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Body Positivity, Body Acceptance, and Making Them Part of Eating Disorder Recovery

Accepting the way our bodies look is one of the hardest things to do. Feeling positive about them might be even harder. It’s well known that everyone feels bad about their appearance from time to time; what might come as a surprise is how common this is. According to a study performed by Front Psychiatry in 2019, 20 to 40 percent of women and 10 to 30 percent of men showed dissatisfaction with their bodies. For adolescents, this figure may rise to as much as 69 percent. This body dissatisfaction has numerous effects on our lives – it influences the way we eat, the way we dress, and importantly, our self-esteem.

It goes beyond our feelings, as well; there are entire billion-dollar industries that center on body dissatisfaction, some would say they prey on our dissatisfaction. Companies that promote weight-loss drugs or programs are dependent on people experiencing body negativity, especially the fear of being overweight. According to the CDC, 17 percent of American adults are on a special diet, a figure that reaches into the tens of millions. We won’t downplay the fact that many Americans are considered overweight by medical doctors – obesity is responsible for many health problems in this country. However, by taking advantage of people’s self-esteem issues, these industries may be contributing to a variety of mental health concerns, not least of which are eating disorders.

In response to “diet culture” and the worsening of Americans’ self-image, there have been movements toward body positivity and body acceptance. The goal of these movements is to counteract the negative self-esteem fostered by the diet industry (and to a large extent, the media, both traditional and social) and create a space where people can focus on their health rather than their body size. These philosophies are paramount in eating disorder recovery. Most individuals who seek eating disorder treatment experience disordered body image, in encouraging them to accept their body weight and feel good about themselves helps tremendously in restoring them to a better place with eating and their relationship with food. It doesn’t hurt that these movements also emphasize eating for health and enjoyment as well.

What Is Body Positivity?

The central tenet of body positivity is that every person derives to have a positive self-image, regardless of what the media or society presents as an “ideal” shape or size. Challenging societal deals are only part of the movement; albeit an important one. Holding yourself to the image presented by a supermodel on a magazine cover or a fitness expert’s Instagram account is a no-win game.

Not only do they present themselves as a goal for a living, but they also cultivate a sense of competition among their followers – can I lose more weight than this person? Can I re-shape myself to look the same as this person? Eating disorder treatment specialists note that this competition is common among their clients. Many individuals in the throes of an eating disorder want to prove that they are somehow “sicker” than others; that’s why helping them feel good about their bodies without comparing them to others is a huge part of recovery.

Body positivity embraces self-love. Some parts of the media, even mainstream outlets, have started to promote larger bodies (some might say they have co-opted the movement) and other traditionally perceived “flaws.” This has helped normalize the concept of self-love and being positive. However, some critics have pointed to body positivity as a somewhat toxic movement in practice – that’s where body acceptance comes into play.

What Is Body Acceptance?

Although the body positivity movement has done a lot of good in combating self-image issues and counteracting the harmful messages presented by the media, it has faced some criticism, especially among people suffering from body dysmorphia. The main focus of this criticism is that it is unrealistic to always feel positive about yourself; by always loving and embracing your flaws, you create a situation where you are often lying to yourself. This is known as toxic positivity.

Many of the techniques used in mental health treatment center on mindfulness and self-awareness. For example, techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a mainstay in eating disorder treatment) involve challenging a person’s disordered thoughts with objective, mindful conversations. These techniques don’t gloss over a person’s flaws but instead strive to help them acknowledge them without acting on them. Therefore, a person using these techniques to further their recovery will be ill-served by claiming to love their body and flaws without acknowledging that they are, in fact, flaws.

The body acceptance movement seeks to supplement these therapeutic methods by allowing for a person’s insecurities. For a person with body dysmorphic disorder, it may be impossible to completely remove these insecurities; they can, however, accept them and experience them without resorting to disordered eating or exercise behaviors. Allowing yourself the freedom to have a bad day regarding your body image goes a long way toward relieving the pressure to “get better.”

A Note on Body Neutrality

One more movement that touches on both these philosophies but comes from a different perspective is body neutrality. This way of thinking stresses that a person’s appearance does not hold any relevance to their worth. It’s a helpful way to promote “intuitive eating,” which is eating for nutrition, satiety, and enjoyment rather than eating what you think will be healthy or losing weight. Body neutrality is a newer movement than body positivity and body acceptance, but it is gaining a lot of traction among recovery coaches and body-positive bloggers.

One advantage of body neutrality when it comes to eating disorder recovery is that body neutrality falls directly in line with the mantra “no judgment.” Very often, a person’s thinking about their body image is related to what others may think about their body. Disordered eating behaviors can be linked to avoiding these judgments. People with eating disorders also hide their actions or refuse to seek help for fear of being judged as well. Body neutrality, with its concept that a person’s body is neither good nor bad, allows people to process their self-image without fear of judgment.

Putting Philosophy Into Practice

High-minded philosophies are all well and good – but you’re probably wondering how these philosophies can be put into everyday practice. There are vast resources within these movements online; a search for these terms will net you myriad results. Some eating-disorder-focused resources like NEDA embrace these philosophies – you can see their advice here.

So with h important reminder that these don’t constitute professional medical or psychiatric advice, here are a few ways you can use body positivity, body neutrality, and body acceptance to enhance your quality of life:

  • Learn how to consume media critically – Much of the negativity in people’s self-perception comes from the media. Remembering to think critically about the images and messages you’re seeing will help you remind yourself that they have a vested interest in making people feel bad about their bodies. This is true for social media as well as traditional media.
  • Remember that you are more than your body – If you’re feeling judged for your body, try to remember that you are much more than what you look like. Remind yourself that people love you for your humor, your intelligence, the way you laugh, your loyalty – whatever it is that makes you special.
  • Don’t fight your body – How many people have felt terrible about themselves because they tried on a pair of pants that didn’t fit well? Millions, certainly. Don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself – instead dress comfortably and in outfits that you think make you look good, no matter the size. And if that “perfect” top doesn’t fit, just remember that it’s not perfect for you.
  • Put your attention elsewhere – If you’re putting all your focus on your body, you’re not only putting undue pressure on yourself, but you’re also missing out on all the wonders the world has to offer. When you’re feeling especially negative about your body, refocus – try diving into a hobby or a cause you feel passionate about. Even something as simple as rewatching a favorite movie fan help you put aside self-criticism, even for a short time.
  • Take advantage of the resources available to you – There are countless support groups, therapists, well-wishing friends, and informative services out there that can help you stay positive about your body – but they won’t come to you. When negative self-image gets to be too much, reach out for help. You don’t have to suffer alone.

Body Positivity and Eating Disorder Treatment

If negative body image progresses to body dysmorphic disorder or worse, disordered eating behaviors, these tips will not be enough. At this point, it’s crucial to seek out professional help. Eating disorders are often related to negative body image – the diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa all include disordered body image. These disorders are psychiatric conditions, and while maintaining body positivity is important, they require professional help.

Fortunately, eating disorder treatment is widely available. It comes in residential formats for severe cases as well as day treatment (outpatient) and virtual sessions. These programs usually include extensive therapy in individual and group settings, as well as behavioral therapies like CBT and deep nutritional education and meal-planning lessons. If you or a loved one is struggling with negative body image and/or an eating disorder, don’t put it off – reach out for help today.

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.