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We need to change the message: our bodies should not dictate how we feel about ourselves

We need to change the message: our bodies should not dictate how we feel about ourselves
Published on January 28, 2019
Dr Sarah Wells, Clinical Psychologist (Eating Disorders)

 

I often ask the patients I have seen, what do you really value about yourself? What is truly important to you? And how important is this?

Often patients, my friends, my family; and my own thoughts lead me down a direction where we talk about the importance of having a supportive, caring, and empathic relationship with others; treating other people well, by being available in the good times and the bad times; and having fun together; as well as for romantic partners, intimacy and closeness beyond that of just friends.

We also talk about the importance of having a workplace where we feel supportive and supporting of our colleagues, enjoy working together and don’t feel depleted at the end of the day.  We talk about other values: what kind of value they hold around health and fitness, personal development and spirituality. Each person has a unique set of values, based on both their experiences; and what they would like life to be like.

Another value many of us hold relates to our appearance. I am seeing more and more of this, especially on social media. And yes, we may have values around our appearance. Some of these values may also form part of the body positivity movement (or #BOPO) from the ideas of Health At Every Size. These values are about embracing your body as it is, and respecting your body, eating intuitively – but they do not deny that bodies need to have health; and that health needs to be attended to.

Recently, the HAES movement has been making progress; and with that progress, comes criticism. The HAES movement is being criticised for taking things too far: that we can’t have health at every size, that we are not just trying to achieve the perfect curves with the perfect look. It was bound to happen: a controversial title for a message that has been lost: we need to get back in touch with our bodies and respect them for the vast many things they can do. It’s not possible to have just one body type; yet this is how we often feel.


I find this infographic, courtesy of @meandmyed.art; confronting. Yet, this is certainly the message that the debates around us in the health field are tyring to work though. Obviously, it’s not ideal to be in the best position if you are so unwell (you do not have health) that you require artificial methods of feeding; obviously a body that is curvy shouldn’t be seen as shameful. This depicts why the HAES movement is so important. Even in second place, there’s a lack of body positivity and body respect.

My own childhood and teenage years came at a time of great focus on bodies and weight, and appearance. I vividly remember the roll out of the “anti obesity campaign” and the beginning of fat stigma, with the “fight against obesity,” taken on so seriously by the World Health Organisation. 

This is where things got complicated.

Do we need to love our body to feel good about it? And do we need to love our body to feel good about ourselves? Two important, but separate ideas…

Achieving a better relationship with our body as it is right now…

Unfortunately, our relationship with our bodies is at an all time low. I think that the crisis is not against people in larger bodies anymore; the crisis is how do we undo the damage caused by the “war on obesity” and how can we help the next generation of children to experience food, their bodies and their shapes with respect and develop body neutrality as opposed to either body dissatisfaction of body positivity.

And despite the very important, and I think helpful, messages HAES is contributing towards changing the relationship we have with our body, as it is now; and developing body positivity and intuitive eating; this is not quite connecting with the everyday public, or practitioners working with people in larger bodies. This problem is widening rather than coming together. There’s a disconnect…

Perhaps this disconnect is because there has been a hostile takeover of the HAES principles. Instead, #bodypositivity has been taken on by Instagram with selfies that don’t match the idea of accepting our bodies as they are right now.

#bodypositivity (or #BOPO) has become a body transformation platform in various forms: those who change their bodies to become extremely lean and muscular; those who change their bodies and “embrace” the transformation of being in a larger body than they were in previously, gym and workout selfies about how healthy people are.

But, when HAES introduced the idea of #bodypositivity; it was to embrace every-body, and to create a platform where people of all shapes, sizes, gender, ethnicities and abilities are getting on with their lives; without their bodies being anything to do with how they do so. And before HAES took on momentum, a quote from the body positivity movement from the 1960’s (which became lost in the “fight against obesity”) was a “goal is to help build a society in which people of every size are accepted with dignity and equality in all aspects of life” (from the essay, More People Should be Fat! Which led to the development of an organisation National Association to Aid Fat Americans).

