As an eating disorder therapist, I work with people in all stages of their recovery journey. One question I am often asked is, “How do I move from body dissatisfaction to body acceptance?”
To answer, I often remind the person I’m working with to focus on the function of the body instead of its form. I remind them to take note of—and express gratitude for—the everyday motions and actions that are feasible because of their body.
We can all benefit from learning to relish the genuine sparks of affection and admiration we have for ourselves when we get a new haircut, put together a fresh outfit, or put on that one pair of pants we know really make our butt look great. With time and practice, these moments of self-admiration can lead to an internal dialogue that is centered on appreciation and gratitude for our bodies instead of a dialogue that is judgmental and focused on finding our flaws.
While some may have been told to spend time engaging in positive affirmations, forcing ourselves to repeat “I am beautiful” often falls flat. There is certainly a time and a place for positive affirmations, but without a dedicated practice through which we train ourselves to think differently about our bodies, those affirmations are not likely to take us very far.
The ‘Appearance Ideal’ and Cognitive Dissonance
I recently read through The Body Project’s structured group manual, which aims to decrease body dissatisfaction and harmful eating behaviors by increasing cognitive dissonance around the “appearance ideal.” The appearance ideal describes the widely accepted portrayal of the “perfect” female body: a figure that is slim and toned but still curvy (breasts and buttocks). The Body Project intervention, which challenges this ideal through cognitive dissonance, is a fascinating concept that has been tested rigorously over the years with overall positive results. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, this intervention can reduce the risk of eating disorders.
We can all use cognitive dissonance concepts and activities (these might range from verbally combating the appearance ideal to taking personal action against it) in our everyday lives. It is my belief that doing so can do a great deal to help us find that body acceptance we are striving for.
The cover image I see doesn’t depict a person as they are in reality. Rather, it illustrates what society tells me I should look like, despite the fact that such a goal is not realistic or healthfully attainable. By reminding myself of this, I am increasing my cognitive dissonance and ultimately challenging the unspoken belief many of us have unwittingly bought into—the idea that we must look a certain way or, at the very least, be striving to change ourselves, in order to be accepted by society.
Let’s begin by verbalizing statements that counter the appearance ideal. For example, we might maintain an internal dialogue as we confront the daily barrage of advertisements, TV shows, and even people we see who spark that societal idealization of thinness. I have found the checkout line in the grocery stores to be a perfect space for this, as any number of magazines featuring ultra-slender models staring at me (and my cart full of groceries) can usually be found here. When I see these magazines, I find it helpful to remind myself of the amount of effort it likely took to portray those (frequently female) models in that way. “How costly were the clothes?” I might ask myself. “How many pins did it take to make them lay just so?” “How much photo editing went into making sure no creases, dimples, or freckles were visible?”
I then take a deep breath and verbalize what I know is true: The magazine serves no other purpose than to sell itself. The cover image I see doesn’t depict a person as they are in reality. Rather, it illustrates what society tells me I should look like, despite the fact that such a goal is not realistic or healthfully attainable. By reminding myself of this, I am increasing my cognitive dissonance and ultimately challenging the unspoken belief many of us have unwittingly bought into—the idea that we must look a certain way or, at the very least, be striving to change ourselves, in order to be accepted by society.
We can also take action to increase that cognitive dissonance within ourselves. The Body Project’s manual describes an activity that might be a good place to start!
- Stand in front of a mirror, naked or minimally clothed. Study yourself and list 10 things you like about yourself. You can choose qualities that are emotional, intellectual, or social, but some of them should also be physical attributes. The activity has no other limits.
Many find the above exercise to be helpful and empowering, but it can be difficult to enter this space with ourselves. The activity requires women in particular to challenge many social norms, beginning with ideas that women should be modest or humble. Many women may never have been encouraged to (and may have been actively discouraged from) calling attention to things they like about themselves.
If you’re familiar with the movie Mean Girls, this may call to mind the scene where the three friends (Regina, Gretchen, and Karen) dutifully observe and call out their flaws to one another and seem shocked when Cady, the newcomer, struggles to find something negative to say about herself. Developing a vocabulary of positive attributes associated with our bodies tends to make it more difficult to fall into an automatic flaw-finding mentality. Again, this takes practice. I encourage you to try it once a week and see how your list might change. Stop yourself and breathe if you notice only negative attributes, and challenge yourself to see function over form. For example, you might think of your feet as just feet. But consider what purpose they serve in your life. If it feels too daunting to identify 10 items at first, start with one and slowly build up from there.
Maintaining a Practice of Gratitude in Public
It’s one thing to be able to privately have these empowering conversations with ourselves. But it can be quite another to bring these ideas into the light. How can we strive to maintain our practice of gratitude toward our bodies in the public arena? My personal challenge is to change the dialogue if I notice friends getting sucked into “diet” talk or if I hear them highlighting aspects of their bodies they want to change.
I have found that sharing a personal belief, such as “All foods are good foods in my book” can help to shift the conversation into less negative territory. Another tactic you might try is sharing your personal gratitude for your body with others. Notice how amazing it is that your legs can carry you on walks or hikes with friends, or appreciate the dexterity of your fingers as you maneuver chopsticks.
It can also be helpful to publicly state your boundaries around body talk. For example, you might say there’s no negative body talk allowed in your home. Follow through with these boundaries by reinforcing positive body talk and redirecting conversation in a way that challenges the appearance ideal.
These concepts and practices can help us build ourselves up through positive body talk and combat the appearance ideal found in the media and daily life. Ultimately, they can also help us find a path to greater body acceptance. By continuously challenging our society’s unrealistic body ideals, we can internally shift our dialogue about our own bodies and ultimately the environment we find ourselves in.
If you or someone you know is struggling with body image, consider speaking to an compassionate and qualified therapist or eating disorder specialist in your area.
- Home/Get involved: The body project. (2016). National Eating Disorder Association. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/get-involved/the-body-project
- The body project. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.bodyprojectsupport.org
- Stice, E., Shaw, H., & Rohde, P. (n.d.). Body acceptance class maunal: Enhanced-dissonance version. Retrieved from http://www.bodyprojectsupport.org/assets/pdf/materials/bodyproject4sessionscriptandhandouts.pdf
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