How Can People Develop a Positive Relationship With Their Body?

In the last of our three-part series of Body Image focused Blogs for Mental Health Awareness Week, Psychotherapist Gemma Saggers discusses:

How Can People Develop a Positive Relationship With Their Body?

Gemma Saggers Psychotherapist with Specialist Interest in Body Image and Disordered Eating.

Gemma Saggers Psychotherapist with Specialist Interest in Body Image and Disordered Eating.

Every person is different, therefore a ‘one size fits all approach’ to creating a positive relationship with your body is going to vary from person to person. My hope is that this blog post will give you a place to start from.

It might be the case that developing a positive relationship with your body seems impossible right now, so for those of you feeling like that I want to assure you that that’s ok too. Let’s instead aim for a body neutral approach. A place where even if you don’t have positive feelings towards your body, you don’t have the negative ones either. The Body Neutral Approach is addressed just before the useful resources guide at the end of this article.

It feels really important to stress that if you’re struggling with an eating disorder, some of the hints and tips might not be quite right for you yet. This post can perhaps be revisited at a later date. One thing I do want you know is that your experience of your body and your relationship with food is as valid and important as anyone else’s and that if you feel like you have an eating disorder, you do. I trust your experience. I hope that you are able to access the help and care you need. If not, I recommend heading back to the RHCP website to view our therapeutic options. I wish you all the best in your recovery – you can beat this!

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts this week, I’m mindful as I begin to answer this question that a blog post will not be able to address all experience. Over the past week my blog posts have addressed how marginalisation negatively affects mental health and I want to be mindful of how this article will perhaps, although unintentionally, not include the experience of some, thus perpetuating the problem further. If this is the case, I hope you’ll accept my apologies for any exclusion. I’m always keen to learn about my blind spots in a genuine effort to be as inclusive as possible. I welcome any comment on how I can better do this. Please also feel free to get in touch to ask for further resources that support your experience and I will do my best to point you in that direction. At the bottom of this post are some resources that I’ve found to be useful.

So where to begin. My previous blog posts this week have hopefully shown you that a) Society deliberately encourages you to hate your body by either misrepresenting or not representing it at all. B) Diets don’t work. (Ok, the official statistic is 95% of diets don’t work, but that’s good enough for me!) C) Our body has a set point range of weight that it likes to be at to function optimally and that when we encourage it away from that it starts to seriously play up (think obsessive thoughts about food and remember what happened to the mental health of those men from The Minnesota Starvation Experiment). D) All bodies are different, and all bodies are worthy.

So, if we’ve finally realised that changing ourselves, dieting and shrinking are no longer options, where can we go? It appears like making peace with our body, whatever it looks like is our only option. Is this possible? I believe it is. I want to take you one step further, I want you to feel positive about your body. Is this possible? Again, I believe it is.

I want to be honest with you, I’ve not always liked my body. In fact, from the ages of 16 to 27 (over a decade!) I really didn’t like my body at all. In those 11 years I wrestled with diets, once eating such outrageously small amounts of food that I was sent home from my retail job for hardly being able to stand. I’ve committed to punishing exercise programmes, once passing out in a cross fit class…what hell on earth even are those?! (I know, I know, some of you like cross fit and that’s fine too!) I’ve experimented with different forms of purging that instead of helping me lose weight just created a whole load of extra shame for me to lug around and, for a while, I convinced myself that goji berries were going to save my life. Spoiler alert, not one of these things made me feel good about my body. In fact, they all made me feel a whole lot worse.

My motivation to finally break this cycle of destruction came from hitting what I’d always thought was my ‘ideal’ weight. Whilst I received a tonne of compliments which felt nice (I will discuss later why commenting on other people’s bodies can be more dangerous than we realise), I didn’t feel happy, healthy or very well at all. In order to keep myself at that weight I couldn’t eat 3 meals a day. I couldn’t get through the day without a nap and had very little mental energy to read the books I love or socialise with my friends and family. Enough was enough. How could I be a Psychotherapist that worked so hard to care for others if I wasn’t going to offer myself the same respect? But where to go for this? I knew I needed to look in a new place. Over the last year, I believe I’ve made peace with my body by finding the right support and resources that not only match what I absolutely believe in (both for others and now myself) but have given me my life back. I want to share how these finally worked for me in the hope that some of it might work for you too.