This message has been hard to reach mainstream ideas about health, bodies and weight. And instead, the body positivity movement began to change its focus, from accepting bodies of all types just as they are; to talking about the hard work it took to get your body to look a certain way, but how much better you feel now; and to post the side-to-side transformation photos. It’s important to remember, this was not what the body acceptance movement was meant to be.


I would argue, the type of message that comes from the transformation of bodies to a newer, apparently healthier version of yourself is more of a body sensitivity movement, rather than a body positivity movement. The sensitivity is clear – we fear our bodies define something about us as a person, and that if we don’t achieve the standards for our bodies, weight and our health; we are not achieving enough for ourselves or modelling the importance of looking after our health for the next generation.

Is this what the HAES approach means though? I’m not sure… But I can’t help but think of the transformation photos from people who have embraced their bodies; and have done before and after photos of the self that hid from the world in neutral, unfashionable clothing; to the after photo where the person wears colour, bold fashion, bold accessories and whether this creates body positivity as much as more body sensitivity? What if you are in a larger body and you don’t embrace the “showiness” of it (and this can happen at all levels; not just larger bodies; but also, fitness transformations, from smaller bodies to a “healthier” version of yourself; from a “healthy” version of yourself, to a very fit form of yourself; and from larger bodies to being in a smaller body).

NOTE. I thought long and hard about putting in some images here to show these transformational photos; but I believe they are harmful psychologically no matter which form they take. And I’m presuming, given their prevalence, that we’ve all come across these.

So, I use the term body sensitivity and it makes me wonder; what role does the anti-obesity campaign have in creating such strong sensitivity to our relationship with our bodies. And where does fat fit in? Because for the majority of my life, I have only been fed messages that “fat is bad” and if you are fat, you must be bad. The HAES movement, finally helped me view fat in a new way.

How to achieve Body Positivity and avoid Body Sensitivity

This is where things get tricky!

Learning a new respect for your body as it is and internalising the idea that no one body is inherently “acceptable” than any other body is a huge challenge to our thinking; and our patterns of thinking over time. This is not the message I grew up with! And it’s certainly not the message that society is sending even to this day (think of intermittent fasting, the Paleo diet, the Keto Diet; and those miraculous transformation photos – in many directions; but all showing the change of the body to achieve a new “health” of various types).

But, if we can truly get our minds around body positivity; and allow our sensitivities to take a back seat, maybe we can challenge ourselves to a new physical and mental health for ourselves. One where we allow ourselves to experience our bodies for what they can do; and what they can achieve. One that is more broadly defined:

-      It can exercise and move and do amazing things, like with Olympians and elite athletes, dancing, play soccer/basketball/cricket/football and practiced Yoga poses etc.

-      It can also nurture and grow a baby in pregnancy, and provide life (breastmilk) to a baby following birth

-      It can hold and cradle a baby who needs touch to thrive; and it can hug and kiss someone you love, or a friend on greeting or in need – and this in turn, can give other people a positive experience of what your body can do for them emotionally

-      It can prepare and cook meals, do things that are creative and artistic (drawing, painting etc), take photos of memories, help you with hobbies (making models, crochet, or hold a book while you read)

-      It can drive a vehicle, fly aircraft and ride bikes or motorbikes

-      When we think of a broader definition of the function our bodies have: what more can our bodies do?

What you can do to help you develop body positivity?

Unfollow anyone who makes you feel like your body needs to change

Dieticians have contributed valuably to research about how social media use can influence the way you perceive yourself and your body with research showing that those with higher social media use tend to critically compare themselves against others, resulting in you feeling bad about yourself (Rumsey, year unknown).

Again, side-by-side transformation photos can be particularly damaging because the very purpose of them is to engage in the body comparison process; where we compare one shape to another and there is the implicit message that somehow we can make our body shape better; and buys into the societal message inherent with weight and shape stigma. And ultimately, these photos end up showing a transformation of sorts that the aim is to achieve a straight-size, thin but lean ideal body.

Begin following accounts that show a diverse range of bodies

Interestingly, we have also found research which suggests that social media use, or magazine reading can also be enhancing; when we use this to our advantage. This means that it social media use can be helpful if we are being exposed to a wide variety of people; different looks and body types – so different ethnicities, gender identities, ages, body size and shape (Reichmann, year unknown).

