The Body Image Tour: Lessons Learned
Traveling across the United States, training clinicians on body image work with my Aussie side-kick, Fiona Sutherland, was not something I ever envisioned for myself.
In fact, just about everything I’ve done in my career thus far fits under the category of “things I never envisioned.” But the process of developing and giving this training across the U.S. (and soon to be London) has been truly transformative and deeply humbling.
I don’t pretend to have all of the answers for what helps individuals feel less pain in and about their bodies. I didn’t embark on this project because I thought I did. I simply believed in my heart that these are the conversations that we desperately need to be having. And, in the course of this experience, I learned some invaluable lessons that I’d like to share with you. The conversations I had with hundreds of colleagues taught me, inspired me, and nourished me. I hope these few thoughts might spark a little something inside of you too.
1. Body image healing is distinctly different from body positivity. Body positivity was a movement designed to center and affirm the bodies that are most often silenced and oppressed (fat bodies, gender non-conforming bodies, bodies of color, disabled bodies, etc.). This movement has largely been co-opted by many folks who have bodies that are reasonably well regarded in our culture (bodies like mine – white, relatively thin, able-bodied, cis-gender). The mainstream version of body positivity has left many individuals feeling that they are doing body positivity “wrong” because they can’t or choose not to post a shiny/happy bikini clad pic on Instagram. This often feels like another failure. Now, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to body positivity. It can be a beautiful and inspiring concept. But I felt it was important to note the differences from my perspective.
Body image healing is about learning to live in relationship to your body and body image experience with skillfulness and kindness. It’s about being able to unpack the wisdom that is housed in your body to access greater self-understanding and to make choices about how to take care of yourself. With body image healing, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to feel about your body because healing isn’t about eradicating negativity. While we would all like to never feel badly about our bodies ever again, that goal is problematic and not at all possible. Our bodies don’t conform to beauty standards – they get sick or injured, and they change with age. Getting “rid of” negative body image is sort of like setting the goal to never feel sad, disappointed, grief stricken, or angry every again. It’s a nice fantasy but not at all reality. Instead, this process is really about developing skills to support yourself through moments that feel painful. But as it turns out, cultivating things like insight, mindfulness, self-compassion, critical thinking skills, and a values-driven life typically helps to turn the volume down on the feelings of body hatred.
2. Your story matters. Taking time to reflect on the development of your body story, from birth until now, is often a crucial step towards healing. You may want to consider journaling or just thinking about any body-related memories you have from various stages of your life: childhood, adolescence, teen years, young adulthood, etc. This can include aspects of your identity that are significant such as race, gender/sexuality, religion, socioeconomic status, illness, family messaging, etc.
3. Cultivate self-compassion. If there were one set of skills that I had to choose (and I’d really rather not) to assist you in your body image journey, it’d be the skill of self-compassion. You can start by taking this free quiz (don’t worry, it’s not on Facebook!), developed by researcher Kristin Neff. Then get curious about what you need to begin to learn the language of self-compassion. This could include listening to a meditation, finding a book, or perhaps a therapist. The research on self-compassion and body image improvement is blossoming! And remember, that with any new language, it will feel odd and foreign at first. But don’t let that stop you.