Changing Your Body

Advocating for self-love and body acceptance is important to me. I mean, obviously. But over the years, I’ve realized that many messages about body image and loving your physical form regardless of its shape or size can be interpreted as exclusionary. Sometimes, when I say, “Love your body as it is,” people hear, “Wanting to change your body is bad,” or, “Nothing is as important as self-acceptance, including your health.”

Health is relative, and it’s a hot-button word. In my opinion, health is deeply personal and not something that can be easily measured by statistics, averages, or numbers alone. Health is complex and different for each of us. There is evidence to support the idea that people can be healthy at many, many weights and sizes, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that.

All that said, I believe that health is important, and that we are all entitled to make changes that will improve our heath and change our bodies. I’ll come right out and say that I’m not a huge fan of traditional, restrictive diets, since they frequently fail and even backfire. But you’re probably aware that I AM a huge fan of exercise and movement, and encourage everyone who’ll listen to seek her own exercise bliss. And I am in no way opposed to healthy weight loss motivated by personal choice. It can be extremely difficult to differentiate body changes motivated by one’s own desires from those driven by social pressures and norms, but I trust you to apply some critical examination and decide for yourself.

I don’t see self love and a desire to change as mutually exclusive. Some people will choose to love themselves unchanged, others will undertake change because of the love and care they feel for themselves. Now it can be dangerous to decide that body changes can lead to increased self love. As in, “I’ll be able to love myself when I finally get that last 10 pounds off.” But, in my experience, loving and accepting your body right now, in the moment, leads to feelings of pride and a desire for increased stewardship. And that can mean resting more, investing in a killer wardrobe, working to improve your sex life, dietary changes, increased exercise, or finally asking the doctor about that thing you’ve been trying to ignore. (You know the one.) When I say, ”Love your body as it is,” there’s no hidden, “And never change it,” clause.  Sometimes love and change can make a great team.

It’s your body, and it’s the only one you’ll ever have. You get to decide how to care for it, how it looks, what of it you share with others, and how to change it should the desire or need arise. My hope is that you can do all of that while riding on a wave of love and acceptance.

Image courtesy hmmlargeart

  • http://coppertopkitchen.blogspot.com Elizabeth

    It’s so true, and extends to every area of your life! Changing your life for the better, whether that means eating healthier, moving your body, working on repairing broken relationships, focusing more on spirituality and service, or just breaking a long-held bad habit- all of these are expressions of self love. If I don’t love myself, why bother? Here’s to positive change!

  • Maggie

    I agree, and maybe what we should be saying is “love your body today…love your body in every moment and make the best choices for yourself, your body and your health in every moment.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you for this! I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately, and you are the first person I have seen who has addressed it. I’m overweight and would like to lose weight, but somehow I feel like wanting to lose weight equals giving in to our culture’s obsession with thin-ness. Or, maybe I’m not really overweight, I’ve only been convinced that I am because of aformentioned cultural obsession. I do love my body; I love my curves. But I’d like my tummy to not stick out so much. But is that my own desire or is that cultural conditioning?
    Anyway, what it came down to for me is that my blood pressure, which was always in the low end of normal, has crept up to the high end of normal, and that was enough of a motivator for me to make some changes in my eating habits. And I’m going to measure success based on what the blood-pressure cuff says, not what the scale says.
    Thank you again!

    • Emma

      Yes yes yes so spot on. I feel like I’m always grappling with this balance between loving what I’ve got through good and bad but recently being less than thrilled with what I’ve got because suddenly what I’ve got doesn’t fit into the jeans I’ve got. It feels like my extra stuffing has become an outward display of the days where I’ve let taking care of myself fall by the wayside of having fries with that. It’s not even that I think I’ve failed myself but rather knowing that I could have done better.

  • http://fitandfeminist.wordpress.com Caitlin

    “Increased stewardship” as self-love – I love that! That has been my experience, that as the level of esteem and respect I hold for myself has increased, so has my desire to take the best care of my body that I possibly can. I’ve realized that I really enjoy life and that I’d like to take part in it as long as I can, and I want to increase the likelihood that this will happen. Plus, I’ve found that regular exercise, eating well, taking responsibility for my health and getting enough rest have been key to helping me enjoy the life I do have right now, so even if I don’t live to see eighty, I’ll still feel like I did the best I could with what I was given.

