Body positivity is one of those terms I’m still trying to wrap my head around. As a licensed therapist, I see the long-term consequences of body hatred as a result of trauma, eating disorders, addictions, and even dissociation from one’s body. I can intellectually see the harm in these illnesses and symptoms, and can help to treat them in others. But as a 28 year old woman, I’m still very much trying to cultivate a healthy relationship with my own body.
My Journey toward Body Positivity
My body positivity journey started young, and it started poorly. I was very self conscious about my body starting as a pre-teen. Although I wasn’t overweight or even considered curvy as a teen, I always felt like my shape was wrong somehow. I was significantly bigger than my very slim sister and had bigger hips and thighs than most of my friends.
But why did I think that way? Why did it matter to me?
Like most girls my age, I learned that beauty was defined by the popular trends of the 2000s- thin, tall, a fake tan, blonde hair, and a general bombshell look. And the girls starring in kids’ and teens’ shows were getting increasingly sexy at a younger age. As a teen, I felt like I could never live up to that. I didn’t even know how to begin. I saw how celebrities and the most popular girls at school looked, and it didn’t match what I saw in myself. I believed that it meant that I wasn’t beautiful.
In college, I didn’t feel particularly in-shape or thin, but for a while I felt okay. Because I was now in the more diverse environment of a college campus vs. my small high school, it seemed like I could fit somewhere.
I started hanging out with a large group of friends, and by the time I was a senior a lot of these friends were pairing off. I began to notice that the women who were “picked first,” (as the religious culture of the group prompted men to always take the first step) all kinda looked the same. And they didn’t look like me. I was too big, too brunette, too pale, and not feminine enough. I realized that I had been large scale friend-zoned for reasons that were really superficial, and it hurt. On top of that, being “chosen” for a relationship seemed to mark some level of high character or maturity in that woman, so it started to feel like my lack of those particular good looks also meant I wasn’t as good a person. And that messed. Me. up.
By my early twenties, I realized that my body image was generally made up of what guys thought about me. Because my body image was up to other people, any little comment or rejection could change it significantly.
At 24, I finished grad school and moved 1000 miles away from home by myself. I worked 3 jobs to make ends meet at first, and I was perpetually exhausted. I was thrown into the world of psychiatric hospitals and crisis intervention with little to no training in this area, often working evening and night shifts.
I was yelled at, threatened, and feared being assaulted fairly regularly, along with the emotional stressor of every client I saw being in their darkest place. The secondary trauma was often overwhelming and I was always stressed.
I didn’t have time to worry that much about my body, but I didn’t have time or energy to take good care of my body either. I gradually gained a significant amount of weight (50lbs in 3 years) and both my mental and physical health declined.
Body Positivity Now
In 2018, I was finally diagnosed with the depression and anxiety I already knew I had. I have struggled with my mental health to a degree much of my life, but all of the stress at work led me to finally seek professional help through counseling and medications (ironic, I know).
Embracing body positivity for me has started with my mental health. I’ve had to start with self love and taking care of my body as she is now, like making regular doctor and dentist appointments, getting massages occasionally, spending more time outside, and focusing on cooking more and eating out a lot less.
I’ve chosen to focus on things that are not overwhelming to my mental health or schedule and that help me get into a healthier routine. In this season, an intense exercise or diet plan is simply too much. My body looks differently than she did a few years ago, she might not get much smaller anytime soon, and that’s okay.
What body positivity means to me
Body positivity means loving and accepting your body for what she is and what she can do. Instead of getting angry at my body for not looking a certain way, I try to acknowledge the things that she does so well.
Body positivity is meant to love ALL bodies. It does not mean slamming skinny girls because you’re curvy positive only or slamming curvy girls because you see them as not taking care of themselves. Body positivity is encouraging women and men of all sizes and ages.
Body positivity means treating your body with love and respect. It does not mean willingly exposing her to abuse, laziness, or neglect. This looks different for everyone and I can only speak for myself. But in general, I want to do what I can to maximize the life and health of my body.
Body positivity also means listening to our bodies. We would do well to eat, drink, sleep, and exercise more intuitively. Our bodies know when they feel full, or hungry, or unsafe, or exhausted. They don’t convince themselves of anything, they simply tell us what they’re experiencing.
My tips as a therapist for loving yourself more
Call your body by your pronouns
You may have noticed me referring to my body as “she” in this post. I heard this tip from therapist, author, and researcher Hillary McBride and it totally makes sense. Why do we call our bodies “it,” as if they are just objects? My body is the holder of everything I am on this earth. She has been with me since Day 1 and will always be with me until the day I die. Calling her a “she” helps me be kinder to her.
Treat yourself like your friends
Imagine saying the things you say about your own body to a friend. Think of your best friend and then say things like “your thighs are so disgusting,” “that belly fat needs to go,” “you fat cow,” imagining you’re saying it to her. You wouldn’t do that, right?! We love our best friends and think they’re beautiful and would never treat them this way. Practice treating yourself the way you treat your closest friends.
Compliment your body on what she can do
Instead of focusing on the weight I need to lose, I thank my body for walking with me all day. For accomplishing a hike. For running or swimming. For having eyes that see all day. For hands that write and type and play the piano and cook and pet my dog. For a brain that gets me through the day organizing, planning, counseling, problem solving, and brainstorming.
I hope these thoughts can encourage you and remind you that you are so beautiful and so much more than society’s expectations. Your journey toward body positivity is unique to you, so start where you are now and slowly push yourself out of your comfort zone. You can do this, and I’m thankful for you, Beautiful.