Body Positivity, Body Neutrality

What if you truly loved your body just as it is right now, celebrating what it can do, like a three-year-old joyfully running through a lawn sprinkler?

What if you had no judgmental thoughts when you looked in a mirror, viewing your own wrinkles (for instance) as you would lovingly gaze at your grandmother’s face, and any excess fat in the same way you would view your beloved cat’s belly which happens to be hanging a bit low?

Would you stop washing your clothes and brushing your teeth, because you “don’t care how you look”?

Or would you be energized and liberated, free of endless cycles of shame and negative thoughts? And might you put some of that new energy and enthusiasm into taking great care of yourself, so you can stay as active and strong as possible for many years to come, regardless of your size, shape or limitations?

I’ve been working on this since 2013, and I’ve come a LONG way.

I know, my case is truly a very mild one, and it’s easy for me to say “I care about being strong and healthy, not how I look in the mirror.” I don’t know what it feels like to have grade 3 obesity or a significant disability (although I was once covered with blistering burns for weeks after foolishly dropping a block of frozen hash browns into hot oil, provoking shocked and horrified reactions from customers at the dry cleaning business where I worked).

These feet have bunions and varicose veins, but they carry me everywhere!

I’m just a flawed person in the average range: I’ve lost most of the excess body fat that plagued me, but I still have loose skin, a big red nose, age spots, scars, bunions, bulging veins and various other imperfections.

But during the past five years, I’ve made great progress in learning to love my amazing body that can dance, jump, ride a bike, swim, run (when my knees don’t hurt), throw big sticks during my Saturday morning forest workout, grasp my elbows behind my back (newly regained skill), carry IKEA furniture into the house, and even keep my wobbly balance on a glowing stand-up paddleboard.

My amazing body didn’t fall in the river, and neither did anyone else in the diverse (age, size, ability) Airbnb Experience group in Austin, Texas

And as a wise client mentioned today, the simple facts of human biology are miraculous. Every day we extract oxygen from the air and nutrients from food and turn them into movement and emotions and thoughts, incredible!

The body-positive philosophy says that we should love and respect our own and each other’s bodies, no matter their shape, size, color, age, or limitations. What a liberating, refreshing idea, although clearly we still have a long way to go. (For a while in the 1990s, it seemed like the internet would be an equal playing field for those of any age/size/gender/ability/species , but today’s proliferation of carefully composed photos may sadly be taking us in the other direction.)

Recently, some thinkers have pointed out that it can seem like asking too much to expect people to “love” their bodies (implying a kind of failure if they don’t). Would it have been fair to expect Stephen Hawking to love his paralyzed body? How about my transgender colleague who described her physical transition to me as “running out of a burning building”? Or a person with agonizing chronic pain?

A suggested alternative is “body neutrality.” The idea is simply to make peace with the fact that our bodies are not perfect — maybe very far from it — and turn our attention to more important things. Our talents, values and relationships. Our brilliant original work in physics and cosmology (if we are Stephen Hawking). Our intrinsic worth as human beings.

But “accepting” our bodies brings up a strong objection for many people, including some of my clients. If we accept ourselves as we are, won’t we lose our motivation to improve?

Shame and self-loathing seem like they should be strong motivators for change, but the evidence shows they are not. My personal experience agrees with this. When I felt shamed for being overweight (by my own internal voice or by other people), I felt discouraged and stuck. This feeling could even make things worse, since I was using food for comfort at the time (these days I resort to Zumba classes, audiobooks, Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine and streaming restorative yoga from YogaGlo).

“THE CURIOUS PARADOX IS THAT WHEN I ACCEPT MYSELF JUST AS I AM, THEN I CHANGE.”

– Carl Rogers
Aloe vera!

I can “accept” the fact that I have a sunburn, for instance, and not let it affect my self-worth in any way, even though I don’t think having a sunburn is actually a desirable thing. Beating myself up for my carelessness will just make me more miserable. It might even make me less likely to protect my skin more effectively next time, or to take the trouble to cut spiky pieces off the aloe plant in my kitchen and rub my skin with the healing gel.

Accepting some other things, like my cringe-worthy mistakes from the past, rather than futilely raging against them, is an ongoing journey for me. The best kind of acceptance involves taking a clear-eyed, compassionate view of reality, absorbing any lessons to be learned, and taking action to reduce suffering in the future (doing our best while realizing that we will still often make mistakes or be driven off course by circumstances), while staying calm and cheerful. Yes, I’m describing the Dalai Lama, or Marcus Aurelius, and certainly not myself!

So what are some methods that can help us move closer to body positivity, body neutrality, and acceptance in general? Here are three that have helped me:

  1. Loving-kindness meditation. From Buddhist tradition, the idea of this meditation is to help cultivate compassion. Traditionally, meditators repeated blessings for themselves (such as May you live with ease, may you be happy, may you be free from pain), next for loved ones, then for people more difficult to love, and finally for all beings. If you find yourself/your body difficult to love, you can start with easier targets and work up to yourself. Here’s a guided loving-kindness meditation along with others that help cultivate self-compassion.
  2. Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique, EFT). This may seem a little unusual, but it’s simple to try on your own. Basically, you tap your fingers on a specific circuit of positions on your face and upper body, while talking to yourself about an issue in your life. The tapping helps ground you in your body and give you a feeling of safety while you process the difficult topic. For example, you might say to yourself at each tapping point: “Even though I’m carrying excess weight, I love and accept myself.” You can repeat the same statement or vary it based on what comes up in your mind. Here’s a great short introduction by Jessica Ortner.
  3. Stepping back and being a friend to myself. It’s so easy to see beyond the superficial flaws of a friend, family member or someone you admire. Catch yourself at self-critical moments and imagine how you would think and feel instead about someone you love.

