The term body positivity has become embedded in mainstream culture, along with hashtags (#bodypositivity, #bopo) on social media, as a way to promote and highlight self-love for one’s own body. However, the body positivity movement isn’t brand new, and although it’s gathered steam in recent years, it did not launch on Instagram or other social media sites. “Body positivity has its origins in the fat acceptance movement of the 1960s, and over the years has come to encompass all types of bodies—trans, differently-abled, large, small, medium” says Elise Hall, LICSW, a licensed clinical social worker in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
But, in its modern form, “body positivity” can mean anything from accepting your flaws to being happy with your body to fighting for the visibility and acceptance of larger bodies—against the backdrop of a world that seems to send unending messages that some bodies are better than others.
However, if loving yourself is your goal, is aiming to love your body every single day the best way to get there? Probably not, according to Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, who’s based in Brooklyn, New York. “Just reaching a basic level of appreciation for one’s body, and basic acceptance can be a lot more positive and motivating than this idea that you have to strive to always feel great about your body. And body positivity all day, every day, just isn’t… It’s not a realistic goal.”
“The last thing we want is for people to be comparing themselves to other body positivity influencers or leaders and thinking, ‘Oh, well I wish I felt that great about myself all the time.’ And so that becomes another source of insecurity,” says Mysko.
Try not to compare yourself to others
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It’s easy to look at other people and decide what they’re thinking, even if we have no idea. Everyone does it. Hall says, “One really popular cognitive distortion that people have is mind-reading, so assuming that we know what other people are thinking about us and typically assuming that their thoughts about us are negative.”
To avoid this, Hall says, we must simply work on our thinking, “Noticing those thoughts, working on being able to challenge them and replace them with a more realistic thought pattern, which could look like, ‘Wow, that’s a great picture of that person. And that has nothing to do with me. I don’t know what other people think about me. All I know is how I think about myself or how I think about other people.'”
Try to focus on your health
Body acceptance, or neutrality, means focusing on your health above your looks. So, explains Hall, you want to “work on separating your decisions about your health, for example, from your decisions about your weight or your body shape. And so, really working on kind of making a distinction between the two and trying to reframe your thoughts around weight and shape, especially when it comes to just, again, health-related decisions. So, “Should I go to the gym today? Yeah. I think I should go to the gym because I haven’t gotten my heart rate up yet this week and I know that that’s good for my heart,” versus, “I’m going to go to the gym because I want to lose 10 pounds to fit into this dress for this event.”
Find inspiration in people who look like you
Oftentimes, even in body-positive messaging, the bodies you see may not reflect yours. But, as Mysko explains, “One of the benefits of social media is that you do have some ability, with the exception of advertising, to curate the content that you’re seeing. Really from an individual perspective, be proactive about seeking out a broader representation of bodies and experiences.” You may want to be thoughtful about who and what you’re following on social media and opt to follow inspiring people or empowering hashtags.
Know that you don’t have to engage in social media
Remember, says Mysko, “When you see that the culture is giving more attention and validation to certain types of stories, and certain body types, that’s where that appearance ideal continues to get reinforced.”
It’s important to check out of the social cycle, explains Mysko, “Understand that it’s possible and often recommended if social media, and your consumption of social media participation is generally making you feel bad about yourself, that you can take a break from that. Or you can totally cut yourself off from it.”
Think about your body as separate from something to be consumed by others
Start appreciating your body for what it does, not what it looks like, by acknowledging what it does for you, whether that’s going on a hike, or just taking you through a tough day. This reframe in thinking can also help separate ourselves from the illusion that purchasing more beauty treatments, cosmetics, or clothing, will make us feel better about our bodies.
Mysko explains, “Move away from this idea of focusing only on physical appearance, and how we look. Being very conscious about trying to think about our bodies, and appreciate our bodies outside of what they look like or how others might perceive our physical appearance.”
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.