I want to start by introducing you to the Body Positive Movement. Whilst body positive roots can be traced back as early as the Victorian age. It originated as a Fat Acceptance movement in the 1960s started by Lew Louderback who called for more body size representation. Two years later the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was created.

The NAAFA promoted a Health at Every Size model (HAES) where health was measured not using a scale like Body Mass Index (BMI) but by things such as blood pressure and cholesterol which are actually much fairer, scientific and inclusive measures. Body Mass Index was originally developed to measure the health of a set of affluent white men. Yet today its scales are rolled out across an entire range of intersections, telling those bodies that do not fit its findings that they are ‘over-weight’ ‘obsese’ or what I hear ‘they are wrong!’

Deemed a second wave of feminism, in 1996, The Body Positive was formed by Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott. Their mission statement reads: “The Body Positive teaches people how to reconnect to their innate body wisdom, so they can have more balanced, joyful self-care, and a relationship with their whole selves that is guided by love, forgiveness, and humour.” This sounds pretty great hey!

What Body Positive Is:

Activist Kelly Augustine’s definition captures the very essence of what I believe the body movement to be about. She explains: “Body positivity is a frame of mind, not a minding of the frame. It’s all about how you feel about your body, regardless of size. I know women who are a size 2 that are so uncomfortable in their skin, and women who are a size 22 that are living their lives fearlessly and unapologetically. Body positivity is also the acceptance of other bodies, which I don’t think enough people acknowledge. Being happy in your body does not grant you permission to steal joy from others. The body positive movement began as, and should always be, an inclusive one, and I think some are losing sight of that.” (Augustine, 2014)

What Body Positive Is Not:

It feels really important to stress that I’m introducing you to the original, kind and inclusive, political movement of Body Positivity. The Body Positive movement has gained a lot of criticism over the past few years for becoming mainstreamed, commercialised and misunderstood: “Body positivity has been politicized and monetized in ways that often end up leaving individuals above a certain size out of the conversation. It has arguably become a term that, in some cases, is just a substitution for existing outside of the beauty norm in one way. It’s not to say that challenging beauty standards isn’t important, but if doing so is not creating a more inclusive picture of beauty for all identities, then it’s not doing all that it can.” (Dalessandro, 2016)

Because of this, and because of my own recognised intersectional privilege, (I am a thin, white, straight, young female) it feels very important to be explicit about what I mean when I use this term as early as possible to avoid mis-representation or mis-understanding. I want this essence of what I mean by Body Positivity to be in line with its original, political values. I have really questioned if I belong here, not wanting my privilege to further occupy a space that pushes the marginalised out. But I have found assurance by several Body Positive advocates including Megan Jane Crabbe, that I belong here too. I cannot tell you how profound that sense of belonging has felt to me.

She writes:

“Show me it all, show me the fat bodies and the thin ones. Show me the belly rolls, the cellulite, the jiggling upper arms. Show me the muscular and the soft. Show me the wide hips and the narrow ones too. Show me the breasts of all shapes and sizes, perky and droopy, uneven or absent. Show me the scars, the marks, the freckles the blemishes. Show me the darkest skin and the palest, and every shade in-between. Show me the able bodies and the differently abled bodies, the bodies in wheelchairs, the amputees, the bodies with disabilities visible or not…let the world see them all and let us call them the new ideal.”

So how can we be more Body Positive?

I appreciate it’s all very well and good understanding what a movement is, but how do you apply it to your every-day life? The Body Positive Movement introduced me to a range of gentle behaviours that I will share with you now.

In her work: Body Positive Power: Megan Jayne Crabbe Shares the Following Steps on How to be More Body Positive. I have taken adapted her steps and added my explanations to help you on your way.

