I know a woman (not a client) who, about a year ago, decided to do something pretty radical to her body. It affected everything—from what she ate to how she worked out to the clothes she wore. This experiment was so radical that she even ended up making new friends and buying new clothes.
It wasn’t a diet, exercise plan, a gym membership or a life coach. In fact, it was only one thing, and it took her less than 15 minutes to do … not 15 minutes a day, 15 minutes once.
She changed whom she followed on Instagram.
“I realized I was looking at certain women in my Instagram feed and feeling bad about my body,” she says. “So I unfollowed them and followed more women who were beautiful, but in a wider variety of shapes, sizes and colors. I just added more variety to the images I was seeing every day when I scrolled through my phone.”
After a few weeks, she also started following women who were doing things with their bodies that she wanted to do. Strong things. So she followed Olympic weight lifters. Javelin throwers. Women doing handstands and flipping logs.
“I was enjoying following them so much that the ‘fitspiration’ crap on my Pinterest board started looking stupid. Those women were just skinny and sweaty. So I started unfollowing them, and my Pinterest board started to look like my Instagram feed. And I was feeling even better about myself.”
Already lifting weights a few times a week, she started trying to lift a little heavier when her body felt like it. Soon she was carrying heavy, squatting heavy and eating differently, too. “It just made sense. I wanted to take care of myself, and it felt good. I wasn’t depriving myself.”
Soon she was reading different magazines. “A lot of the fitness, nutrition and women’s magazines were reminding me of what I had unfollowed on social media. So I started reading more cooking magazines. Not diet magazines, cooking magazines. Then I started watching different movies and TV shows, too. More about middle-aged women, about their ambitions, their lives, and not if they were pretty enough. It wasn’t really even conscious until I realized how good it made me feel to watch stories about women as people instead of objects.
“A few months later, people started asking me if I had lost weight, but I have no idea. I didn’t weigh myself as a rule, because when I did that, I just got into a shame spiral. I’ve definitely had to buy new clothes, but [it’s] because I’m shaped differently now.”
This story might seem extreme, but it’s not off base. Social science literature calls this a “change in the motivational climate.” Some version of body acceptance can be found in just about any long-term weight management study that measures it. In fact, body acceptance might be more important at certain stages of a weight-loss journey than almost anything else.
In a study with 239 overweight women, study authors found “Reducing the levels of concern with body image (i.e., the investment in appearance) … is more strongly related to the successful adaptation of eating behavior.” The researchers (and many subsequent study authors) concluded that body self-acceptance and a further emphasis on diet and exercise for deeper reasons like, “I do this because this is part of who I am,” result in better choices about what to eat without feelings of social pressure.
We start to do the hard things … because we want to do them! In motivation research, this is called “autonomy,” and it’s the opposite of feeling controlled. It is the feeling that you’re acting in accordance with your own values and of your own free will. And, according to 40 years of motivation research, it is the most important factor in permanent change. Yes, even more important than Pinterest “fitspo.”