Most women spend more time asking, “What does the perfect body look like, and how do I get it?” than actually enjoying their lives. We go on diets to lose weight, force ourselves into a gym and harangue ourselves if we don’t achieve our weight-loss goals. Isn’t there a better way to coexist with – and even love – the bodies we have?
A Healthy Alternative to Dieting
A more effective approach is Health at Every Size (HAES), a grass-roots model that developed in the late 1980s that encourages people to stop analyzing what “should be” and start accepting what is. Not only does the HAES approach help people feel better about themselves, but research also shows that it boosts health in ways dieting does not.
In one study of obese women, those following the HAES approach (which taught them how to build their self-esteem, follow the body’s natural hunger cues, make healthy food choices and do physical activity they enjoy) kept their weight stable and experienced improvements in cholesterol, blood pressure and other health measures during the two-year study period. They also quadrupled the amount of time they spent doing moderate to rigorous physical activity.
Those following a dieting approach, by contrast, lost weight six months in but regained it by the two-year mark. Not only did they not sustain the limited improvements they saw in blood pressure or exercise levels, but they reported significant reductions in self-esteem.
Making You the Newest Love in Your Life
Body acceptance is not about denying the existence of any health problems or ignoring steps you could take to look or feel better, but rather acknowledging what is without judgment or criticism. It is the freedom to simultaneously love yourself and work on the areas you’d like to change – not for the sake of losing weight but to achieve better overall health. Here are five strategies that can help you accept your body:
#1 Nurture Your Body
Studies show the less people focus on their looks and the more they focus on how their bodies function and feel, the more they appreciate their bodies. And when people appreciate all that their bodies can do, they are more apt to treat it well and to feel good about themselves.
Your relationship with your body should be nurtured in the same way as your relationships with the important people in your life. Do nice things for your body – go for a nature walk, take a yoga class, get a massage, soak in the bathtub – whatever is fun for you and keeps you connected to your body.
#2 Stop Dieting
The research is clear: Diets don’t work. To change your relationship with your body, recognize that health is more complex than reaching a certain number on the scale. It is not clear that the number on the scale increases health risks; rather what increases health risks is lifestyle choices – the foods you eat, whether you’re active or not, whether you smoke, what your cholesterol is, etc. It is possible to be fit and fat, just as it is possible to be thin or average weight and unhealthy.
Under the HAES approach, eating should be joyful. You can enjoy a full range of foods without depriving yourself or labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” Eat foods that you like and that make you feel energized and strong, and respond to your body’s hunger and fullness cues.
#3 Build a Support Network
Research shows that women are more likely to appreciate their bodies if they believe others accept them. Spend time with people who love you regardless of your size and minimize contact with people who criticize your weight or appearance.
#4 Stop the Comparisons
Instead of comparing yourself to others, complaining about how you look or commenting on other’s people weight, work on being your best. Minimize your exposure to fashion magazines and other influences that tell you you’re not good enough if you don’t look a certain way. Similarly, if you hear another woman criticize herself, resist the urge to join in (“You, fat? Look at my thighs!”). Instead, offer a sincere compliment and focus on all the non-weight-related qualities that make people beautiful like an infectious laugh or a positive attitude.
#5 Focus on Your Strengths
Give yourself the same courtesy of focusing on the positives. Instead of obsessing over your perceived flaws, think about all of the qualities and talents you like. When you feel accomplished and validated beyond how you look, the motivation to stay healthy will naturally follow so you can keep doing the things you love.
After years of brainwashing and an endless internal soundtrack of “I’m not good enough,” body acceptance can be an unfamiliar concept. Those who stop engaging in self-criticism and diets that don’t work and start investing in their relationship with themselves may find that body acceptance is not only the key to being happier but also maintaining a healthy weight.