When it comes to the topic of body image and eating disorder recovery, much conversation occurs around the concept of body positivity. In recent years, a movement has erupted from beneath the rigid body image expectations perpetuated by our culture to declare that “health” should no longer be automatically synonymized with “thin,” and we have begun to see a greater celebration of the various ways that bodies take size and shape. Instead of enslaving our bodies to harsh diets and punishing workout routines, an alternative approach has been offered to tell us that we can indeed celebrate the feats our bodies are capable of and honor them with nourishing foods and movement that we enjoy.
Many of the leaders in this movement are women who have been brave enough to push back against the unreasonable body image standards to which they have long been held hostage, and often in my work in the field of eating disorder treatment, I have suggested that the rest of us must join the work our sisters have started and begin to cultivate body positivity movements for men, racial minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community, as well.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge, however, that for those of us who have spent significant amounts of time at war with our bodies, the idea of such personal body positivity can seem nearly impossible. The notion may be good in theory, but after years of wrestling with body disgust and hatred, the concept of celebrating and loving our physical selves can feel like nothing more than a pipe dream. To you, my friend, I simply say: I get it. Body positivity does not always feel good and positive, and I know well that the way we feel about our physical selves does not always consist of celebration, warmth, or acceptance. If anything, the expectation that body positivity must be defined by these experiences can lead us into deeper guilt and shame about the actual, darker emotions we sometimes feel when we look in the mirror. The truth is, for some of us, practicing body positivity will at times be the most difficult, and least positive-feeling, thing we ever do.
I recently went through a difficult season in my life, and honestly, I did not feel very positive about my body during any of it. It was a season of hardship, filled with struggle, scarcity, hurt, and grief, and in an attempt to alleviate some of the pain, I turned back to a few of my most reliable and damaging numbing techniques. My body, in turn, adjusted with them.
I am well-practiced at criticizing my body for not being good enough and for changing in ways that I deem to be undesirable and unacceptable, and during this season, it took a lot of my energy to refrain from berating my body and myself for being human and imperfect every time I got dressed in the morning. It took additional energy to then refrain from engaging in even more damaging practices to compensate for its changes. The only body positivity I could muster during that time was an acknowledgement of the ways my body had agreed to hold my pain when the rest of me could not and choose not to actively criticize it or punish it for the way it had done so.
In reality, body positivity doesn’t always, or sometimes ever, look like a celebration for all of the wonderful things our bodies allow us to do. Some days, body positivity instead looks like whispering to our physical selves through gritted teeth and tear-stained cheeks that despite the pain, the fear, or the disgust, we will choose not to do anything we know will cause them harm. Some days, it looks like nothing more than putting in the fight to ride out the wave of body distress without engaging in destructive, quick-fix ways out of the emotion, even if we know those ways will temporarily dull the pain. Some days, body positivity is desperately seeking out a glimmer of gratitude, no matter how small, that our bodies have endured our mistreatment, made space for our pain, and have kept us alive. And on those days, my friend, that is enough.
Body positivity, in its truest form, is not always pretty, and it is certainly not always connected to any actual positive feeling. For some of us, loving our physical selves may feel futile or impossible, and yet, if there is even one small act of physical kindness that can get us through the difficult days, if there is even one time we can show our bodies appreciation instead of harm, the hope that inspires body positivity remains.
My dear friend, if you are afraid that celebrating your physical self is out of reach, I feel you. However, if you are also tired of waging a constant war against your body, I am with you. Let us begin the hard work of making peace with our flesh and bones together, and in doing so, discover that in the moments when we feel like celebrating our bodies least, even the smallest acts of physical kindness are cause for celebration, too.
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