  • Get Mad

When I think about the lies, the shame, the money I’ve spent trying to conform to beauty standards, I get pretty damn angry! It is after all, outrageous! Getting mad at the situation can really help you realise that you are as worthy of self-love as the next person. Keeping quiet and small is what society wanted. But not anymore! When you’ve gathered up all that anger and that pain, I want you to use it to decide that enough is enough. Let it motivate you for change. The anger never belonged at your body. It belongs at society. It’s not welcome here anymore. Refuse to let yourself keep believing that you need to look a certain way to be enough. You are so more than enough!

  • Sign the Diet Free Pledge

Promise yourself that you’re not going to keep punishing your body but putting it through another diet cycle. Recognise that all you are doing is denying your body the nourishment that it needs to function. Take a pledge that you’re going to look after your mental health by allowing yourself to enjoy food again. For more tips on how to reintroduce nutrition kindly, scroll down to the intuitive eating section of this post.

  • Have a Diet Culture Detox

Now I’ve spoken to you about diet culture, you’re going to notice its everywhere! (My poor partner can’t go a day without me pointing something out to him!) Chances are it’s also set up an unwanted camp in your home, lurking in your kitchen, your bathroom or your bedside cabinet. Get a giant big bag and remove it…ALL. We are going to subject to it through advertising, so we sure don’t want to welcome it in our home. Throw away the diet pills, the protein shakes and meal replacement bars. Throw away the cellulite busting creams and the skinny teas. If you’re angry about throwing away products you’ve spent money on – see point 1!

  • Create a Body Positive Social Media Feed

Earlier in the week I shared a post about how to curate your social media feed to help your body image perception. Perhaps return there and have a go at some of the tips. No worries if you aren’t ready, but it might be worth just giving a #bodypositive account a follow. (Remember to make sure it’s a genuine movement account and not someone dressed in BOPO clothes selling you a diet. Girl it’s tricky out there!)

  • Have a Wardrobe Clear Out

Why on earth are you still torturing yourself with that pair of jeans that haven’t fitted you for years. I can guarantee that if you were to slim back into them, you’d feel pretty mentally rubbish and very hungry when you got there. I promise it isn’t worth it. Throw them away, donate them to a charity or do a clothes swap night with your friends! Whatever you do, get them out of your positive new space!

  • Get Reading

Head to the reading list at the bottom of this blog to find some resources. There are so many amazing books by so many amazing writers out there. Although this article has been mainly about the Body Positivity Movement. I’ll also recommend some Health and Every Size books, some Fat Activist and Fat Acceptance books, some Body Neutral books and some that fall somewhere in between. As well as reading, I’ll link you to the (frustratingly) tiny number of TV programmes and films that show this perspective!

  • Say Goodbye to the Scale

This has been one of the best decisions I ever made. For the longest time I let my days happiness be guided by the number on the scale in the morning. Below a certain weight I could be happy, praising myself for doing well. If not, and the scale read just a couple of pounds higher, it was a day to be punished and make up for any slip ups. I don’t think I’d be able to fully embrace the Body Positivity movement if I knew how much I weighed. I really recommend you throw that scale away. After all, it doesn’t measure health and happiness. It just measured your gravitational pull. I’m really sure that’s not as important as we all think it is!

  • Stop the Comparison

As I mentioned in my social media article earlier in the week, comparison is the devil. Head back there if you want to see how comparison can negatively impact our mental health. Head to @lucysheridan The Comparison Coach if you want to find out more about how to finally end the game of ‘Keeping Up with the Jones.’ You are one of a kind and incomparable. And that’s something to be celebrated!

  • Stand up against negative self-talk.

Women have on average 13 negative self-body thoughts every day. How exhausting. Next time you notice yourself being critical of yourself, try and interrupt or correct it. You wouldn’t let someone talk to your friend like that, so don’t allow yourself to. If you have to say something bad about yourself, try responding with something kind like: “Ok it feels important to be critical to myself today…but I’m going to keep trying to work on getting back on my own team and I’m sorry I’m not able to be there today.” Letting yourself know you’re trying to be on your own team can be really healing too.

