and accepted. Although it takes work, it is possible to feel loved and NOT feel like you have to change your body.
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How can I improve my body image?
Gosh, this is just such a complicated question! Improving body image is something that takes time. Here are some activities you can do on your own or in session.
I mentioned digging deeper at the beginning of the blog, but a discussion I’d recommend you have with your therapist or dietitian is to answer the following questions:
- Why is it important to change my body?
- What would I give up if I didn’t?
- What does being smaller represent?
- How can I prove my eating disorder wrong? For example. Does it feel like you need to lose weight to be able to have fun with friends? Do you need to lose weight to wear comfortable and cute clothes? Can you do these things
Start with just body respect.
It’s okay if you can’t get to a place of liking, loving or even accepting your body. You actually don’t need to like the way your body looks in order to accept it. Make a list of what you can do to respect your body. Examples include: nourishing yourself, setting boundaries, engaging in self-care time, engaging in joyful movement, going to see your treatment team, following positive social media accounts, reading this blog about “Why It’s Okay to Not Love Your Body.”
And also, intentionally losing weight is not body respect.
Even if your doctor (or any other person or health professional) tells you it’s “better” for your health. What the doctor is leaving out (because of diet culture) is that weight loss is not sustainable for about 95% of people. And weight cycling (losing and gaining weight repeatedly, often a side effect of chronic dieting), actually has super detrimental health effects. Like increased cortisol and increased heart disease risk. I would argue losing weight is actually worse for your health. And what’s “better” is taking a more weight inclusive approach and focusing on behaviour changes to aid in helping you feel emotionally and physically better
Go with it. Meaning, body image changes drastically from day to day and even minute to minute.
No one has an amazing positive body image all the time. It’s okay to have moments (some days more than others) where body image just sucks.
And through that all, although a challenge, it’s important to continue to live your life.
What can I do when I’m having a “bad body image day?”
Those days are so hard! And what can be even more frustrating is “good”/ “bad” body image is something that’s so fleeting. In any given day, someone can have moments of “bad” body image and moments of “good” (or “okay”) body image.
Firstly, remember that body image isn’t something that we can control.
Even people who are generally accepting and appreciative of their bodies can have plenty of moments where they’re not feeling it.
As difficult as it can be, see if you can continue about the day as “normal.” For example, if you have dinner plans, I challenge you to keep them. Still wear clothes that feel comfortable to you. Still eat regularly throughout the day. Still show your body respect.
Next, ask yourself if it’s helpful to go on social media.
On my Instagram account (@empoweredeatingrd), I follow a ton of anti-diet, HAES, body-positive advocates. And also meme accounts. So for me, going on social media while struggling with body image may actually be super helpful. However, if you notice you follow mostly friends, Instagram ~influencers~, or celebrities, and you tend to compare yourself to them, it might be useful to stay off social media.
Lastly, think about what else could be going on.
Can you identify any feelings? (Loneliness, sadness, shame, stress…etc). Could any of these be contributing to how you’re feeling about your body? Did something happen that’s making you feel crappy about your body? If you’re feeling lonely or sad or shameful, taking it out in your body acts as a distraction. But it’s not the solution.
Can’t you be “body positive” and still want to lose weight? I mean, after all, that’s just someone taking care of themselves.
The short answer is, “no.” The long answer:
First of all, each one of us is subjected to ridiculous and unrealistic beauty ideals.
We are also taught from a very young age that weight gain is “bad.” Whether chubbier kids are bullied or we hear negative comments from our health teachers or parents or doctors about weight or nutrition. So it makes sense we would either be afraid of gaining weight or wanting to lose weight (especially if you live in a marginalized body… larger-bodied/trans/non-white/disabled…).
So, there is nothing wrong with a person if they want to lose weight. It’s actually completely understandable. The problem is diet culture as a whole. That makes us think losing weight is the best and the only way to health and happiness.
So why can’t you be “body positive” and promote weight loss?
The body positive movement was created to make space for people in marginalized bodies. To give them a voice and to allow for a community that promotes unconditional body acceptance. Intentionally losing weight for happiness is exactly what diet culture teaches. And it has no room in the body positive movement.
Sure, it’s possible to lose weight and “feel better,” however I would challenge that person to think about what actually “feels better.” Are they getting compliments? Are medical providers praising the lost weight? Is there more engagement in joyful movement that doesn’t usually happen when in a larger body because they are worried about judgement? Do they feel like their bodies are more accepted? ALL of these things 100% play a role in people “feeling better” when a person starts to lose weight, that actually doesn’t have to do with the actual weight lost.
I’ve also heard that body respect includes weight loss because being in a larger body isn’t “healthy.” Okay, false. A) From what we know about the research on weight loss, is that it’s not sustainable. Meaning even if weight loss caused better health outcomes, it’s not sustainable. So why are we continuing to recommend something that has a 5% or less “success” rate? B) Intentional weight loss (dieting) can cause more harm (physically and psychologically) than staying in a larger body. But again. This concept is so hard to believe because of our culture and the fatphobia existing within it.
Doing body image work means being able to respect and accept your body and also truly believe that your body does not define your worth.
What is “thin privilege”?
Privilege is “ a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” So, thin privilege is the ability for a person to move through life easier because of their (smaller) size.
Thin privilege does not mean you automatically accept your body because it’s smaller. It does not mean you can’t have days where you struggle with body image.
It also doesn’t mean that everything in your life has been easier because you are thinner.
And you don’t have to “feel thin” to have thin privilege.
Thin privilege means there are certain things smaller-bodied people are able to do without judgment. And certain things they can do without feeling uncomfortable. Examples include (but are certainly not limited to):
- Being able to shop in mainstream clothing stores
- Going to the doctor’s office and not being treated based on the number on the scale
- Feeling comfortable in public accommodations (airplane and train seats, restaurants, movie theatre seats…etc)
- Not getting judged on food choices and what’s in the grocery cart
- Earning a higher salary (yes smaller-bodied people get paid more!)
There’s so much to unpack with thin privilege, and I’m still learning myself. I really enjoyed reading this blog by Kristina Bruce. So if you want to learn more, her blog is a good place to start.
I’d like to take this time to also acknowledge my own thin privilege. I have no idea what it’s like to live life in a marginalized body. And many health care practitioners don’t either. It’s so important we listen to our clients.
Can my body image get better?
Yes, of course, it can. Improving body image is an uphill battle. Our culture is mostly to blame.
It is 100% possible to realize you have worth outside of what your body looks like and to allow yourself to live a full life without body image holding you back.
Have more questions about body image or nutrition? Submit a question to Alex through our Ask An Expert column!
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