The key message that this research has found is that it’s the exposure to a variety of body sizes and shapes that is important; especially exposure, without judgement, to larger bodies and to be accepting the body shape of all people as valid, and appropriate, not just achieving acceptance with your own body.

Another research report on the outcome of diversifying the types of bodies you expose yourself to in your social media feeds has found that just a few weeks after diversifying, there is a positive effect (Rumsey, year unknown). So, it can be a helpful to take the time to diversify your social media feeds.

Get rid of clothes that don’t fit

Here’s a tough one! The wardrobe cleansing. Sometimes the wardrobe cleanse can make you feel fantastic, and sometimes it can make you feel the tug of memories associated with the clothes that you are no longer able to wear.

Many people hold on to clothes that no longer fit; with the goal of reaching that “ideal” version of yourself from a time that has passed. These “aspirational” clothes can also be kept when you are aiming to achieve a “goal” or “ideal weight.” But, like with comparisons of our own bodies with the thin ideal, comparisons made about our own bodies and achieving a new body ideal can be just as unhelpful. Many eating disorder clinicians recommend that you get rid of these clothes as soon as you can – perhaps after reading this; ruthlessly you attend to your wardrobe and get rid of anything that doesn’t fit. Another good way to think about what to keep and what to take away: did I wear this last season? If not, time to go (unless you have a sentimental, non-body related, attachment to the item!

Getting in the way of doing this, can be thoughts like “but I looked so much better when I was wearing that outfit” or “I really like that outfit, I don’t want to get rid of it…” If you fall into this trap, then ask yourself

-      How much has my life changed since then (what was my life like then):

-      Maybe you were a couple, and now you have had a child and your body shape has changed?

-      Or, maybe you were a compulsive or heavy exerciser, or an elite athlete and you have retired from sport and are suddenly re-learning what your body needs now you are exercising less

-      Maybe you have just moved out of home and are suddenly faced with the prospect of looking after all your own needs; and your weight and therefore your shape has changed

-      The next question, is: was my life really better when my body was smaller?

And most of all, remember that it is entirely normal to experience changes in your body over time. Body acceptance means that you don’t define your worth by its size.

Finally, when it comes to clothing; continuing to wear clothes that don’t fit you is another area to be aware of. This is because if clothing is too tight, it can make you feel self-conscious about your body; especially if it is tight in an area that you struggle with more than another area of your body – most typically the waist-line, stomach area and thighs. Continuing to wear clothes that constantly remind you of your body sensitivity, perpetuating or maintain your body shape and weight preoccupation.

Buy clothes you love, no matter the size

Finally, when you are looking to purchase clothing; wearing something that makes you feel good is important. It’s ok to look for clothes that are appealing, but you have to remember that you should be comfortable, be able to move freely as you need and not have to go to drastic efforts to fit into the clothes you wear.

Remember, research into the eating disorder field suggests that triggers to feeling fat can include feeling uncomfortable in your body, and poorly fitting clothing is one of those particular distractions that can bring this out. Because we all fluctuate in size, depending on so many different factors; mainly fluctuations in fluids; it can be helpful to have a few key pieces of clothing that you can wear with ease when you are going through a natural body fluctuation.

Go to a doctor you feel comfortable with

Working in the eating disorder field, there is no doubt that the body shape and weight of the health professionals you see can have a significant impact on your own feelings about yourself. For example, going to a dietician who is in a larger body can be a difficult experience for someone who is struggling with their feelings of their eating, or body shape and weight.

It can also feel invalidating when a dietician getting nutritional advice from someone who encourages intuitive eating and body acceptance from a health professional who is in a thinner body, because when you struggle with an eating disorder (remembering the majority of patients with eating disorders are not in smaller bodies), you may inevitably think “of course you’d be fine with your body as it is because you fit the thin ideal standard and so your advice doesn’t sit well with me.”

This means that it is equally important that those in smaller bodies, especially mental health professionals working with those who struggle with eating disorders, embrace and endorse body acceptance, fat activism and body positivity; whilst at the same time be cognisant of #bodysensitivity.