  • Stand up for yourself against Body Shaming
    We can all picture the scene. It’s (Insert Family Event) and (insert rude relative) comes over and decides to aim some unsolicited ‘helpful’ advice to you having noticed you’ve put on a bit of weight. You do not have to accept this. Politely and firmly tell them that actually you’ve been working really hard on lots of other things this year that would be much more interesting to talk about to them about. Or, if you can, let them know just how unhelpful what they’ve just done is. I’ve included the Wheel of Diet Talk responses to hopefully give you a few suggestions. Credit to Balance TX for this. Similarly, if the body shaming is happening to you online, block it immediately. You do not deserve it and you absolutely do not have to put up with it! 

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  • Practice offering this kindness to others.

As you’re beginning to learn about all the ways that society has been punishing you, you will probably make the link that this has also been the reality for many others that you know and care for. Why not try striking up a conversation with someone that isn’t about their body or your body but is about something you have noticed you admired. It can feel so powerful to spread kindness. I mentioned earlier in the post that when I lost weight people told me how good I looked. Although they were intending to be nice, it was actually really unhelpful. So even if you want to say something you intend to be a compliment, try not to. Remember, we don’t know about another person’s relationship with their body and nor is it any of our business. If it feels weird to stop talking about bodies all together, why not start conversation with your friend or family about the body positive movement, rather than their body. These kind conversations have bought me much closer to so many women as we’ve been able to find solidarity in our experience.

  • Practice Intuitive Eating and Joyful Movement.

Below is an introduction to intuitive eating so I’ll address joyful movement here. How many of either hate exercise because we are cripplingly aware of what others may think of us whilst we are doing it? Are we made to feel unwelcome or judged at the gym? Similarly, how many of us have used exercise to punish ourselves after a weekend of ‘overindulgence’ or feel we can’t enjoy a cookie without working out how much exercise we need to do to burn it off.  Joyful movement is a new approach to this. Exercise has been proven to increase both physical and mental health so it’s a good idea to try and get some in. (Although saying that you are just as worthy of love and respect if you decide exercise isn’t for you.) But this doesn’t have to be lifting weights or running miles. Could it be something you loved doing as a child such as swimming or using a skipping rope? Could it be Zumba or another dance class or dancing round your kitchen to your favourite song? For me its swimming and returning to golf, a sport I played when I was young. I entered my first competition last week and guess what – I came last! But none of it mattered because I was practicing joyful movement. I was there to learn and have fun. I can’t wait to play again this weekend!

Even understanding all of this, I still needed a place to slot food and health. That’s why Body Positivity works alongside Intuitive Eating an anti-diet concept to repair our relationship with food and reverse the damage caused by the diet industry. A main part of being Body Positivity is that it’s anti-diet. So, if you’re hunting for any resources to further your understanding of intuitive eating then please be careful of any that mention ‘natural weight loss’ or ‘hunger directed eating’ as these are still encouraging you to shrink your body to fit with societal norms and as I think I’ve made pretty clear – that’s not what this is about!

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive Eating is the process of honouring your bodies hunger and fullness cues and using them as information around when you need to eat, when you need to stop eating, and what you fancy eating. It’s a natural skill that we were all born with. As a baby your body gave you signals to let your caregiver know when you were hungry and full. These signals were built in for survival and we’ve all got them. (They might be hiding under years of diet culture, but I promise they are there!) It’s likely you knew what your favourite foods were and enjoyed them with joyful abandon, or at least, until you were full! I so want to you to get back there. Another important part of intuitive eating is removing any moral value associated with food. Food is not good or bad, clean or dirty and more importantly you are not good or bad, clean or dirty for enjoying it. All foods go through a process of being certified as fit for human consumption and all foods serve a different nutritional when enjoyed. Yes, I include cake in this!