    • Plop

      I completely agree ! Since I started really caring for myself, I ditched some habits, and created new ones : more sport, no more aggressive beauty products, no more bikini since they really don’t stay in place, almost no more heels but good fun shoes, etc.
      I feel better, prettier, and healthier ever since ! ^^

  • Bethany

    I needed to read this today. Thank you!!!

  • https://www.facebook.com/pages/BodyRespect/140284482654969 Sydney Bell

    Hello!
    Interesting and thought-provoking post! I agree with much of what you say here, but in the end I am not entirely convinced that the self-love needed to truly *care* for your body can flourish when the underlying motivation comes from a desire to *change* your body. I am sure there are some people out there who are able to still love and respect their bodies that they are also trying to change, but I think is very difficult. What I worry about is what happens when folks make lifestyle changes and have healthier bodies, but don’t get the external changes (weight loss) they were hoping for? Often, lack of weight loss can lead to folks giving up on the changes they made (eating well, exercising), or sadly, turning to unhealthy behaviours (like restrictive diets) to get the results they want. I guess I want to live in a world where we all do our our best with diet and exercise and love the bodies that result from the best care we can give them, no matter what size they are!

    In the end, how we approach caring for our bodies, like you say is each women’s personal decision and I certainly would not be one to judge – we are all doing our best! Thanks for the discussion.

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Well said, Sydney. It’s definitely true that choosing change can lead to frustration, and that frustration can lead to more drastic and potentially harmful action. But I feel like we’ve got to allow people to explore change and take responsibility for stewarding their bodies, trust them to know what they want and what is reasonable. Otherwise, the messages become all about stasis and anyone who is curious about change feels like a traitor to her own body.

    • http://www.fitandfeminist.com Caitlin

      What I worry about is what happens when folks make lifestyle changes and have healthier bodies, but don’t get the external changes (weight loss) they were hoping for?

      This is why I have a big problem with the focus on weight loss as the be-all, end-all of healthy lifestyles. Working out and eating healthfully with the goal of weight loss is like taking up French with the goal of translating Proust. It can be done but it will be way difficult. It’s much better to think about the PROCESS of making these changes, where you notice that you feel better on a day-to-day basis and that you can do things you couldn’t do before, as opposed to thinking of them as means to an end.

    • http://www.befabulousdaily.us Cynthia

      Part of the problem is thinking of “change your body” as synonymous with weight loss. Right now, my scale is busted, and I have chosen to leave it busted because I’m working on changing my body through strength exercises and the scale is irrelevant to that goal (well, unless I stop being able to wear any of my clothes all of a sudden, I guess I’d probably check in with my weight at that point). Anyway, change can mean a lot of things. Of course it’s probably to be expected that our minds automatically go to change meaning weight loss, but it could mean a lot of other things. Change in our exercise capacity — for instance, I’ve been doing Zumba for a couple of years without ever running, but this morning I started throwing sprint intervals into my morning walk and it didn’t even faze me. Change in how many pull ups we can do. Change in our mood. You can work for change without ever getting on a scale. Those are all desirable changes that have nothing to do with weight or size.

      • Sam

        This, absolutely.

        At my unhealthiest as an adult — not eating right, not excercizing — I’ve always weighed less than I have when I’ve eaten properly and exercized regularly. It astounds me that doctors and propnants of BMI always seem to forget that muscle weighs more than fat.

        A self-care anecdote from my family:

        Early last year, after my 66-year-old father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he bought the book “Younger Next Year” (which I highly recommend, obviously) and LIVED IT. My mom followed suit.

        They exercize HARD every day, even when they’re sick. They go to the gym daily, and outside of that hike and run for fun. They’ve cut out white starches and meat from their diet, eating mostly plants, fish and whole grains. They drink red wine and eat dark chocolate like it’s medicine.

        The results are astounding. They are ripped. They have more energy than most 40-year-olds I know. My dad’s been undergoing laser and mild chemo treatments for his cancer, and his body has shown incredibly low cellular damage so far… doctors are shocked. He recovered relatively quickly from prostate removal surgery because, his doctors think, his muscle tone was so great.

