“i can’t help but think life would be better if i weighed less.”
mixed feelings is a weekly advice column. Every Wednesday, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to your problems and existential questions. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe
hi mixed feelings,
I am in my 30s, just had a baby, and still struggle with body image. Nothing I read or see on the topic seems to resonate with me. I’m not unhealthy by any stretch. I work out at least 3 days a week, sometimes more. I generally eat pretty well and have great overall health. I’m happy with a fulfilling career and a healthy marriage. But I can’t help but think my life would somehow be that much better if I was fitter…
I do beat myself up about my choices. I feel like crap if I over-indulge or miss a spin class. On the flip side, I feel like hot shit when I go a few days eating well or hit my water goal. The overly body-positive content where celebrities or influencers show their cellulite just makes me roll my eyes—like you can’t be that secure in your skin all the time. It feels fake. Loving your body feels like an insane standard. I just want to generally hit a net positive or neutral with my body. And I want to unwind the feelings that my life would somehow be better if I weighed a little less. How do I do this? —Maggie, she/her
I'll cement this right at the top: Body acceptance is a life-long journey regardless of size, weight, shape, workout routine, diet, water goals, pasta nights, or spin classes. I empathize with the push-pull of overt positivity while navigating that voice whispering, Lose weight, life will be better. Some days I feel like I deserve a marble statue dedicated to my body, and on others there aren't enough sweatsuits to block out the world. Both—and everything in between—can co-exist and you can still find a way to unravel the belief that weighing less means a better life.
Body Positivity, Meet Body Neutrality
You're right: Loving your body all the time is unrealistic. While a powerful movement, body positivity can come across as fakety-fake. But there’s a tactical approach to acceptance that isn’t bogged down by appearance: body neutrality.
The term emerged in the body image lexicon in 2015. That year happened to be a major one for the movement: Lauren Conrad removed the word ‘skinny’ from her website to combat body shaming and cultural body dysmorphia, Tess Holiday became the first size 22 woman to be signed to a major modeling agency, Women’s Running magazine featured its first plus-size cover star, and Sports Illustrated added plus-size models to its roster. By 2016 body neutrality had gained full notoriety—the same year Vermont wellness retreat Green Mountain extended a body neutrality workshop to its guests (they applied to trademark the word that year, too).
Body neutrality is a welcome alternative to impractical positivity. It’s about accepting your body now by acknowledging its abilities without judgment and seeing beyond what we look like to achieve a mind/body connection. Yes, it's very woo but it can be a helpful reframing tool.
Focus On You
Put aside assumptions about what life would be like if you weighed less. What makes you feel good right now? Is it a walk? Is it sleep? Sure, an 8 am HIIT class could feel amazing but if we're not listening to our hunger cues or that pulled muscle, we end up trading the present for an endless search for a better life that won't be there if we aren’t mentally ready. Ask yourself what you need before trying to operate at your “highest self.”
“If you’re neglecting your self-care (whatever that means to you), it will affect your energy and ultimately, how you show up for yourself,” says Kat Atienza, co-owner and coach of community-oriented fitness studio SESSION in NYC. A small but rewarding place to start is by auditing your outfit. Is it comfortable? Do you feel good? Switch out those "I should be wearing this" feelings with "I want to wear this" intentions. The more we demonstrate to ourselves how we feel good, the focus on that alternative "better" life will blur away.
Another helpful tool is naming the voice whispering "Heyyyyy…weight loss is the only key to happiness.” That voice can't tell the future—it just spits out our fears. It may sound silly, but naming that voice might make it easier to confront. Mine's Rebecca. When Rebecca starts to go hard, I let her have a moment and say, "Thank you for your input, Rebecccaaa, but we're going in a different direction."
How To: Bad Body Image Days
Despite all the work we put in, one comment, one weird text, one news scroll could kick the leg out from our most confident pillars. Instead of assuming that these feelings will go away if you weighed less, consider embracing them and questioning their validity.
Negative body image days are part of your self-acceptance journey, says Aisha Gordon-Hiles, a BACP accredited counselor. “We try to avoid them or act like we don't have them because we feel that those days—and the thoughts and feelings that come with them—don't align with self-acceptance or body acceptance.” Rather than falling into a tunnel of despair, acknowledge your feelings and identify your triggers. Maybe it's stress, grief, or shame fueling your negative thoughts—those feelings affect everyone no matter your weight. We can’t exonerate ourselves from having bad body image days but we can learn to process negative thoughts.
Challenge Fatphobia, Every Time
It’s impossible to have a conversation about body image, without talking about social media…and it can be a double-edged sword. I use Instagram to channel feelings about my body. I have always found comfort in letting others into my journey—kind of like taking ownership of my narrative instead of letting fatphobic tropes be my microphone. Loving our bodies is so deeply personal; intricately linked to who we are, how we are raised, and how we move through the world. My Instagram is just one way I honor my body. It’s a record of moments to look back on when I’m having a bad body image day and a reminder of how far I’ve come from a less-than-positive post.
But, some might find it intrusive or overwhelming to present your body on a public platter. There are other ways to challenge fatphobia like Sonya Renee Taylor’s Radical Self Love movement which disrupts intersectional systems of oppression that immortalize body shame. In Taylor’s book, she speaks to mainstream body image research and its tendency to lean toward cishet, white women’s experiences rather than examining the role of oppression in body hate for all. Radical self-love asks the user to challenge oppressive norms and to develop an awareness of one’s own implicit bias for a better, more accepting future.
The Rebeccas Thrive On What We Consume
That said, it’s difficult to exist in a world where every image on TV claims that happiness is only a few pounds away. Be critical of the images and videos you’re socially fed. You’d think contemporary wellness culture and its “do well for your body” slogans would find a way to push these negative messages to the side, but considering that it’s predicted to be a $4.24 billion dollar industry by 2026, wellness has become something to sell to the highest buyer. This has created the rise of the wellness influencer, whose perfectly-curated grid portrays the same unattainable body standards in new packaging. I admit I’ve thought about buying the latest aesthetically-pleasing blender to look the part even when I’m not feeling the part. It’s important to recognize the issues underneath the “that girl” aesthetic.
The idea of this completely-in-control being who supposedly has the “same hours in the day that you do”, is a fantasy. On top of that, it’s only available to those who have the means to live so aesthetically. Consider this: If health is wealth, then only the wealthy can be healthy—especially when the price tag keeps growing. “Surround yourself with more than just what the media depicts as perfection or even body confidence,” says Gordon-Hiles. “Challenge your mind so that you can make your own informed decisions.”
If your social feeds don’t make you feel at ease, reconsider if you need to keep picking up what they're putting down. I spent years dieting, working out, and recovering from eating disorders only to realize I cared more about looking like the magazine images I coveted than actually figuring out what makes me feel good. So, I omitted the accounts and people who didn't have my best interest in mind and refilled my tank with those who cheered me on.
We're always going to be confronted by an opinion on how our bodies should look to obtain happiness, but show yourself compassion. It might just open up a world where that body-positiveish-net-neutral-template can take shape.
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