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In her book: ‘Just Eat It’ by Laura Thomas, she describes Intuitive Eating as a series of fundamental steps that help people who have “become disconnected from their intuitive eating signals and don’t actually know what, when, or how much to eat.” As Laura has proven, understanding Intuitive Eating is a book load of (very easily digestible) information but still too much for one blog post. I will share with you her intuitive eating principles in the hope that it peaks your interest and you can go and hunt out some more. As well as the link below, I have popped a couple of Intuitive Eating resources at the bottom of this post.

Laura’s Principles Are:

DITCH DIET CULTURE

HONOUR YOUR HUNGER

MAKE PEACE WITH FOOD

CHALLENGE THE FOOD POLICE

FEEL YOUR FULLNESS

DISCOVER THE SATISFACTION FACTOR

EATING YOUR EMOTIONS

BECOME A BOPO BABE

INTUITIVE MOVEMENT

GENTLE NUTRITION

For an explicit look at what these means: follow this link: http://www.laurathomasphd.co.uk/intuitive/

Body Neutrality

Lastly, as mentioned at the top of this post, it might be the case that getting positive about your body right now seems just too much. So, let’s look at how we can be body neutral. Body Neutrality a Body Image Movement that doesn’t focus on your appearance. It’s that how you feel about yourself has nothing to do with your appearance. It believes that being pre-occupied with what you see in the mirror leads to unhappiness. It rejects mass media messages that suggest being attractive is what’s most important and it sees your outer shell as a single, and not all that interesting part of yourself. It believes that society needs to challenge the value of beauty in society. If this sounds more like you, then I can’t recommend this movement enough. Launched on May 14th the Beyond Beautiful Book is a: Body Neutral survival manual for a looks obsessed world. I’d recommend this as an excellent place to start! If you’re working towards Body Neutrality I share the Beyond Beautiful Book’s 5 gentle steps to starting:

  • Refuse to Participate in Body Talk
  • Stop Tracking Your Appearance
  • Treat Every step in your beauty routine as optional
  • Stop Self Objectifying (More on this theory in the social media post earlier this week!)
  • Stop Wearing Uncomfortable clothes.

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Image Credit: The Beyond Beautiful Book

Resources

These are the books/tv shows and social media accounts that really helped me work to become more body positive. They also helped me to understand, be supportive of and advocate for experiences that were outside my own (a key part of the Body Positive Movement). I so hope they bring you the same joy.

  • The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
  • Bodies by Susie Orbach
  • Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach
  • On Eating by Susie Orbach
  • Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates
  • Girl Up by Laura Bates
  • You have the right to remain Fat: A Manifesto by Virgie Tower
  • Things no one will tell fat girl: A Handbook for Unapologetic Living by Jes Baker
  • Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe
  • Landwhale by Jes Baker
  • Dietland by Sarai Walker (also made into a TV show on Amazon Prime)
  • The Body is not an apology: The power of radical self-love by Sonya Renee Taylor
  • Eat Drink Run by Bryony Gordon
  • Not that Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
  • Just Eat it by Laura Thomas
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez.
  • Counselling for Eating Disorders in Women: Person centred Dialogues by Richard Bryant Jeffries.
  • Happy Fat by Sophie Hagan
  • Slim Chance for Permanent Weight Loss by Esther Rothblum
  • Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon
  • Queer Eye – Netflix
  • Dumplin – Netflix

Social Media Accounts

  • @bodyposipanda
  • @Beyondbeautifulbook
  • @Laurathomasphd
  • @Sofiehagendk
  • @Lenadunham
  • @Notoriouslydapper
  • @Zachmiko
  • @Lizzobeeating
  • @Just_eat_the_doughnut
  • @Blairimani
  • @Bryonygordon
  • @Racheldoesstuff
  • @Poornabell
  • @Donyaelewis
  • @Chessieking
  • @Rootedliving
  • @Tessholiday
  • @Scarrednotscared
  • @Thehungryclementine
  • @Felicityhayward
  • @Therealjoynash
  • @Virgietovar
  • @Maryscupoftea
  • @Lucysheridan
  • @Jamievaron
  • @yrfatfriend
  • @thefatsextherapist

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