        And they’re obviously not doing this because they aspire to some societal ideal of “attractive”… they’re doing it to extend my dad’s life as long as possible. It’s ALL about self-care and treating their bodies like they’re the only ones they will ever have.

        • Sam

          Also: My mom’s arthritis, which last year was so crippling she could only type with one hand and couldn’t move her neck to more than a few degrees on either side, has improved significantly. She can type like normal now. She says it’s the increased blood circulation.

          I should note that though my dad was always a runner, my mom had not exercized since yoga in the 1970s. Weight loss obviously wasn’t the reason she started exercizing, but she did drop 40 lbs and now (grumble, grumble) looks better in my clingy shirts than I do.

          Moral of the story: You’re never too sick, too old, too out-of-shape, or too in pain for excercize not to make SOME improvement on your overall well-being.

          / prosthelytizing with the zeal of the newly converted

      • lizzieladie

        This comment is exactly how I feel! I think that the science is really, really unclear on how easy it is for anyone to change their body in terms of meeting a specific appearance goal. It’s much clearer that most people can change their body in terms of what it can do (though the ways and means and which changes will make you feel good are all highly individual). I love the idea of loving your body through stewardship and through changing what it can do and increasing your happiness and comfort levels. I think that I would be a lot more comfortable with the idea of loving your body through intentionally changing the way it looks if I were sure that most people were going to be successful and not discouraged when they try for looks based changes. But it’s definitely been empowering for various friends of mine to do things like run a marathon or hike a mountain or deadlift their weight or even start going to physical therapy so that their back doesn’t hurt so much. And that empowerment and acknowledgement of how nifty bodies are is all for the good.

        And now you all have inspired me to brave the crazy heat and go for a run, because my body is awesome and it deserves to have a happy post run endorphin high!

  • bubu

    Great post… have thought about these things a lot over the years. I’m with you that exercise and eating right have their own reward — I think I first started on them to lose weight, but now have really come to believe their value in and of themselves, mainly because when I DON’T exercise or eat healthy I start to feel so much worse – lethargic, achy, heavy, just unpleasant. But also as I get older (with the big 40 looming not far off) I realize exercise and eating well are really more for maintenance, they no longer lead readily to weight loss as they did when I was younger (though NOT doing them can definitely lead to weigh gain). So while some part of me would always like to be 10 pounds lighter, that is very separate from my daily exercise — that is now just like tooth-brushing, a part of my routine that keeps my body functioning well, and that I won’t feel right if I don’t do.

  • http://frumpfactor.wordpress.com Anne @ The Frump Factor

    Very well-stated, Sal.

  • http://monkeyobsessions.blogspot.com alice

    I love this post! Because of genetics, I’ve been very thin my whole life and since thin was culturally celebrated, I never thought I had to focus on eating well or exercising because obviously those are things only people who worried about their weight did. I did little to no exercise through my 20s and gradually lost muscle although the size of my clothes remained the same. Last year I found an exercise class that I really loved so started going 4 times a week and have been amazed by the changes in my body. I definitely didn’t go with any weight-related intentions; I was just drawn by how great I felt afterward, but over the next few months I noticed that I was stronger, more flexible and my clothes were fitting me differently. It’s hard to explain – I’m not as stick thin as I was before and my clothes are tighter in some places as I gained muscle, but I love this new stronger body and feel considerably more attractive and mentally alert. I wish I had come to this place years ago, but I had always equated exercise with work and not something to be enjoyed on its own. Better late than never!

  • http://iwonderandiwander.wordpress.com Kris

    Amen! This is a topic I have struggled with philosophically, and I think you did an amazing job of pointing out that the ideas of self-love and physical/lifestyle changes can coexist in a wonderful way. And I love your point about health meaning different things for different folks – both in the sense of a certain weight may correspond to a different level of health in different folks and in the sense of health priorities. Working out a ton might make me super fit, but my mental health would suffer from less time spent with friends and pursuing other hobbies. We all need to find the balance that makes sense for us.

