The War on Bodies: Loving Your Body vs. Changing Your Body
It seems like a day cannot go by without there being a blog post, article, etc. being posted about body acceptance, being kind, and how to sort of “break free” from the cycle of being unkind to yourself. I’ve got no qualms with this - in fact, I think that’s pretty important stuff. And I would MUCH rather see my Facebook feed filled with articles about that than the "get a six pack in six days" articles. What I do take issue with, however, is the weird phenomenon of portraying the process of physique change or even something as simple as "hey I'm going to tighten up my nutrition for a few weeks" as something that without question, is disordered and terrible and a body-hating, bash-yourself-in-the-face-with-salad process. Also, there is NO DOUBT that a good portion of the health and fitness industry sells diets that are just that (please eat 4 carrots, 1 piece of chicken, and 1 sweet potato because hashtagcleaneating) and that’s a significant problem. Living at the extremes is not a way to live, at all. I am certainly not bashing body positivity/acceptance - I think it’s pretty fantastic. I think body acceptance is probably THE biggest contributor to success for most women who are looking to change their bodies, for the right reasons. I am NOT talking about getting smaller to take up less space or fit into some socially defined notion of what an attractive person looks like - no, I’m talking about people trying to get healthy via losing fat, gaining muscle, or whatever their goal is. However, doesn’t it feel a little like all of the articles/posts/etc bashing on “dieting” utilizing this narrow focus are actually kind of sort of contributing to the problem?
Positioning the process of physique change as an abusive relationship that is directly in conflict with the process of self acceptance and self kindness is, in my opinion, completely unproductive and often, contradictory to the goals of what body positive messengers are trying to achieve. Sometimes these message smack of fear mongering (of which I have absolutely no patience for), and other times, it’s more subtle. But, the consistent theme is that if you love your body and think your body is a totally cool and awesome thing (and it is) then you better not want to change it. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. And furthermore, if the process of self acceptance is touted as process in which you never want to change your body ever, then isn’t this process (in this conceptualization) setting people up for feelings of failure and dismay and guilt when they DO want to make changes or have a day when they’re feeling less-than-body-positive? And isn’t that exactly what the whole process of self acceptance is supposed to rally AGAINST? Isn't it using the same logic that if you make changes to your body, then you don't like yourself? Isn't that what the fitness industry tries prey on all the time? And how is trading one end of the spectrum for the other productive? It’s not.
The process of working hard to make some changes to your body SHOULD involve a parallel process of realizing that no pant size or bicep measurement is the key to happiness. And if it doesn’t, then you’re doing it wrong and I highly encourage you to reach out and seek support elsewhere. Self-acceptance, in my opinion, should be all about being able to just let things be things - numbers are just numbers, they do not dictate self worth and they shouldn’t impact how kind you are to yourself or your level of overall happiness. The notion of "get smaller, get happier" is sold to women ALL the time - they are told that their happiness, and their ultimate existence, is founded on being attractive (mostly to men, in a very heteronormative way) and that is a huge, massive problem. And that's an entirely different topic for another article. But it cannot be denied that the process of making peace with yourself is a critical part of lasting change.
Beyond my thoughts that creating this dichotomy is unproductive, I also think that it perpetuates itself via confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a psychological concept that basically says that we make conclusions first and then look for evidence to support those conclusions after the fact. Think of an experience you've had where you already made up your mind about how that experience was going to go. Let's take a fitness example: a person walks into a gym to start a new exercise program. They've tried gyms before but have always quit because they felt uncomfortable, dreaded exercise, and had a bad time. Unless this person has changed their mindset, there is no reason why this time is going to be any different. They've probably walked in with a set of expectations ("everyone is going to judge me", "this isn't going to be fun", "I'm probably just going to fail again"). So instead of looking at this opportunity as something exciting with a real possibility for positive outcomes, they've made up their mind that this isn't going to end well. So now, they're going to be on the lookout for things to confirm their conclusion - the person watching them is "judging", the difficulty of the workout is "failure", etc. That's not to say that negative things are not occurring or don't exist; but rather, because they are primed to look for negative things, the positive things are going to get crowded out. By making statements like dieting is abusive or dieting sucks all the time, etc. we are priming ourselves (and others) to only focus on the negatives. We set ourselves up for failure. We become active participants in turning bodies into a battleground.
The common thread here is that it seems that, no matter what, women are sold the idea that there is a war on bodies. It often feels like you’re either on the side of the dieters or you’re on the side of the body acceptance camp but you sure as hell cannot be on both sides. It’s either: you can diet and feel shitty about yourself when you “slip up” (I hate that entire concept but let’s ignore that for now) OR you can feel shitty about yourself when you work like hell on self acceptance but still want to make changes to your body. But bottom line: you’re going to feel bad, so pick your poison.
And this is not a media vs women, men vs women phenomenon. Quite often, it is women calling out other women - "if you love your body why would want to change it?" "Omg you look so thin! You must be super dedicated and spend your time working out and watching what you eat . I wish I had your determination but I have x,y,z." "If you're trying to lose weight, you clearly don't like yourself." All of that is absolute crap. All of it. All of these examples are shaming comments wrapped up in a pretty little pseudo compliment package. That’s not acceptable. It is not okay to make bodies into a battlefield through crappy “thin-praising” comments or commentary that infers what a person does or does not feel towards themselves.
Rather than spreading the message that physique change, for the right reasons, can be a healthy experience filled with learning, self-reflection, and knowledge gains - we say that it’s “hard” and it “sucks” and it’s “miserable”. Yes, it IS hard. But hard does not equal negative. Imagine if we told everyone that because working out is “hard”, we shouldn’t do it. It doesn’t make much sense. Instead of conceptualizing this “hard” process as something that is miserable, it needs to be conceptualized as something that is approachable, that is a learning experience, and that people can be successful at. We SHOULD encourage people to be their own version of better - to be kinder, to let numbers be numbers, to show them that yes, you CAN achieve your version of better and big spoiler, it's not going to involve your body fat percentage. BUT it is probably going to involve how you view that number.
So rather than creating a battleground, can’t we just stop waging war on bodies all together?