"What has come between you and feeling at home in your body?" asks the first line in Reclaiming Body Trust, written by Dana Sturtevant and Hilary Kinavey. My answer? A lot. I don't think I'm alone in that feeling. In fact, I know I'm not. For those of us raised in the U.S., our culture has embedded a painfully narrow view of what is considered "beautiful," "healthy," and "desirable."
But, the rise of the body positivity movement has created a greater emphasis on self-love in societal discourse. Now more than ever, we see influencers and celebrities talk about appreciating their bodies no matter what they look like. It's admirable and immensely refreshing to witness. But this made me ask myself, What happens if you don't love your body? Does that mean you don't love yourself? I have more self-love than before (though I still have quite a ways to go), and yet I've never hated my body more. Let's unpack.
Meet the Expert
Dana Sturtevant is the co-founder of the Center for Body Trust. She is also a registered dietitian, author, and educator.
The Nuances of Body Positivity and Body Compassion
There's a great deal of rhetoric stating we should love every aspect of our bodies, and if we don't, we're wrong. Messaging tells us we're otherwise giving the patriarchy more power. With this, I've found myself becoming ashamed about my shame. I didn't learn to criticize my body overnight—and the unlearning of all that won't happen in an instant either. If we moralize all our feelings, it'll take away the ability to dissect them and move towards healing.
Similar harm can be done when we use "self-love" and "body-love" interchangeably. I believe self-love is an overarching term. It encompasses the love we can have for the physical and non-physical aspects of ourselves. However, we can love, hate, like, dislike, feel ambivalent, and be confused about all different parts of ourselves simultaneously.
Because of our ever-changing relationships with our bodies, it's essential to practice a boundless self-compassion for ourselves. Compassion isn't conditional. It's not reliant on how you look that day or whether you're proud of your achievements. It's simply about feeling worthy of self-acceptance. It leaves a gentle space for you no matter what. TLDR: Rather than calling myself body positive or likening that feeling to self-love, I'd rather say I have body compassion and love myself outside of the way my body looks from day to day.
What Is Body Compassion?
Reflecting self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness to one’s own body compared to judgemental, critical, isolating and over-identification with negative feeling and emotion.
How to Practice Body Compassion
With these thoughts in mind, I chatted with the co-author of Reclaiming Body Trust, Dana Sturtevant. We discussed ways to work toward a better relationship with our bodies while exercising self-compassion. Everyone's path is different, and that is crucial to acknowledge. Ahead, discover six tips that can help you practice self-compassion no matter where you are in your journey.
Become Cognizant of Body Checking
"Body checking" is an umbrella term that refers to how we assess our bodies throughout the day. It can lead to inescapable self-scrutiny. Body checking can be very obvious, like looking at yourself in the mirror, or not-so obvious, like noticing how your thighs look sitting down in the car or at your desk. But it's important to recognize when it's happening. "One of the things we recommend people do is become aware of the ways they body check and reduce the frequency," Sturtevant says. "Most people are aware they are doing it, but they are not necessarily aware of how pervasive it is." Sturtevant suggests keeping a running list for 24 hours (but no longer) of all the times you body check to learn more about habits that could be flying under the radar.
Question the Validations You're Seeking
Sturtevant encourages everyone to ask themselves critical questions to understand their relationship with their bodies and validation. "When you want to step on the scale, what are you hoping to find out?" Sturtevant says. "Can a piece of metal and plastic that measures your relationship to gravity tell you that? When stepping on the scale, most people wonder if they're okay. I don't think a scale can tell me if I'm okay." It's an eye-opening prompt to reflect on. Digging into the messages we're looking to receive about ourselves can help us redirect our attention to more helpful sources of validation.
Widen the Lens
This is a term Sturtevant used several times during our conversation. It encourages us to widen the scope of what we're focusing on instead of hyper-fixating on negative thoughts, which can lead to shame spirals. Looking for a way to stop that spiral in its tracks? Sturtevant encourages us to ask ourselves, What would I be thinking about if I weren't upset about my body? Shifting our focus to a specific thought or task can helpful.
Remember, Size Is Not a Direct Indicator of Health
Contrary to what we've been taught, you cannot gauge someone's health by merely looking at their body size. In fact, the BMI scale is not an accurate representation of health, has deeply racist and elitist roots, and is presently almost entirely obsolete. "Health has become an aesthetic," Sturtevant states. "We think we can look at someone and know if they're healthy or not, and that is complete bullshit. Our work is about helping people locate the problems outside of their bodies. Some of us have internalized the message that our bodies are a problem."
Thank Your Body for Joy It Is Able to Bring You
We shouldn't force ourselves to embrace toxic positivity. It's also not healthy to ignore the struggles we have with our bodies and how they can cause us immense pain. We all have different abilities, but taking note of the unique things our bodies can do that bring joy, fun, or happiness is helpful.
Give Yourself Some Grace
Feeling shame about your body can be an incredibly isolating experience. You can feel burdened by shame in a million ways, but knowing you're not alone in that struggle is important. "Few of us are immune to having these experiences, given the culture we live in," Sturtevant says. "I think even the biggest body-positive activists would say that they don't love their bodies every day."
So, next time you're having what Sturtevant refers to as a "bad body day," remember, it's not your fault. Remind yourself that self-exploration and healing are not a race or a competition. You don't have to be anywhere except where you are right now.
Beadle ES, Cain A, Akhtar S, Lennox J, McGuire L, Troop NA. Development and validation of the body compassion questionnaire. Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine. 2021;9(1):951-988.