Body positivity and learning to love yourself

One of the things that most people are really bad at is understanding (and remembering) that two things can be true at once, even if at first they appear to be complete opposites.

For example, it is true that saturated fat is not as bad for you as was once thought, but it is also true that you can’t just go about drinking coconut oil willy nilly and expect that to have no negative effect on your blood markers.

One area in which this is especially true, but often forgotten in the current conversation around health, fitness, and nutrition is that of body positivity (or fat acceptance, or whatever term you’d like to use). Here the false dichotomy is presented like so:

You need to believe one of the following things:

  • You love your body and therefore it’s perfect as is
  • You hate your body and so want to change it

But the devil here is definitely in the details, and I would argue that the most productive conversations – and the healthiest mindset – can be found when we truly grasp this concept.

In this blog I’m going to make the case for what I’m going to call body appreciation – that of loving your body; REALLY loving it, and using that as the motivation to change it.

To do this it’s probably easiest to pitch my idea in contrast to the vibe I see going around most often in the fitness space, and so I’m going to do that first.

Why I don’t like fat acceptance

I’m going to start with why I don’t like the fat acceptance/healthy at any size movement before I go into the (not inconsiderable) positives because that gets all the negative stuff out of the way. There are two primary issues I have, with the first being a straight forward denial of scientific fact. Obesity and overweight are not, and will never be healthy states. While it is the case that an obese person who exercises and generally chooses healthier foods to eat is statistically at a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes than those of a similar body composition who don’t engage in these health-promoting behaviours, it’s still the case that they would be at a far lower risk were they do be at a healthy weight.

Being obese, no matter how you approach it, and what data you look at, is bad for you. No, you may not have issues yet, but not every smoker has issues yet either…it’s still bad for you.

And that links to my other issue with the movement: because proponents choose to argue against that point, using either cherrypicked data or ad hominem attacks on the character of people with whom they disagree, they demonise the idea of weight loss, dieting, and related topics entirely. This sets up a false “you’re with me or against me” dichotomy which is not only ignorant of the science, it stands to discourage people who would otherwise attempt to lose fat.

After all – how can you REALLY be practising body positivity and fat acceptance if you are also actively trying to change your body and lose fat? This isn’t my view, it’s the view of many activists who decry what they define to be diet culture (diet culture can be an issue, but not every sneeze indicates the flu and not everything related to weight management is diet culture – another topic for another time). Because of this view, body positivity proponents will often either actively or implicitly shame those who choose a different path, and that pisses me off.

Why I appreciate the body positivity movement

But here’s the thing – body positivity isn’t just good, it’s damned important! Hating your body and/or your appearance is INCREDIBLY unhealthy; it leads to, at best, lowered mood and self-esteem, and all of the associated issues that come along with these, but at worst?

Eating disorders, social seclusion, and a massive barrier to leading a healthy and fulfilling life. Considering that the point of maintaining a healthy weight should be first and foremost health, the adoption of an unhealthy mindset in the interim suddenly makes the whole dieting process completely self-defeating.

But the problems don’t stop at the abstract idea of worsened mental health, which while extremely important is often brushed aside as an ‘it won’t happen to me’, let’s make this more concrete. Those who experience greater body dissatisfaction tend to adhere more poorly to health-promoting interventions like diets and exercise programs meaning that those that hate their body tend to fail when they try to change it. This makes sense from a logical perspective when you think about it – why would you put up with discomfort (exercise and dieting are both uncomfortable, though of course, you can mitigate this to a degree with proper planning) to help something that you hate (your body)? Not gonna happen, chief.

Rather, you end up in a spiral of self-sabotage, binge eating, and sacking off the gym for the slightest reason.

So we find ourselves at an impasse – practising fat acceptance and body positivity to the extent that you just accept that your body is as it is so you’d better get used to it, in lieu of changing it, is bad for your health (if you ever REALLY manage to do that in the first place – many who promote body positivity to the extreme give off major signs of not being truly happy….) whereas not practising it leads to potential mental health issues and failed fat loss.

Here’s my solution

The first step is to separate yourself from your body. Not literally, obviously, but figuratively and conceptually – you are not your body; you are your mind, thoughts, ambitions, personality, and all that good stuff. You must love yourself because without that you cannot treat yourself in a manner that is beneficial. Of course for some this may be difficult to do but you can at least fake it ‘til you make it by treating yourself like you would treat another person that you love. Talk to yourself like you’d talk to a truly loved one. Treat yourself like you’d treat someone you wanted the best for.

If that feels selfish, remember that you’re no use to anyone if you’re mired in self-loathing, so in order to be useful and positive for those around you, you need to at least practise some amount of self-care. Think about who you are – not the physical you, but the social, intellectual, aspirational, and familial you. That person should matter to you, regardless of appearance, and if they don’t your issues may stem from something far and away from storing a few extra lbs.

So that’s *you* taken care of – you love yourself and want the best for yourself, what about your body?

Well, you can view it like a car. It’s the thing that you need to travel around in and so you need to take care of it – if your car’s engine light comes on you don’t slam it into a wall because it’s a piece of garbage and you hate it so what’s the point – you do what is necessary to get it running again because, objectively, that is what is required to make your life better. Sure, your car may piss you off sometimes, but if you want to be able to go where you want to you need to put fuel in it and do some maintenance.

View your body in the same objective manner. If it’s tired, give it sleep. If it’s hot, cool it down. If it has too much stored energy, use some of it up. You can do this while still practising self-love because, again, your body is the vehicle that your self needs to travel around with for the rest of its entire existence – and that existence is going to suck pretty hard if it’s racked with avoidable health problems and mobility issues. Improving your body has nothing to do with hatred, or with escaping an unacceptable state – it’s simply taking good care of the physical form your self needs to inhabit.

And the second step is to practice body appreciation, because while it is true you may look at your body and see its flaws and the areas of improvement that are necessary to keep your vehicle ticking along, two things can be true at once, and in this case it’s ALSO true that you’re damn lucky to have the body you have.

To the degree that it does, it works pretty well

You’re able to do a ton of stuff that brings you and those around you joy.

It enables you to lead a life that is fulfilling (or at least it lets you work towards that)

And yes, while there may be a million things about it you want to improve, if you take your time there will be at least ONE thing about it that you love and wouldn’t swap for the world.

Your body is incredible. It’s adaptable, it’s dependable, and it’s there to enable your self to work towards then experience its dreams.

And that’s something that’s worth respecting, appreciating, and refining. And here we loop back to my main point, and the take-home message from this blog.

Body positivity doesn’t stand in contrast to body improvement. In fact, it’s the same damn thing. You will not work to improve something you hate, so not only is a sense of hating your body a negative thing for your mental state, it’s straight-up counterproductive. Body positivity is CRUCIAL if you’re ever going to reach a point of satisfaction with your self’s vehicle – not because it’s a façade behind which you can hide or a blindfold you can wear in order to ignore problems that may arise, but because loving your body is the first step towards improving it.

So yes, practice body positivity

Practice self-love.

But body acceptance? Resigning yourself to the idea that that’s just where you are, and the best your mind and your self can hope to experience?

Balls to that.

"All in or all out" Rachael is a vibrant, no-bullshit-talking Scottish nutrition geek and coach helping women to lose weight without giving up their confidence OR their favourite foods.

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