April 22, 2021
Every time I talk about body image, I get someone asking- “but if we all loved and accepted our bodies, whatever they look like, wouldn’t that promote obesity*?”
Every time I talk about appreciating our bodies, I get a look from women, and I can tell that she’s thinking “but if I just let myself do whatever I wanted, I would lose control, and end up huge”
It’s just not the way that it works.
For a long time, there has been a misconception that we need to try to make people feel bad about their body in order to motivate them to engage in the sorts of behaviours that would help them to maintain a healthy body weight- like physical activity, and eating a healthy diet. We think that we need to keep ourselves ‘a little bit dissatisfied because we think it keeps us closer to our goal weight’. However, the science is now telling us something different.
There is now strong research evidence that shows that having a more positive body image is related to engaging in more healthy physical activity, healthy eating, and maintaining a body weight in the expected weight range for their age and height. In fact, the research is also showing that making young people aware of the weight category that they are in (if they are in one of the larger weight category) makes them more likely to gain more weight over time than those who are unaware of their weight category. It turns out that feeling good about our bodies makes us more likely to look after them in more sustainable, and long-term ways.
Appreciating our bodies means that we consider what our bodies can do – from a functional perspective- just as much, or more so, than how it looks. Appreciating our bodies means that we are driven by intrinsic motivation to move our bodies because it feels good to do it. And, appreciating our bodies means that we trust our bodies to guide us towards what we should eat, how much, and when.
We were actually born with the ability to regulate our hunger and satiety cues. Throughout our teens and early adulthood- particularly for those who went through these times in the 70’s and 80’s, there was such a strong focus on diet culture that we, individually and collectively, decided we needed to override our natural, intuitive processes, and control every aspect of our eating and exercise. People tend to think that, if they stopped taking this cognitive control overeating, they would eat all of the chocolate in the world, and gain huge amounts of weight. But our bodies are actually very good at regulating this for us- we’ve all had that moment when, after Christmas, or on holiday, we suddenly realise that we want some vegetables or a salad. The only reason why we would binge on all of those ‘forbidden’ foods is because we’ve made them so appealing by telling ourselves that we can’t have them!
The majority of women – up to 90%- would like to change something about the way that they look, and in most cases, their weight is the thing they want to change, ie., “I just want to lose 5 kg”. This dissatisfaction actually makes us less likely to be able to sustainably engage in physical activity, and eat well. This dissatisfaction is also linked to depression, anxiety, poor sleep, less engagement with cancer screening – the research just keeps finding more and more negative physical and mental health outcomes of poor body image. Across the lifespan, we know that, although body dissatisfaction is at its peak in adolescence, it declines slightly in our 20’s, but then stays pretty much the same across most of our adult life. In fact, in most women, body appreciation only increases around the age of 65… to be, 65 is way too late to start enjoying our bodies and celebrating what they can do.
Building Body Appreciation
We now have a really good understanding of the sorts of things that women can do to build their body image. Most of these options are free, available, and relatively easy to do- fitting anything else into our busy lives at the moment can be a challenge- but here’s the thing, even starting to do some of these things is helpful in moving you on the path towards body appreciation. It’s a bit of a journey as opposed to a destination thing- here are some ideas to get you on your way.
- Practice Self- compassion- We all have a critical voice, but listening to her does not serve us. Research has found that people with higher levels of self-compassion have lower levels of depression, anxiety, body dissatisfaction, and improved wellbeing. The great thing is that you can work on turning up your compassionate voice, and the more you work on this, the more she will show up naturally to support you. Try starting with some of the meditations from Kristin Neff’s work.
- Journaling about body functionality – The Instagram version of loving your body seems so straightforward, but it’s not always that easy, and it’s not always about the way your body looks. Research has shown that having a higher level of appreciation for the functionality of our body can help to lift our overall body image. Start by thinking about all of the things that our body does for us, from our 5 senses, and what they let us do, to our physical capabilities, as diverse as they are. Think about the internal functions our body facilitates for us (like digestion and temperature regulation), the way our body lets us do creating things, and interact with others. Now set a 10-minute timer and write on one of these 5 topics until the timer goes off. You will be amazed at how proud of your body you will feel afterwards!
- Movement – Physical activity improves people’s body image- even a 20-minute session on an exercise bike improves body image. Why? Most people assume it’s because of physical changes to the body due to exercise- but it’s not. Moving your body in a way that feels good brings you a sense of achievement, connection, and mastery that improves your overall wellbeing. So ditch the ‘shoulds’ and just move in a way that feels good to you. Put on some music and move the way your mood desires. Go for a walk in nature. This movement is invaluable for your body image and wellbeing.
- Intuitive eating – Studies have shown that women who eat more intuitively have a more stable body weight, and better psychological health outcomes. This is the ultimate anti-diet and involves trusting your body. Read more about this in Evelyn Tribole’s classic book.
- Rewrite your story- So many women carry really high levels of shame around their bodies. Narrative therapy is an approach that helps women to re-write the stories that they have been telling themselves about their bodies, and what that means about themselves and their worth. We are just trialling some of this work and it’s pretty new in the literature, so stay tuned for more resources. The best place to follow for this would be @bodyconfidentmums on Instagram.
So there you have it- 5 things you can try. I’d love to know if you do give any of these a go, and what it does for you. This definitely isn’t easy, but it is simple- just start on the journey, and learn more every day. You have nothing to gain by sticking with your negative thoughts and feelings about your body, and everything to gain by changing them.
Dr Zali Yager
*I choose not to use this word, but the people who ask the question generally do.
Dr Zali Yager is the CEO and co-founder of The Body Confident Collective [BCC], a not-for-profit organisation that aims to improve health and wellbeing by promoting evidence-based positive body image content and professional learning programs at the individual, organizational, and cultural level.
Zali has over 15 years’ experience in body image research, with specific expertise in development and evaluation of programs that improve the way that people feel about the way that they look in the school setting for children, and adolescents, and in the community setting, for mothers. In her own business for Mums, Zali is launching a membership that is all about engaging with self compassion, gratitude and other evidence-based practices to improve mental health.
You can follow Zali’s work through her
You can also follow
and Instagram) https://www.instagram.com/bodyconfidentmums/
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