Tips for Body Positivity: Ways to Feel Better About Our Bodies
Body image isn’t about how your body looks; it’s about how you think and feel about your body. These thoughts and emotions–heavily influenced by our personal experiences and the culture at large–play a powerful role in our lives. When we feel badly about our bodies or are preoccupied with our appearance, it can have all kinds of effects on our mental and physical health.
With societal messages around thinness and fitness, it can be difficult to have a healthy body image if you don’t “fit the mold” or narrative around what we’re told we should look like. And even those rare few who may objectively resemble the ideal can suffer from negative body image. Since body image has such a huge influence on other areas of life—mental health, physical health, relationships, etc.—it’s really helpful for us to work toward a healthy relationship with our bodies, just as they are.
When you struggle with negative body image, you may feel that your body is inferior or unworthy; struggles with negative body image can also make you more likely to suffer from feelings of depression, isolation, and low self-esteem. In fact, negative body image is one of the primary risk factors for developing an eating disorder. National surveys estimate that over 30 million Americans will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Struggling with a negative body image can also be harmful to your health. It might make you want to avoid social events, for instance, or make it hard to feel close to friends.
How do you improve body image?
Despite cultural messages to the contrary, you don’t have to change your body in order to change how you feel about your body. In fact, shifting the way you relate to your body is the key to accessing healthier body image. You might have read or heard about two terms that are getting a lot of attention these days: body positivity and body neutrality. But what do they really mean?
The basic idea behind body positivity is that all bodies are beautiful regardless of what they look like and that people should feel good or have a positive view of their bodies based on this fact. Giving yourself permission to love and celebrate your body–especially for those in marginalized bodies–can feel joyful, radical, and freeing. For others, body positivity can feel limiting because it is still placing value on beauty or physical appearance.
With body neutrality, people reframe their relationship with their body altogether. It’s not something to hate or love; it just is. Cultivating a neutral relationship with your body can involve taking a mindful approach and being grateful for one’s body, regardless of its appearance or abilities. Body neutrality also acknowledges that the ebb and flow of how we feel about our bodies is natural and these feelings or judgments about our body don’t have to affect our ability to value ourselves.
Like body positivity, body neutrality pushes back on traditional beauty standards, but it goes further by challenging the idea that our value lies in appearance at all–or that we should be constantly striving to enhance or perfect ourselves. Instead, body neutrality focuses on the ways in which our body serves us exactly as it is and the ways in which our body helps us experience the world. In other words, our body is a vehicle or instrument for experiencing life, not an ornament to be admired solely on how it looks.
What are the benefits of body neutrality?
The dominant messages around body positivity can end up placing too much attention and value on how our bodies look and may not feel as inclusive as originally intended. For many of us, feeling positive about our body all the time — especially when the focus is on what it looks like — is unrealistic and unnecessary. This expectation places unnecessary pressure on us and can lead to guilt or disappointment if we don’t always feel good about our body. This is especially true since our bodies change throughout our lives.
Body neutrality can be useful if you are recovering from an eating disorder, if the idea of loving your physical body feels particularly challenging. Instead of focusing on your body’s appearance, body neutrality emphasizes appreciating your body simply because it exists and is part of you.
How to adopt body neutrality in your life
It won’t happen overnight, but here are some tips and techniques to try in order to move towards body neutrality in your life:
- Make a list of qualities unrelated to your body that give you and your life value: your kindness towards friends, your intelligence and creativity, your humor, etc.
- Observe and adjust the way you talk to yourself about your body: this quick guide offers a three-step process.
- Remove body talk from interactions with others: body talk slips into our daily conversations all the time due to cultural norms, but bodies don’t need to be the focus of social time. If it comes up, you can redirect the conversation or even change the subject altogether. When someone says, “Ugh, I’ve gained so much weight recently,” you might respond with a question that gets at their underlying emotions: “Is something going on that’s been making you feel anxious?” Or if someone brings up their new diet, you can state a boundary: “I’d rather not talk about weight loss; I’m working on healing my relationship with my body.” And when in doubt, you can even change the subject: “Have you seen that new miniseries everyone’s talking about?”
- Get enough sleep, enough food, and move in ways that feel good and serve your body’s needs.: Taking care of your body–rather than trying to control or punish it–is a great way to foster a healthy relationship with your one and only body.
- Look for a therapist or counselor who specializes in body image issues and/or eating disorders who can help you work toward different ways of observing and talking to yourself about your body.
How can you help others struggling in their relationship with their body?
Even if you have a good relationship with your body and a healthy body image, you might know someone who’s struggling with theirs. Here are some things you can do to help:
- Provide space to discuss and acknowledge their concerns. Let them know you’re here to listen.
- Shift the focus of conversation to their underlying emotions rather than appearance.
- Try to avoid rushing in with “Oh, but you’re so beautiful!” This kind of reassurance can backfire by keeping the focus on physical traits; remember that body image is about how someone feels inside.
- Offer to learn about body neutrality together. You can start by following a diverse range of body neutrality activists and writers.
- If you think your friend may be struggling with an eating disorder, share your concerns with compassion and ask them how they would like you to support them (finding an online screening tool, researching local mental health resources, reaching out to their family, etc.). Let them know that body image issues are common and treatable. If you think they need professional help, suggest that they talk to a mental health clinician. And of course, if you’re worried they might harm themselves, text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for immediate help.