I still recall the first time I had an unkind thought about my body. I was in kindergarten, sitting at my desk. I looked down at my thighs squished against the brown plastic of my child-sized chair and thought, “Look how fat your legs are!” For the rest of the day, I worried. Did I need to start a diet, like my mom had done so many times? Should I stop wearing shorts to school? An insidious insecurity crept over me like a dark cloud.
It’s not unusual, of course, to have less-than-body-positive thoughts from a young age. We live in a culture that bombards us daily with images of physical perfection. Social media ads feature bikini-clad hotties promoting “skinny tea,” and even products as unsexy as tax software market themselves with slim young models with nary a crow’s foot or arm jiggle. Meanwhile, our own friends’ curated Instagram feeds flaunt their very best features and angles. The messaging all around us is that to be thin and attractive is to be happy.
I’m what’s called a nutrition and dietetic technician—aka a nutritionist—and in my field, the pressure toward physical perfection is particularly intense. There’s an unspoken imperative to stay thin. After all, nutritionists are walking advertisements for our own services. Just like most people wouldn’t hire a dentist with bad teeth, most of us want to know that the person telling us how to eat right is practicing what she preaches.
To this day, because of my profession – and the simple fact that I’m a woman in the 21st century— thoughts like “You’ll never look good in a swimsuit if you eat that!” and “Who’s going to listen to an overweight nutritionist?” float unbidden into my head when the bread basket arrives at a restaurant meal or I crave an extra bite of dessert. And then there’s my own personal physical nemesis: The part of my body I’ve un-affectionately named “the Blump.” A combination of “belly” and lump,” this is my nickname for the lower belly pooch I wage war against through targeted exercises (and Spanx).
Obviously, even though I’ve come to embrace a personal and professional approach that emphasizes eating for health, I’m still very much on the journey toward body positivity. I became a nutritionist in order to help other people find their way toward wholesome eating and healthier lifestyles – but I sometimes have trouble applying this big picture of whole-person health to myself.
Despite these struggles, though, I’ve come to believe that there is a happy balance between loving our bodies at any size and caring for their well-being through diet, exercise, and other healthy behaviors. Learning that these concepts don’t have to be in conflict has helped me inch toward a greater acceptance of myself (Blump and all).
The interplay of health and weight
In my own experience, one key to greater body positivity has been understanding that weight and body shape are not always the most critical indicators of health. In the nutrition world, there’s an increasingly popular philosophy called Health at Every Size (HAES). The idea goes that while weight is an undeniable piece of the well-being puzzle, it’s not the only important factor—and a healthy lifestyle is possible, no matter your size.
“Rather than focusing on weight loss, I have my clients look at other measurements of success,” says dietitian and HAES practitioner Anna Jones, MPH, RDN. “Do they have more energy because they are providing their body nourishment by eating meals and snacks throughout the day? Do they have better mobility to play with their children? Do they have the confidence to eat at a restaurant and not fear ‘losing control’?”
Taking the focus off of weight isn’t just a nice idea; it has proven benefits. A seven-month study that compared people on a HAES healthy lifestyle program to a control group found that those on the HAES track ended up with greater improvements to their physical and psychological health. They even reported increased overall perception of quality of life!
A uniquely millennial struggle
In the midst of body image concerns, do you ever stop and wonder: Has it always been this way? Did our grandparents worry about looking good in their frilly-skirted swimsuits, or has the pressure to be a certain size gotten worse over time?
We’re hardwired to want to be attractive, so there’s no doubt that every generation has struggled with body image to a certain degree. On the other hand, some factors definitely intensify the stress for Millennials and Gen Z.
For one thing, our collective weight has risen dramatically in the last 30 years or so. Since the late 1980s, the average American has put on 15 additional pounds (without getting any taller). Our food environment tempts us to take in more calories with giant portions and the opportunity to graze all day long.