So often, I see examples, and I hear friends, family and patients who have an experience of going to see a health professional; only to get advice about the need for them to lose weight from someone in a smaller body. To be clear here, you should never lose weight if you have an eating disorder: recovery from an eating disorder is always the highest priority.

And even more importantly, even when recovered from an eating disorder, it is unhelpful to receive information from health professionals about losing weight if you are in a larger body.

So, the main idea behind this is that it’s important to see a clinician, whether it be a general practitioner, psychiatrist, medical specialist, dietician or mental health professional who embraces all bodies and who appreciates the importance of accepting the experience of the body that you have. There’s so much harm that can come from hearing a small shaped health professional provide advice about weight loss, and not embracing body diversity. The key message here, is to see a clinician who helps you embrace who you are in greater depth than your body size, or weight; and sometimes it’s not a comforting experience to get advice from someone who’s body shape significantly differs from one’s own when you’re unwell.

On the other hand, this raises issues of acceptance of body diversity from the patient… Patients’, just like clinicians can contribute to the problem with have as a society accepting body diversity, the thin ideal, weight stigma and it can be helpful to have these discussions openly with all involved: the patient, family and friends, and the health professionals.

Stop exercising as a way of changing or accepting your body

Exercise, and our relationship with the movement is very impacted for our anti-obesity, fat phobic society. And unfortunately more and more, exercise has gradually evolved to a point where it has become intertwined in this cultural view of our bodies; with punitive and compensatory way. We often see these messages through magazines, newspapers and on television.

This means that working out why you do the exercise you do, is very important to understanding your own relationship with exercise and what impact it has on your relationship with your own body.

Very helpful things to ask yourself are:

-      Why do I do the exercise I do?

-      What do I expect from the exercise I do?

-      How do I feel before, whilst and after I am exercising?

-      What outcome am I hoping for?

-      Do I really want to do this exercise, or am I doing so because I think I have to?

Should I do exercise that makes me feel good instead?

If you find that you are identifying yourself in a relationship with exercise where you don’t feel good about yourself, or the exercise you are engaging in; then it can be helpful to think about this in a new way. The question is: do I feel good about what I do?

Most of the people who have followed the things I talk about know that I love my morning run. It’s an important start to my day, and I feel invigorated afterwards. Sometimes, sluggish! But mostly invigorated. And recently, I have realised that it’s not just the run that I enjoy; but it’s being out in the fresh air, the different environments (seaside, bush and beach) that makes me feel good.

But, to think through your idea about how to think about they way you choose to move your body, some helpful questions are:

-      How did I enjoy moving when I was a kid (what did I like doing with my body)?

-      What movement is fun, and links to those experiences you had as a child: playing on playground equipment, climbing trees, running, rolling down grassy hills, dancing or playing sport…

By thinking of the things you can do that link to these memories from the past, you can find a way to move your body in a new way.

But, these days, we also engage in body movements that connect with our mind as well. This is where the popularity of yoga has arisen. Yoga is different to other movements, because it encourages you to slow down and synchronise the movements you can do with your body with your breath and your positive intentions.

The real issue here is not that exercise is a bad addition to your routine; but that, exercise is about making you feel good; and not done in a rule-structured, compulsive way. Know that you don’t need to love your body the way it is. to accept and respect it

Personally, I think that this idea is really difficult to get your mind around. We all have this idea that you can only love your body when it is of a certain standard.

I’ve grown up in the era where there was much scrutiny of bodies: we were weighed in front of our classmates at school. Our height was taken; and then we were lined in a row from our BMI calculation. The practice of publicly weighing students at schools continues even to this day.

So, this is where things get tricky. How do we get our minds around the idea that we love our body because we find a mindset where we can accept and respect our own, and others’, bodies? These two factors: body acceptance and respect are both values to aspire to rather than things we can achieve. I think we need to accept that we are all “a work in progress” and body sensitivity (as I call it), can rear it’s head every now and then and derail our efforts; but with deliberate practice; and even professional help, we can avoid it’s power and influence over us and get better at shutting off the cultural and societal messages about how our bodies can be and gradually shift towards body acceptance and respect for one’s own body.

