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We are living in an epidemic of body hatred. Over 91% of women feel unhappy with their body and over 80% of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat. Positive body image is fundamental for our physical and emotional wellbeing. Yet, for many of us, body positivity is inaccessible. It’s something that applies to other people but not to us.
In our image-obsessed culture, body positivity is most visible in pictures of scantily clad women flaunting their culturally perceived imperfections. While these displays may help change our cultural perspective about body image and beauty, it can also feel alienating to women in the throes of body conflict. The body positivity movement has suffered from a narrow vision of body diversity, an issue that was explored more in-depth in this article for Everyday Feminism. But even if we do see bodies similar to our own represented in media, most of us still look at those images and think that will never be me. When you struggle with getting dressed in the morning because you don’t have any clothes you feel good in, when you can’t focus at work because you are distracted by the way that your belly rolls over your pants, when you live in terror that a passerby may notice your fatness, when every woman you pass is a yardstick to measure your own inadequacies, when you feel downright awful about yourself, feeling positively about your body seems out of reach. When you are in a place of self-hatred, images of people proclaiming love for their body only serves to remind you of your own misery. It’s not easy to transform deeply ingrained beliefs about our bodies overnight.
It is as if we have two options: feel awesome about our body all the time or remain stuck in oppressive diet-culture. Often we overlook a middle road that sets the foundation for true body positivity—acceptance. It may not trend on twitter or inspire advertising campaigns, but acceptance is at the core of freeing ourselves from the imprisonment of self-hatred. When we are stuck in cycles of body-hatred and shame, we often turn away from reality. It is not okay for my body to look like this. I shouldn’t be at this weight. We live our lives on pause, waiting until we have lost weight to (insert any life goal here). Acceptance is the process of opening our eyes to our current reality. Seeing the world—and our body–as it truly is, not how we want it to be. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to accept it (at least if you want to move forward out of immobilizing self-hatred).
Acceptance does not mean resignation that things will stay the same; quite contrary, acceptance only speaks to the present moment. It makes no claims about the future. When we are able to clearly see our present reality, we are able to make choices about how we want to move forward with compassion and get unstuck from patterns of avoidance. We can accept our body and still want to change it. We can practice acceptance even if we are still holding onto the elusive dream of weight loss. Acceptance meets you where you are.
Body positivity doesn’t mean feeling positive about your body all the time, although this is a common misperception. Rather than all love all the time, body positivity is really about acceptance. And part of acceptance is that we don’t feel awesome about our body all the time. It. Is. A. Struggle. But at least we are struggling. The struggle means that we are fighting against the powers that try to convince us that we are not good enough because our body doesn’t look the way we are told it is supposed to. It is a step forward from unquestioned beliefs that our body is bad. When we are able to practice acceptance, self-care and compassion often follows suit, and sometimes—to our own surprise–positivity may even come along for moments of the ride. But even when body positivity feels light years away, the power of acceptance is always within us.
Alexis Conason is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City specializing in body image and overeating disorders. Want more mindful eating? Sign up for her newsletter at www.drconason.com, like her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.