Besides these obvious influences, it appears there are some yet-to-be-determined factors causing our weight to hover at a higher point. A 2016 study, for example, put modern-day adults on a diet and exercise regimen from the ‘80s. For reasons unknown, Millennials ended up with a BMI 2.3 points higher than their leg warmer-wearing ‘80s counterparts.
And, of course, when it comes to body image, there’s the uniquely 21st century challenge of social media. Never before in history has there been so much opportunity to compare ourselves with others (and to view a picture-perfect version of their lives). Not surprisingly, this isn’t doing our self-perception much good.
“Even though we intellectually know that someone is using filters and that this isn’t the ‘truth’ of this person’s daily life, we emotionally still feel like there is something wrong with us and we’re not as good as that person because our life doesn’t look as good,” says therapist Tess Brigham, MFT, BCC. Research backs this up: A 2015 study revealed that women who spent more time on Facebook were significantly more likely to have body image concerns. And it’s not just women who are affected. Another survey found that 65% of men admitted to comparing their bodies to images on social media—with 37% of them making “unfavorable” comparisons.
Baby steps toward better body image
Healthy body image is a journey, so there’s no need to beat yourself up if you experience some bumps (or blumps) in the road. “Your body image might not be fantastic every day and that is totally fine,” says Jones. “What is important is to continue showing kindness to your body even on days that you might be uncomfortable in it.”
So how do you go about taking some baby steps toward self-acceptance? Personally, I like to focus on what I do like about my body. I happen to have luxuriously thick hair and chiseled quads, if I do say so myself. Maybe I can’t do much about my lower belly pooch or my imperfect skin, but I can totally rock a donut-sized hair bun and a miniskirt with confidence. When I can see these things in the mirror – and give thanks for them—my “flaws” begin to fade away.
Sometimes it helps, too, to embrace the thought that my own imperfections connect me with my family heritage. Most of the women in my family have a similar build. My own unique figure unites me with them. Perhaps you have a similar physical quality to a cherished relative—sturdy arms like your grandma or thick thighs like your dad. Do a little thinking about these features: Have your grandma’s sturdy arms comforted you? Does your dad represent strength? Considering the way you feel about a physical feature in a beloved family member just might make you appreciate it more in yourself.
Finding physical activity you enjoy is another go-to body image-booster. “I have found clients respect and appreciate their body more when they can see how wonderfully capable it is through movement,” says Jones. Whatever this looks like for you, whether dancing, yoga, hiking, or jiu jitsu, choosing something you actually enjoy is an amazing reminder that the body is made to move, and exercise can genuinely feel good.
Mindful eating for nourishment, not weight loss, can also help break the cycle of punishing thoughts about our bodies. “I have noticed many clients who are starting their self-acceptance journey still skip meals and snacks, even when they’re hungry,” Jones notes. “By eating even something small when you feel hunger, you acknowledge that your body (no matter its size) needs to be nourished in that moment.”
As for social media, to protect your body image, do a little curating of your own. “Many people think if they follow someone who has the ideal body, that will inspire them to eat better or work out more, but it doesn’t,” says Brigham. Instead, she suggests, fill your feed with more relatable heroes. “Only follow people who make you feel seen and inspired. Don’t go on social media when you’re not feeling good about yourself. If you need to feel connected, reach out to a friend or journal or read.”
Body image, mind, and spirit
As I stay the course toward body positivity, I try to keep in mind that I’m not just a body. The way I think about my physical self is connected to my emotional and spiritual being, too.
In a world where body image is such a commonplace struggle, it’s easy to brush off harmful thoughts as normal. And sure, it’s not wrong to want to be attractive, or to want to lose weight or work on our physique. But here’s the thing: It’s not okay to hate our bodies, and doing so causes spiritual damage. The Bible says we are “God’s workmanship,” “temples of the Holy Spirit”—with no caveats about our weight or appearance.
God loves my body (and yours). He created me to have a shape unlike any of the billions of other humans that have walked this Earth. If nothing else, this mind-boggling fact helps me to realize I am “fearfully and wonderfully made,” no matter what Instagram and Facebook say.