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We all have thoughts and feelings about how our bodies look and fit into the world. Body image can fluctuate depending on the minute, day, and season of life, but if it is a source of stress for you, there are ways to gently reframe how you feel about your frame. For advice on coping with negative body image and having self-compassion in the process, I spoke to three body image experts:

  • Sophia Apostol, a body liberation coach.

  • Dacy Gillespie, an anti-diet and weight inclusive personal stylist.

  • Ginny Jones, a coach who specializes in helping parents with mental health challenges and eating disorder recovery.

Here’s what they had to say about internalized weight stigma, negative body image, and self-compassion.

Feeling bad about your body image is complicated

Body image is the combination of how you see your body, how you feel about your body, how you think about your body, and the behaviors you do in response to those other aspects. So many factors impact how you see, think, feel, and act in response to your body–many of which are not even about your actual body. Consider the Mount Everest-sized pile of messages you’ve gotten over a lifetime about what makes a body good, healthy, or beautiful. It’s not surprising that you are acutely aware of how your body differs from the “ideal.”

“Weight stigma is a belief that our bodies should look like the models you see on magazine covers, marketing ads, and in most movies (i.e. thin and/or muscular),” Apostol said. “So, when your body size doesn’t match these commonly held cultural standards of beauty, fitness, and health, you’ll experience weight stigmatization and discrimination called anti-fat bias. Rooted in racism, anti-fat bias impacts many aspects of people’s lives including their employment prospects and access to evidence-based healthcare, just to name a few.”

Body image can be impacted by this internalized weight stigma, a cultural devaluing of fat people that we have learned from media, medicine, and other people around us and applied to ourselves.

“When we take these negative attitudes towards fatness and turn them inwards, judging our bodies and believing we’re not worthy of equal opportunities because of our body size, that becomes internalized weight stigma,” Apostol said. “Basically, the world tells you that you don’t fit in, and you believe it. You’re being gaslit by diet culture.”

How negative body image takes root

When you think there is something “wrong” with the way you look, have you ever wondered who decided what makes a body right or wrong? 

“When you believe that you are inherently less worthy than others based on the size of your body, you will start to pick apart every aspect of your body and the things you believe should be different,” Gillespie said. “These thoughts become your inner dialogue and prevent you from seeing the positives and beauty of your body as it is.” 

As a result of negative body image, you might consider yourself unworthy of compassion, love, friendship, personal style, professional opportunities, or comfort in public spaces. Of course, we all want these things, but weight stigma and negative body image can make us feel torn between “correcting” our bodies, accepting them, or languishing in limbo.

“Someone who has internalized weight stigma believes they must control or change their body to achieve basic human worthiness. This is problematic since weight can’t be dialed in like a thermostat and even if it could, a certain weight should not be required for us to deserve basic dignity and respect,” Jones said. “All of us, regardless of our weight, are equally worthy and wonderful.” 

Tips for accepting your body and improving body image

Give yourself permission to be where you are 

“We are all swimming in an ocean of messages that thin equals better/healthier/more moral. It takes time and courage to fully break up with diet culture, so be proud of the work you’re doing to heal your relationship to your body,” Apostol said.

Diversify your social media feeds

Apostol recommends following 10 creators in each of these categories: 

“If your feed is filled with people who look just like you or who look like your aspirational self, you’re participating in creating your own negative body image,” she said.

The option of seeing body diversity in media is relatively new, so take advantage of it.

“For too long, we’ve only seen images of thin women in media. Our eye has been trained to only see those bodies as attractive,” Gillespie said. “Today, you can curate your social media feeds and deliberately seek out images of people in a variety of body sizes who look interesting and stylish. It will take time for your eye to adjust.”

Find your people

People selling ways to change your body to conform to an ideal are not the people who will support you on the path to better body image.

“Our culture is full of messages that there is a right and wrong way to have a body, and this feeds internalized weight stigma. To recover from negative body image I sought out people who believe all bodies are equally worthy at any size. I’m not talking about mainstream body positivity messages that you should love your body, but rather a deeper and more meaningful message that all bodies are worthy of respect and dignity,” Jones said.

Apostol suggests looking for fat liberation Facebook groups, anti-diet podcasts, liberation-focused group coaching or therapy, and in-person social groups. 

Distance yourself from people who make you feel bad about your body

“Each of us is on our own journey, and you may need to walk down a different path than your family and friends. If they’re not able to respect your body acceptance path, then spend more time with people who do,” Apostol said.

Don’t trust mirrors and photos to reflect reality

“What we see in the mirror has layers of our own negative thoughts layered over it. Photos capture one small second and angle. They don’t capture your life and your energy,” Gillespie said. “(My) best example of this: I was just in Costa Rica last week. None of the photos I took of the amazing sunsets there captured the actual beauty of them.”

Separate your worth from your weight

Jones said this was a key to her recovery from a lifetime of negative body image. 

“It didn’t happen overnight. After all, for most of my life, I believed that my weight needed to be low for me to be loved. Naturally, it took a few years of intentional practice to build a new belief, which is that I am 100% worthy of love, acceptance, and appreciation at any weight,” she said.

Work on your self-talk

It’s not as simple as shutting down negative self talk, Jones said, because that can backfire. 

“Instead, I notice each negative body thought and intentionally choose a kind response like, ‘Oh, here I am, having a negative body thought. That’s OK. I know my worth is not based on my weight.’ Repeating this hundreds of times is how I shifted from internalized weight stigma to body respect,” she said.

It’s a tough process, so show yourself compassion

Apostol suggests asking yourself one of these questions when you start feeling self-judgment:

  • What am I actually upset about right now? (“Usually it’s not about my body, but that I’ll be judged by someone else. So I’m actually upset about how someone feels about fat people,” Apostol said.)

  • How can I take care of myself right now?

  • What’s possible in this moment?

  • What would I like to do about the situation?

Changing how you feel and think about your body is not going to happen overnight. 

“We need to recognize that for over 100 years, thin bodies have been held up as the ideal. It was taught to our mothers and our mothers’ mothers, and on and on. There are billion dollar businesses selling us the idea that we should be constantly striving to make ourselves smaller. For all of your life up until the time you decided to try to shift it, you were told that same message by media and probably by people in your life,” Gillespie said. “The idea that you could reverse this amount of conditioning by just deciding to change your thinking one day is bananas. Give yourself grace. Of course you aren’t there yet!”

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