Have you been struggling to love or even to accept your body? If so, I hope these ideas will help you find peace and new confidence. May you live with ease, may you be happy, may you be free from pain.

Getting Off Track, and Getting Back On

Hello dear readers! In February/March (!), I suddenly stopped posting on this blog, on Instagram and on my new-and-exciting business Facebook page.

Momentum! And then suddenly nothing :/

My life got a little more complicated than usual, and I let my online presence slide. Although I’m confident that no one here depended on me for entertainment or enlightenment :), simply disappearing was rude and unprofessional, and I apologize. I hope you will bear with me as I catch up and move forward.

It occurs to me that this experience has been very much like other ways of getting off track, like skipping an exercise class for weeks, getting out of the habit of meditating, or like one of my clients, resorting to takeout food day after day after moving and starting a new job.

Unexpected things happen in life … for me it was a time-intensive temporary assignment (translating a book about glaucoma treatment in Latin America into English, nerdy fun for me!), and then, sadly, the illness of our beloved cat Orange, who passed away on May 1.

The heat lamp seemed to help keep him comfortable as he battled cancer.

Yeah, today is August 6. I turned in the book project on April 23.

Hmmm.

The longer I’ve let something slide, the harder it is to jump back in. I have to start all over again building the habit (which feels like an unpleasant climb up a steep cliff). I’m also getting subtle failure-messages from a subconscious voice: “See, you couldn’t do it!” And finally, it’s just plain embarrassing to come back here and admit that I procrastinated for three months (I’ll give myself credit for April, when I truly had reasons to be sidetracked).

Even as I write these words, a little procrastination elf is running wild inside me, waving its arms and shouting. There’s a lot of laundry to do! The car is covered in bird poop! You need to write those thank-you notes that you’ve put off even longer than the blog! (oops)

But here I am. I’m finally doing it. And I’m doing it (rather than the so-tempting laundry) because I keep bringing my wandering mind back to my “why.”

Wash me!!

Blogging right now is worth the discomfort/embarrassment/driving a bird-poopy car for another day, because:

  • I’m excited about the topics I want to share, and I think they will be useful to others. I just counted the list I keep on my phone — 108 potential topics! (one down, 107 to go!)
  • If I provide useful content here, it not only may benefit readers directly, but also help expand my coaching practice, so I can do work I love and serve more people.

Good enough reasons to put my head down and finish this post. And seriously block off time every week to keep it going.

Have you been off track with something? If so, what is the powerful “why” that can bring you back?

With these reflections, something I have heard before makes even more sense to me now:

The best predictor of your success is not which eating plan you choose, or what kind of exercise you do, or how brilliant your business plan is.

It’s what you do when you get off track.

Do you believe the internal voice saying “I knew that wouldn’t work”? Do you procrastinate, like me, because it always seems that resuming will be easier tomorrow, or next week?

Here are some strategies to try (I’ve been off track in many ways over the years, and I find that for me, it takes ALL of them combined):

  • Focus on your positive “why” (get healthy and strong! be able to travel and hike and dance and play! send your ideas out into the world and see if they can have an impact!)
  • Practice self-compassion. Think of the understanding and encouragement you would extend to a friend whose last “weekly” blog post was on February 15 (arggh!). “Don’t worry; you can do it; jump back in; it’s OK; people will understand!”
  • Give yourself permission to start really small. This blog post is not complicated — I can publish it today. For other kinds of goals, maybe eat just one extra vegetable today, or take a 10-minute walk.
  • Make getting back on track as easy as possible. Get off-plan food out of the pantry; put your walking shoes by the door. I cleared out the whole day today for writing.
  • Link your identity to your chosen path. Who we are is not determined by our past — it evolves and changes. I can even become a Person Who Regularly Writes Thank-You Notes! I’m stubbornly clinging to my identity as a blogger. Hey, self-doubting voice: this is who I am, and this is what I do, so even if I have skipped it for longer than I did it in the first place, I have no doubt that I will eventually come back.
  • If a previous strategy just didn’t fit into your life (you didn’t enjoy it, or it didn’t seem to make a difference to your well-being or your progress), keep trying other strategies until something works. I regularly listen to the inspiring words of a certain animated gazelle, who reminds me to “Try Everything” and not give up.

I’m a health coach (fortunately, I did continue coaching wonderful and inspiring clients during all these months!). And I’m (still) a blogger.

“I won’t give up, no I won’t give in, ’til I reach the end, then I’ll start again. No, I won’t leave, I wanna try everything, I wanna try even though I could fail.”

See you next week!

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