Summertime is in full swing and if you are on social media or leave your house, you’re probably feeling the pressure to have a “hot girl summer” or try out all the tips and tricks to achieve your “summer body.”
This can stir up a lot of emotions for many of us who struggle with our feelings toward our bodies, or who’ve tried to have a “summer body” before and felt like it was unachievable.
The last few years have seen a big movement toward body positivity and body love. While the idea of working to love your body can be empowering for some, many of the people I work with find the idea of loving their bodies — or even liking them – unfathomable.
If this is you too, you are not alone! It is common to be dissatisfied with our bodies. So common, in fact, that there is a word for it – normative discontent – which means it is normal, as a member of society, for us to be unhappy with our bodies.
An important step towards moving to liking or even loving our bodies is to first work on accepting them. I know what you might be thinking: “How can I accept something I do not even like?” Most people associate acceptance with agreement or approval of the thing you are trying to accept, but they actually are quite different.
Steven Hayes, founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), defines acceptance as “the active choice to allow unpleasant experiences to exist, without trying to deny or change them.” It means that you dislike an unpleasant experience and still practice acceptance!
Body acceptance involves allowing challenging thoughts about your body to be present without trying to change your body. Conversely, examples of struggling to accept your body may involve spending a great deal of time working to change it, perhaps through exercise or diet. It can also look like avoiding situations due to negative thoughts about your body. Maybe you avoid going to a party because you are scared others will judge how you look, or you avoid going to the pool with friends or family because you cannot imagine having to wear a swimsuit.
So how do you begin to move towards acceptance?
Be mindful of judgments. Judgements have a huge impact on how we perceive our bodies and can impact our behaviors, thus causing us to avoid various situations. It is important to remember that a judgment is an opinion, not a fact. We often believe judgments as facts and consequently, act accordingly to our judgments.
For example, “my friends will think my body looks (insert judgment here), so I will just skip the party to avoid their judgments.” Calling out our thoughts as judgments versus accepting them as facts can help us refocus on our values and what is important to us in that situation. Most of the time what we value in those situations is different than how we or others perceive our bodies.
Identify avoidance in your life. Maybe the above examples about missing various events due to judgments or fear of judgments about your body resonate with you. Maybe you notice yourself isolating due to feelings about your body or maybe you find yourself spending a great deal of time and energy focused on trying to change your body. Identifying body avoidance is an important step for moving towards acceptance as it allows us to recognize situations where we want to act in a way that better aligns with our values.
Focus on values. When we struggle with normative discontent it often causes us to miss out on living our life because we spend a great deal of time avoiding or trying to change our perceived flaws. Identifying your values and what is important in various situations is crucial to body acceptance. For example, maybe you hate how your body looks in a swimsuit, but it is your son’s third birthday party at a pool and being a present and invested mom are important values to you.
You can refocus your thoughts on the values behind why you are doing something that feels uncomfortable. You may even say, “I don’t like how I look in my swimsuit (remember we do not have to like something to accept it), and I am going to choose to be present with my son today as that aligns with my values.” Refocusing on our values does not take away the uncomfortable feelings and thoughts about our body initially. However, it does allow us to fully engage with life without sitting on the sidelines until our bodies change because honestly, we know that when we change one thing we likely move on to the next perceived imperfection.
Shift perspective to body functionality. Work toward shifting your perspective from judgments about your body to focus on what your body can do for you that aligns with your values. For example, moving from, “Ew, I hate my arms, they are so big.” to “Even though I don’t like how my arms look, I appreciate that they allow me to carry my daughter and hug her.” Refocusing on the function of our bodies can help us view our bodies in a different light, which can allow us to move towards a more accepting or neutral space.
Body acceptance does not happen overnight. It requires awareness of times you are trying to engage in body avoidance and then a willingness to shift your perspective by using the suggestions above. It also requires self-compassion and holding our judgments lightly rather than believing them as truth.
Instead of spending time and energy on trying to change your body, body acceptance gives you a way to fully engage in your life as you are right now because how you are in this moment is wonderfully enough.