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While many of us are familiar with negative body image and can identify when we’re having a bad body image day, how do we know when our body image is positive?
What is body image, anyway?
Before we dive in, let’s get on the same page about what body image is. For one, the way we perceive our body is not the same as our actual body, even though they often get confused. People of all shapes and sizes struggle with negative or poor body image, and it’s possible for people in all shapes and sizes, despite cultural expectations, to feel at least neutral toward the body they inhabit. The National Eating Disorders Collaboration defines body image as “a person’s perception of their physical self and the thoughts and feelings, positive, negative or both, which result from that perception.”
the 4 forms of body image
Body image refers to the picture you have of yourself in your mind (perceptual body image), which may bear little to no resemblance to the way you actually appear; how you feel about your body (affective body image); preoccupation with size, shape, weight, muscle tone, and so on (cognitive body image); and various behaviours, such as compensatory movement or disordered eating, used to manipulate your size or shape (behavioural body image.) It’s common for folks plagued by poor body image to report concerns related to each area, though this isn’t universally the case.
body image influencers
Our body image is impacted by a number of factors, most notably our family of origin, community, culture, friends and acquaintances, structural and systemic oppression (e.g. racism, fat phobia, healthism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, etc), trauma and adverse events, the media (social, television, movies, the internet, advertising, magazines, so on), and more. In my experience, body image is multi-factorial, which is why I think strengthening it requires several strategies.
positive body image takes time.
Given the number of reasons we may struggle with negative body image — and the grieving process so many of us undergo when making peace with our natural body size — strengthening our body image can take time. Try to be patient with yourself. It isn’t easy to feel okay with your body in a culture that teaches us our bodies are improvement projects, or to accept our body when conventional, pro-diet rhetoric around body acceptance is so discouraging, problematic, and dismissive. Do your best to continue nourishing yourself in all ways, which is essential and foundational to positive body image. Know that while it’s lovely to “love” your body, it’s unrealistic to assume you’ll love your body all the time, or think it looks hot every day of the week. The goal of body image work is to feel less debilitated by your body image (though you’re welcome to have different/varied goals, of course!), and to be able to live your life, on your terms, without that hall pass hinging on body changes or so-called improvements.
signs of positive body image
So how do you know your body image is positive? Whether you’ve been working on this for a while or are just getting started, here’s a few possible signs your body image is strong or getting stronger. Please know that you don’t have to check every point on the list to have a positive body image, and certain areas (like finding clothes you like that fit) are more challenging for some than others depending on the privileges you carry.
1. You can get dressed and feel relatively neutral doing it. Forget the meltdowns of yesterday! You’ve donated or sold the clothes that no longer fit quite right and know you can usually reach in your closet and pull out something that works. You can get dressed relatively quickly and manage any triggers that come up without too much effort.
2. You can go up or down a size without correlating the number with your value. When that pair of jeans doesn’t feel comfortable (or is sliding down), you can order a new pair in a different size without believing you are a better or worse person for it.
3. You wear the clothes you really want to wear instead of trying to please others. If crop tops are your style, go for it! Don’t love jeans? Choose leggings, skirts, dresses, wide-leg pants, or palazzo pants instead! Like form-fitting clothing? Go for it. Prefer baggier outfits? You do you. While there’s plenty of dialogue around “flattering” clothing, there’s no singular “right” way to dress your body—in the same way that there’s no “right” way to have a body.
4. You wear clothes that fit your today-body. No more squeezing into too-small clothing or punishing yourself by wearing the size you think you should wear. You wear clothing that feels comfortable to you. Irony here is: we think we’ll feel better in a smaller size, but we actually feel best in our bodies when we wear the size that fits (even if it’s not the one we want it to be.)
5. You move in ways that support your body, versus trying to manipulate it. You choose activities for the joy of them or their perceived benefit, rather than punishing yourself or forcing yourself into movement you hate. You move to get stronger, to improve your mental health, increase your immunity or longevity, to socialize with others, or to support your energy levels rather than for the purpose of size or weight manipulation.
6. …And you can take a rest from movement without becoming anxious. When you’re sick or need time off, you can take it without guilting, berating, or shaming yourself.
7. You honour your hunger signals to the best of your ability. You eat when you’re hungry and choose satisfying foods versus depriving yourself for the sake of weight or size manipulation.
8. You stop when you’re full (most of the time. ) You’re able to eat to satiety and leave the food behind (chronically eating past fullness may actually be a symptom of emotional or physical restriction.)
9. You find or seek to find value in all body sizes and shapes. You don’t believe body size is indicative of a person’s health or worth.
10. Your definition of “attractive” broadens. You see beauty in different types of people and aren’t as limited by the media’s narrow ideals. You may notice when fashion campaigns, for example, aren’t inclusive or leave out under-represented folks. You begin to notice who isn’t in the room.
11. Your appearance doesn’t interfere with your ability to take action on your goals. You book vacations, buy clothes you love, apply for jobs, spend time with friends, eat at restaurants, write books, and so on without waiting on the weight to shift.
12. You rarely talk about your body’s appearance or discuss that of others. You focus on feelings, events, interests and hobbies, and other subject areas as opposed to bonding through fat talk (what it sounds like.)
13. You can identify and be with uncomfortable sensations and emotions. You know when you’re angry, sad, or fearful, and can sit with these strong emotions, or know how to cope/solve them without taking it out on your body.
14. You can separate your feelings about your life from your feelings about your body. You know when your body is uncomfortable…and when your life is.
15. You know, deep in your bones, that you are so much more than your body.
In case no one has told you lately: you are so much more than your body.