Diet culture is all around us and it is something that has been so ingrained in our minds subconsciously for a long time. It’s the sight of watching our mom’s diet throughout our adolescence, watching how society treats those who are overweight (on TV, magazines and in real life) and the ads all around us that tell us we aren’t good enough until we look like someone else. All of these scenarios (and so many more) tell us we need to do better. So we compare ourselves to others, like those we see in the media, colleagues, friends, family, strangers and even ourselves. This all results in a negative body image. How can we let go of the need to compare and be embrace and respect our bodies?
What is Body Comparison?
Body comparison or body checking as it is referred to in Intuitive Eating (IE) is something that happens almost subconsciously on a daily basis. We are so used to doing it that we don’t even notice how much we do it and the impact it has on our mental health and creates a negative body image. Have you ever walked into a room and checked out how your body compares to others? Are you the biggest/smallest person in the room? I can remember doing it when I went to a spin class for the first time. To be honest, I felt embarrassed that I had done it because I was already trying to follow IE practices at this point. But here I was feeling bad about my body and comparing myself to complete strangers, yet again.
We Make False Assumptions:
The truth is when we engage in body checking and comparison, we make assumptions about others when we don’t really know what is going on at all. We start to spiral with our thoughts and think “she must work out hard everyday” or “she eats so clean, I should really cut out sugar again…”. The truth is, I don’t know anything about this person. Maybe she has a naturally smaller frame than me, maybe she has an eating disorder, maybe she had liposuction, or maybe she’s sick? And the truth is, it shouldn’t matter at all because her journey and her life is not mine. All this does is creates a negative body image and contributes to my own self doubt.
As much as we want to believe that engaging in body checking and comparison behaviour is normal, it isn’t. It’s only because we have been conditioned to think this through dieting and diet culture.
How Body Checking and Dieting Go Hand-in-Hand?
Body checking and comparison stems from dieting. Society teaches us to compare our bodies by setting unrealistic versions of what a woman (and man’s) body ‘should’ look like. The underlying message is always that we aren’t good enough, strong enough, slim enough or thin enough. And all of those messages lead us right back to dieting. Because when we are caught in the body comparison trap, we believe that the way out of it is through another diet. Mainstream media knows this all too well and we are then stuck in that endless cycle of dieting.
Have you ever said things like “I’ll go on that vacation when I can lose weight and feel good in my bikini” or “I’ll start dating when I lose some weight.” We learn to put things off because we have created a negative body image and subsequently don’t treat it very well. We miss out on doing things that are good for our body because we are trying to lose weight. We put all of our focus and attention on weight loss that we end up actually abusing and mistreating our bodies more.
Negative Body Image: How to Learn to Break the Cycle
The truth is that when you learn to respect your body and make weight loss less important, you will then be able to move forward. This doesn’t mean that you disregard your health, in fact it’s the opposite. When you respect your body it means you are indeed taking care of your health. So rather than focusing solely on arbitrary numbers about our weight, what if instead we focus on healthy living and healthy behaviours? What if we truly shift the focus to our health (body, mind and soul) rather than just the number on a scale or the the size of our clothes. We can learn to reject this negative body image and instead choose to (at the most basic level) respect it.
How to Learn to Start Respecting Your Body:
The reason that intuitive eating suggests learning to respect your body is because in truth that is a lot easier to begin with. After years spent dieting and having a negative body image, it is difficult to go from hatred to love. The truth is it takes a long time to learn to like our bodies. You can read more about how I learned to navigate weight gain after I stopped dieting over here. If we start with respecting our bodies, we can then shift our perspective to one of respecting our health too. And that means, learning to end the up and down rollercoaster of dieting. Respecting your body doesn’t mean you have to love it, or even like it right now. It simply means that you treat your body with dignity and respect and do things to meet its basic needs.
A Note on Emotional Eating:
If you are someone who tends to eat emotionally to cope with your feelings, your body shape may be representative of the way in which you took care of yourself when you knew no other way (Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works). Rather than getting upset and demeaning your body, choose to be compassionate and respect yourself for surviving those hardships.
If you want to learn more about emotional eating and binge eating, you can check out my free guide and workbook. It offers a great starting point on your intuitive eating journey.
How to Treat Your Body With Respect and Change Your Body Image (Over Time):
Moving from disrespecting your body and treating it with disdain to respecting it can take some time and adjustments (i.e. it does not happen overnight). Think of respecting your body by making it comfortable and meeting its basic needs. This means thinking things like: my body deserves to be fed, my body deserves to be treated with dignity, my body deserves to be dressed comfortably, my body deserves to be touched affectionately and with respect and my body deserves to move with ease.
How to Make Our Bodies More Comfortable:
In regards to having your body feel comfortable, I want you to think about your clothing. Are you still trying to fit into a certain size that no longer serves you. Are you holding onto clothes that don’t fit your body, right now? So often, we feel that we don’t deserve to buy ourselves new clothes until we fit in a certain size. So we may even wear things that don’t fit us properly. How can you be comfortable in something that doesn’t fit you right now? If that means going out and buying new clothing, or underwear that fits then go do it! Forget that age old nonsense that you need to get rid of your “fat clothes” because it is an invitation for weight gain and failure. Learn to dress for the body you have right now and be comfortable. Wear the clothes that make you feel amazing. As superficial as it may sound, your clothing and how you present yourself to the world makes a big difference in your own body image.
Go Through Your Closet:
A useful exercise to do is to go through your closet and get rid of things that don’t fit. Donate them or sell them if you want to. Keeping the old pair of ‘skinny jeans’ to see if you fit into them only perpetuates the same negative body image. It doesn’t serve as motivation and usually just serves as reminder that you don’t measure up.
Your body deserves to be treated kindly and with respect by you first. You cannot expect anyone else to do this for you. Do things just for you, that make you and your body feel good. Whether that is scheduling a massage, a dance class or heading outside for a walk or time in nature. Make the time for it now, as your body is right now, not how you want your body to look. Show up for your body and notice how different you feel when you treat it with respect and kindness. Pay attention to how this transforms your negative body image into a slightly more positive one.
This takes time to put into practice and it is normal to have negative thoughts every now and then. We have been taught for so long to hate our bodies, so learning to appreciate them can be hard to implement. Be patient with yourself.
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I’d love to hear from you. What is your body image like? Are you currently trying to change your negative body image? Let’s talk in the comments!