Sunday, 30 July 2017

What To Do If You Just Can't Love Your Body

A lot of the time body positivity feels like it comes with an all-or-nothing mentality. Captions that just scream LOVE YOUR BODY with no mention of how, and hundreds of pictures of people (seemingly effortlessly) embracing their squishy parts in swimwear can feel pretty damn alienating if you're just not in that place. You might even feel like it's not worth trying anymore, because you can't ever see yourself getting to that level of self love.

But here's the reality: self love isn't a switch that you can flick on and suddenly all of your body image issues just evaporate into nowhere. You are trying to unlearn a lifetime of negative conditioning about your body. And not only is that really fucking difficult, that kind of healing takes time, practice, and a whole lot of emotional energy. 

You are not alone if you're still stuck at 'how the hell do I do this?' when everyone else seems to be at 'I'm goddamn flawless bitcheeesssss!'. This post is for those of you who keep striving for self love and can't seem to get there. Here's what I want you to remember:

1. How you feel about your body right now isn't your fault.

Here's what we know: none of us were born hating our bodies. In fact once upon a time we all thought our bodies were the most fascinating things in the world - babies spend hours just marveling at their own bodies and exploring all the different parts. Just think about this for a second, if we aren't born hating our bodies, what does that mean?

It means that body dissatisfaction is learned. And it's learned fast. Studies are showing that children as young as 3 and 4 aren't happy with their bodies and are aware of how to diet. It only takes a handful of years living in our culture to soak up the message that our bodies are somehow wrong. We're too big, too flat, too dark, too pale, too tall, too short, too old, too plain, too different. Is that fucked up? 100%. But it's also not something that you are responsible for. 

So who is responsible? How do we learn the body hatred that takes over so many of our lives? In the case of body image issues that are about the size of our bodies, the culprits here are omnipresent diet culture and rampant societal fatphobia. 

The diet industry (worth over $60 billion in the US alone) works to make sure we're surrounded by messaging every single day telling us that weight loss is the way to beauty and happiness. We are saturated with images of photoshopped body ideals on our screens, in our magazines, placed miles high on billboard lined streets every-fucking-where we turn. And we're promised by diet culture, that not only are those body types achievable, they are the solution to all of our problems.

We all learn the thinness = happiness lie. Whether it's from direct media exposure, or passed down from friends or family. We understand the rules: how our bodies look is the most important thing about us, there is only one way to be beautiful, and life only happens to beautiful people. Happiness is only a prize for beautiful people.

But did you ask to be born into a culture that teaches people that? I sure as hell didn't. I was unaware that the world was going to make me feel like existing in my own body was a crime. For a long time I believed that me hating my body was my own fault - if only I could do better, have more willpower, change myself. I never thought to question the culture that convinced me I needed to change.

Now I realise that hating my body had nothing to do with my personal failings, and everything to do with a culture that's intent on profiting from our insecurities (that they taught us to see in the first place), even if those profits come at the expense of our collective mental health.

Our body image issues are not our fault. We haven't done this to ourselves. It has been done to us. If you're still not convinced, you can read more about that by clicking here.

2. Stop aiming for the stars.

Let's be real - it is unrealistic to expect to catapult yourself straight from lifelong self hatred into self love. That's like taking a day trip to a foreign country and expecting to be fluent in the native language by the time you leave. Not gonna happen.

Self love is less of a final destination than it is a daily practice, and no-one's expecting you to be at the highest level of your practice now or ever. In fact if having all encompassing self love as your goal is really just setting you back, you can refocus your aim and take some stepping stones there instead.

  • You could be aiming for body acceptance or body neutrality, which don't require you to be head-over-heels in love with your body, but simply accepting that this is the body you have, so that you can live your life without giving too much thought to how you look. So instead of 'I'm goddamn flawless bitcheeesssss!', you land somewhere like 'this is the body I have right now, I don't feel negatively or positively towards it, I'm not actively trying to change it, I'm just experiencing the world outside of my body and generally not giving a damn about how I look while doing that'.
  • And if that seems too far away as well, you can take it a stepping stone down and practice some basic body respect. Even if you can't get on board with accepting or loving the way your body looks, you can take some time to appreciate the things your body allows you to do. Do the arms that you hate give hugs? Does the stomach that you can't stand function as part of your digestive system? Does the mouth you'd love to change allow you to express joy and kindness to the people you love? Recognising these things doesn't mean you have to love your body, but we can practice gratitude for our bodies sticking by us despite everything we've put them through, and all the hate we've had for them. No bikini pictures necessary.

3. Don't beat yourself up for not being there yet.

There is so much guilt and shame already rooted in our body image issues. Guilt for this morning's weigh-in. Shame about your appetite. Guilt for not trying harder, running faster, being better. Shame for taking up space. The last thing you need to do is carry those feelings over and make 'not doing self love well enough' another thing to feel guilty about. This journey is about breaking away from that guilt and shame.

And here's a secret: even the most body positive people in the world have bad days. Because it's almost impossible to fight against the dominant cultural messages every day and never ever doubt yourself for doing so. You're not expected to be an automatic self love robot, so give yourself a break.

4. Keep reminding yourself of why this journey is worthwhile, and how far you've already come.

Why did you start trying to change your relationship with your body? If you're like me, you probably realised that you just couldn't spend your whole life at war with yourself. It's too exhausting. You can't carry on dieting, counting, weighing, measuring, self harming, obsessing and putting off your life until your body is 'good enough'. Because deep down you must know by now, that there will never be a 'good enough'. This is the right decision to make, it's not an easy quick fix solution like diet culture promises (and doesn't deliver on), but it will be worthwhile in the end.

And even if it doesn't feel like it right now, you have come so far already from where you once were. Think back to the time that you were completely lost in the depths of your body hatred, or your eating disorder. Even wanting self love in the body you have is so far from that. Even considering the possibility of accepting your body takes a mental shift that requires so much strength and open-mindedness. Give yourself credit for that. You are doing better than you think you are.

So here's what I want you to take away from this post:

  1. How you feel about your body is something you've been taught, which means you are not to blame. Let go of the thoughts telling you that it's your fault, it isn't.
  2. You don't have to love your body, you can aim for acceptance, neutrality or respect.
  3. Don't bring your left over guilt and shame into this process, be gentle with yourself - you're healing.
  4. Give yourself credit for all the work you've done already, even if it doesn't seem like much.

And above all, keep going. Keep fighting. Because even the tiniest amount of love, acceptance or gratitude that you can find for your body is a triumph in a world that wants us to stay stuck in self hatred.