The other reason that I think we might benefit from including body acceptance and respect for all bodies, including our own; is because as I’ve mentioned before; our bodies rarely stay the same. We change constantly. In five years’,  it is natural that we may appear very different to the way we are now.  In pregnancy and post-partum, our bodies change, often dramatically. And as we age, we’ll begin to experience our bodies differently; the fine lines that gradually become more pronounced, the skin on our hands will gradually shift and will appear less like that hand model with their hand in a glass vessel on Zoolander!

So, I suggest that instead of trying to achieve the goal of body acceptance and body respect; we add it to the value system we have about how we want to treat ourselves, and others (there is an important difference between goals and values).

So, this is where things get tricky. How do we get our minds around the idea that we love our body because we find a mindset where we can accept and respect our own, and others’, bodies? These two factors: body acceptance and respect are both values to aspire to rather than things we can achieve. I think we need to accept that we are all “a work in progress” and body sensitivity (as I call it), can rear it’s head every now and then and derail our efforts; but with deliberate practice; and even professional help, we can avoid it’s power and influence over us and get better at shutting off the cultural and societal messages about how our bodies can be and gradually shift towards body acceptance and respect for one’s own body.

The other reason that I think we might benefit from including body acceptance and respect for all bodies, including our own; is because as I’ve mentioned before; our bodies rarely stay the same. We change constantly. In five years’,  it is natural that we may appear very different to the way we are now.  In pregnancy and post-partum, our bodies change, often dramatically. And as we age, we’ll begin to experience our bodies differently; the fine lines that gradually become more pronounced, the skin on our hands will gradually shift and will appear less like that hand model with their hand in a glass vessel on Zoolander!

So, I suggest that instead of trying to achieve the goal of body acceptance and body respect; we add it to the value system we have about how we want to treat ourselves, and others (there is an important difference between goals and values).

We think about the messages we send our friends and family; and the influence of the message we send to the next generation. We openly acknowledge our body sensitivity and we recognise that we are all “a work in progress” and can keep working on our values, rather than achieve a goal with regards to our bodies that we can tick off – after all, this is counter-intuitive if you remember that body acceptance comes inherently with the idea that our bodies will change; and we need to value our capacity to hold steady when this happens.

Realise that body acceptance is extremely challenging, but if you can begin to value acceptance and respect for your body, you can begin a process of accepting yourself; as you are

This idea, that we can take on the challenge of trying to work towards accepting and respecting our bodies for the way they are in any point in time in our lives; and begin to gradually and consequently accept ourselves in any moment goes against many of the messages that so many of us grew up with. And it goes against the messages we continue to receive: “well-meaning” relatives and friends who comment on our eating and our weight and shape, societal messages through various media platforms, and of course the conversations we have with ourselves (to think of just a few!).

I love this quote “at the end of the day you can’t hate yourself into loving yourself” (Severson, year unknown).  Behind this comment is the message that we can’t be constantly working on changing ourselves so that we can achieve body acceptance: this isn’t body acceptance; this is what I call body sensitivity. When we act from sensitivity about our bodies, we use emotional responses to our body shape and weight to guide how we look after our bodies. But if we accept and respect our bodies, we can hold onto the idea that things change; and this is ok.

This is where the peace movement, so strongly inherent in the HAES message is important. Body acceptance also involves being present in the moment; to slow down and just be as you are. Not looking back and thinking: “I used to look this way, or that way…” Or thinking “if I just did [this] with my body, then everything would be better.

Summary

This means that the aim of body acceptance and respect, from my own view, is to look at it as one of our values; about our relationships – how we treat ourselves, and others. It’s also about our health – how we talk to ourselves and others about bodies, weight and food with acceptance of diversity here. With body acceptance and respect comes a new relationship with the way we move our body

The key is to try to loosen the psychological control you allow in to influence how you feel about your body; be critical of messages you get from others (were they intended to make you feel something about your body; even if it was a positive message – and do you buy into the idea that commenting on someone els.es body is appropriate at all?).

And most of all, to realise that the body as it is right now, is worth appreciating.