Body acceptance can seem like a lofty goal, especially if you’re trying to lose weight or build lean muscle. But accepting your body as it is now can be the key to eventually getting where you want to go. In fact, it might even help you shift your goals to be more fulfilling (and potentially less focused on the scale).
Psychologists and fitness experts explain how they help their clients learn to accept their bodies — and how you can, too.
HONOR WHAT YOUR BODY CAN ACCOMPLISH
When you’re focused on what you want to change, it’s easy to lose sight of all the good things about your body. That’s why Brooke Nicole Smith, PhD, a mind and body confidence expert, recommends jotting down a list of all the amazing things you’ve done in your body — and it’s likely a long one. “It includes pretty much everything you’ve ever done in your life, from waking up in the morning and enjoying the sensation of warm blankets on a chilly winter morning to graduating from school to starting a family,” says Smith. “All of these are things that you only get to experience because you have a body. Your body enables you to work, play, love, learn and experience everything around you — independent of size or fitness level.” You may experience things differently as your body changes, but the fact that you get to experience them at all is a testament to your connection to your body, she adds. So make a list, and take a moment to appreciate it.
Finding a sport or movement practice you love can make a big difference, but even vacuuming your home counts. “A research study showed even a single bout of exercise is enough to improve body image,” says Helene Darmanin, certified strength and conditioning specialist, a physical therapist and trainer. “I often tell my clients (and myself): One squat is more than no squats.”
The key is to find something that brings you joy, Darmanin says, even if you turn on some tunes and dance around the kitchen. “Moving helps you feel connected to your body and in control of it. Plus, enjoying physical activity will set you up for long-term success and bring the focus back to your body’s many capabilities.”
INVEST IN CLOTHES YOU’RE EXCITED TO WEAR
Even if you plan on dropping sizes, you should invest in clothes you’re excited about now. “Having clothes you love is important because it can change your whole attitude about the day,” says Kristin Foust, a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach. “When you only have old, oversized, or too-tight clothes to wear when you know you are working on changing your body, it can continue a cycle of negative thoughts about yourself, which can lead you to giving up on your goals.” Instead of getting bummed out every time you see clothes you love that don’t fit, getting some pieces that fit now can help you feel excited and like you have options again, she adds. If budget is a concern, pick one or two items you really love, or opt for accessories like hats and gloves or a good pair of walking shoes, which you’ll be able to wear longer-term.
FIND WAYS TO BE PRESENT IN YOUR BODY
Mindfulness has many health and fitness benefits, including feeling more at peace in your body. It doesn’t have to be a traditional mediation practice. Stretching, foam rolling, self-massage, walking, yoga, and doing simple daily tasks (like taking a bath or cooking a delicious new recipe) without distractions are all great ways to stay present and connect with your body.
“This works because it activates the ‘direct experience’ circuit of your brain,” says Smith. “Your attention is focused on observing sensations and your brain doesn’t have the capacity to add a lot of commentary. This gives you an opportunity to enjoy the sensory experience of being in your body without critiquing it.” It might be uncomfortable at first, but it gets easier with practice.
REMEMBER BEAUTY IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Acknowledging that beauty standards are constantly changing can help you keep body expectations in perspective. “Look at Renaissance paintings, and compare them to images from the 1800s, 1960s, 1990s and now,” recommends Deirdre Brett Fraller, a psychiatric nurse practitioner. “The ‘ideal’ body type has changed a lot over time, but if you look at all these images with an open mind, you can see that they’re all beautiful.”
DITCH NEGATIVE INFLUENCES
We all have the power to “unfollow” sources of negative body image. “Pay attention to the times that you feel the worst about your body,” says Candice Seti, PsyD, a therapist who specializes in weight loss. “Do certain magazines tend to cause you to have a bad body image? Are there social media accounts that make you feel like you don’t measure up? Even if there’s nothing inherently negative about these things, if you find they tend to leave you hating your body, ditch them.”
TAP INTO YOUR BODY IMAGE ORIGINS
“Understanding the origins of body image and expectations is important,” says Tiffany Ma, RD. You might do this through nutritional or psychological counseling, journaling or even just talking to a friend. “Finding a root cause and being able to understand there’s usually logic and history behind body image issues is important,” she explains. “Being able to define significant moments, experiences and trauma allows you to empathize more with yourself, allowing for self-compassion.”
“What’s important to remember is it’s not about being positive about our bodies all the time, but rather looking at it from a more neutral perspective,” says Kate Lemere, a trainer who works with Fit Track. A lot of times, people feel a ton of pressure to love themselves, even when they’re not quite there yet. It can be freeing to focus on feeling OK about your body instead of ‘great.’”
HAVE SELF COMPASSION
Negative self-talk can be a major source of body image issues. “Ask yourself if you would ever talk to a friend or family member with the same disdain with which you talk to yourself about your body,” suggests Seti. “You would likely never tell a friend the same negative messages you tell yourself.” Instead, Seti recommends replacing negative self-talk with the same positive messages you would give loved ones.
ACCEPT WHAT YOU CAN’T CONTROL
“It’s important to accept that everything in life is cyclical,” Lemere points out. For example, “In the middle of a global pandemic it’s OK to accept that there are additional life stressors and it might not be the best time to do a rigorous program or diet. Accept the process, understand that there will always be ebbs and flows, and go through the motions on your own terms.”
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