Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Loving Your Body as It Is: Starting Where You Are

Loving Your Body as It Is: Starting Where You Are

I wonder if some women are put off by the title of my article, "Love Your Body At Any Size." I imagine reactions like: “Are you kidding me? At THIS size? LOVE my body?” Or: “All right, maybe I could learn to like my body a bit more than I do now, maybe after I lose just a little weight. “Or, “I actually feel pretty okay about my body the way it is now; I just don’t think I would if I gained any more weight, or gained back those pounds I just lost.”

The more I talk with women about how they REALLY feel about their bodies, the more I realize that body love is a complicated process that happens in stages. And they’re not even predictable stages, at that. I’ve known women who tried every diet plan, miracle product, and spiritual practice that promised them weight loss, even some who developed severe eating disorders or resorted to drastic measures such as weight loss surgery, and then came out the other side with a commitment to radical self-acceptance and absolute clarity that they would never try to change their bodies again. On the other hand, I’ve met women who once were public advocates for size acceptance politics, and then later decided to attempt weight loss again, because on a very basic physical level, they just couldn’t get comfortable with being fat.

Personally, I’ve come a long way on my journey of self-acceptance as a fat woman. Politically, I tend to agree with the more radical end of the size acceptance and Health at Every Size movements. The more I look away from the diet industry ads and sensationalistic “obesity epidemic” headlines, and toward the solid research that says long-term weight loss is neither do-able nor healthful, the more committed I feel to this position. But as a psychotherapist, I’m also committed to working with my clients in a way that prioritizes their values and personal goals, not mine.

So what do I do when I meet a client who wants to work on accepting her body, but isn’t prepared to (and may never want to) take on the politically correct party line of fat acceptance politics? I guess the answer is that I do what I do with almost any client in almost any situation: I meet her where she is. While I am definitely the wrong therapist for a person who wants behavioral coaching to help her stick to a diet plan, my size accepting bias doesn’t prevent me from empathizing with, and helping, women coming from a broad spectrum of attitudes about their bodies. In fact, my experience suggests that most women move up and down that spectrum quite a bit, in the course of their lives and sometimes in the course of a single day.

Self-acceptance is fraught with ambivalence for anyone, and women’s attempts to accept their bodies could almost be the definition of ambivalence. Therapy is often about working through ambivalence. Feelings that are no longer useful will be released, or at least become less intense. Feelings that promote strength and personal growth will prevail. Or, sometimes, the resolution will not be working through ambivalence, but learning to live with it. I think the best way to start resolving internal conflicts is to look clearly at the whole truth about what your conflicting attitudes are. The next step is learning to embrace them. All of them.

If the ultimate goal is self-love, then every part of the self has to be treated with kindness. Do you long to nurture and accept your body, but feel only hate when you look in the mirror? That’s okay. That’s where we start. Do you talk a good line about radical body love, but feel waves of doubt sometimes? Fine. Do you want to let go of the thin body ideal, but hold onto hopes about becoming a little thinner than you are now? It’s all right. Start there. Even if the long-term goal is to move toward accepting your body, the first thing you have to accept is how you feel about your body right now. Because right now is all we have, really. The body you have right now is what it is, no matter how much you focus on its past or its future. And the feelings you have about your body right now are what they are. Paradoxically, you’ll have a better chance of changing and resolving those feelings if you begin by loving yourself and all your ambivalence, here and now.

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