  • http://www.gray-skies.blogspot.com/ Stacey

    When I was 40 pounds overweight and eating junk all the time, I deeply hated the way my body looked and felt – and that’s what motivated me to make changes. I was so tired of feeling like crap and looking at a body I thought was ugly, so I changed the way I ate and exercised because I wanted to be able to love my body. And maybe those changes were motivated in a small way by the love I had for my body (in that I loved my body enough to want to take care of it better), but really the dominant feelings were hate. NOW I love my body, but it’s because I’m taking care of it by exercising and eating well – and I think that love is both a feeling of appreciation for how my body looks and feels, as well as the act of taking time to care for my body.

    • Sam

      I definitely feel that way – I love the way my body looks and feels when I treat it properly, ergo I looooove my body.

      I’m never sure how much of that is post-exercize euphoria and how much is the smugness of spending time and energy on something “selfish” – focusing on ME. (Of course, looking closer to the societal ideal of “attractive” doesn’t hurt. But I try not to focus on the conformity aspect.)

  • http://midwesternmodernmomma.blogspot.com Jen

    This is such a timely post for me. In the five years since my son was born I have truly come to love the body I have, not the body I wish I had. Somehow I wish I could give that gift to my 15 year-old self, 22 year-old self, even 26 year-old self. But I can’t go back and grant that knowledge to the past me. Could I be healthier than I am at this moment in time? Absolutely. And that is a work in progress. I am no longer going to be unkind to myself-mentally or physically-in regards to my body. I am going to eat for nourishment AND enjoyment. I am going to exercise for fitness AND fun. If I happen to miss a workout because I was coloring with my son, life will go on. If I have a Coke Icee while at the movies on a date with my husband, I won’t be striken the next morning. What will happen though is that I will wake up snuggled between my husband and son, and my body is what comforts and provides love to them. My body is what propels me through the day. My body created a human being. My body can garden, can dance, can feel sexy, can swim, can be at peace, can be a source of peace to others. Why would I be anything other than loving to it? It is the only one I have-and the only one those that love me get to have. Time to treat it well, love it completely, and lose the loathing!

  • http://NoOneWatching.com Grace

    Hear hear! What a great post this is!

  • http://stacyverb.typepad.com Stacy @ Stacyverb

    I agree with the others who have said they dislike the way healthy change and weight loss are equated in this country. There are many other reasons to change your body besides weight loss. I used to have problems with my back going out, but since I started doing abdominal exercises, my core is strong now and I lift things and stretch and move without worrying. Being strong and healthy is important, so your body can do what you need it to do. Too often, wanting to “change” is more about vanity (and I’ve certainly been there, too).

  • LG

    Great post! This makes me think of how Christ was with me…loving me right where I was but not leaving me there. Also, when I am afraid of being in a bathing suit or without makeup, I tell myself how much more important it is to DO those things because for me, those are concrete ways to boost my self/body love. (Look! I did this and survived! lol)

  • Anne

    This post has been gnawing on me all day. I believe the point of this post is so important. Taking care of yourself and being totally accepting your body are crucial and I think we are all very good at talking the talk of self acceptance, but I really worry that deep down, we might not all be able to walk the walk.

    The problem with losing a few pounds for the sake of reducing your cholesterol or your risk of diabetes or whatever is that it can be a slippery slope in many ways. If you’re successful with your weight loss efforts how much is enough and how much is too much? Where do you stop? If you’re unsuccessful, how do you maintain that self acceptance? How accountable should you hold yourself? How far down the continuum of weight loss options do you go? If that weight does come back, how do you fell about yourself now?

    We all say self love is important but yet so many of us admit that we still struggle with it. I’m not sure how we move beyond words. I’ll be perfectly honest here: I can tell my friends that they are perfect the way they are and that they need to love themselves as is and I mean every word of it, but deep down, I don’t apply the same rules to myself . I am willing to bet that some of you feel the same. (apparently this is what happens to me after I apply critical examination)

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Indeed, it is a risk. But change doesn’t have to be weight loss. And, as I’ve said, I feel like the alternative is to enforce stasis – don’t try to change something you feel like you want to change because you don’t trust yourself and might take it too far. Neither option is perfect, that’s for certain. And it’s true that it becomes harder to maintain acceptance if you try to change something and fail. But to never try? For any reason at all? I don’t know, that seems like it could be harmful in other ways.