When Body Positivity Backfires

“Although the trance of feeling separate and unworthy is an inherent part of our conditioning as humans, so too is our capacity to awaken.  We free ourselves from the prison of trance as we stop the war against ourselves and, instead, learn to relax to our lives with a wise and compassionate heart.” – Tara Brach

It is not uncommon in my practice to work with people on judgmental thinking and shame based self-talk.  This thinking often limits growth and leaves people feeling trapped, separate and at war against themselves as Tara Brach states in the quote above.  Most recently this has come up in my office around body image.  I hear (mostly) woman say, “I know I should be positive and accepting of my body….you know body positivity, self-love”  Oh the dreaded “should”.  Most clients smile at me when they say “should” and follow it up with a “I know, I know quit shoulding on myself”.   We smile together.  I love when people catch their destructive thinking patterns, relax with a smile, and do not attach to the unhelpful thought.   I encourage them to turn that should into an “I want” and get curious, what do they need and want and why?  I sometimes then hear “I want to be healthier and feel better in my body…and yes, I do want to weigh less and be thinner.”  They then go on to say how shameful and guilty they feel about wanting this.  This is the paradox, it is okay to feel negative about our body and still ascribe to the body positivity movement and all it stands for.  In fact it is quite normal to have “negative” moments about ourselves, our situation, and our bodies.  The balance is finding space for all the moments.  It is also how we relate to those negative moments and what we do with them that contributes to our well being or not.

The practices of mindfulness and self-compassion teach us to work to attend and befriend all our feelings and thoughts (comfortable and uncomfortable) and not move into that reactive place of fight (this is wrong), flight (avoid), freeze (numb).  The body positivity movement backfires when we think it means we should never feel bad or negative about our body or that accepting our bodies means we cannot work to transform them to a healthier, more authentic, balanced version of who we are.   It is okay to want to lose weight.  It is all about how we go about it.  Shaming ourselves for the way our body looks or shaming ourselves for not accepting our bodies are both toxic. 

Self-Compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy.” – Brene Brown

Acceptance is meeting ourselves where we are at and honestly and empathically seeing the reality of our situation as difficult and uncomfortable as it is.  You’ve heard me say, acceptance does not mean agreement.  So, we can accept our bodies, love our bodies, and still want to change them.  The work is coming to appreciate your body from a holistic and realistic place. It is so much more than how it looks.  I often encourage people to look to their relatives and realistically embrace the body type they were given genetically from their families.  Is your family known for strong powerful legs, curvy hips, big loving arms? This practice helps you to love your body and honor where it came from and not work to change it to an unrealistic version of what it should be.  I also suggest the practice of expressing gratitude for the parts of the body and what they do.  For example, I am grateful for my arms for being able to lift my son and give people hugs.  Gratitude and appreciation are wonderful gateways to acceptance and joy. 

In addition to expressing gratitude and appreciation for your body and its different parts, catching and noting that self-critic builds your awareness, so you can work to honor the feelings and thoughts that come up with being imperfect.  Yes, honor the negative feelings and thoughts.  We then acknowledge we are not alone, everyone has aspects of their body they’re unhappy with.  We can then work to be kind, supportive, and understanding towards ourselves and that is the energy that leads to being healthy.

“With self-compassion, we don’t need to be perfect in order to feel good about ourselves.  We can drop the obsessive fixation with being thin enough or pretty enough and accept ourselves as we are; even revel in who we are. Being comfortable in our own skin allows us to focus on what’s really important: being healthy – and that always looks good” – Kristin Neff