Is It Possible To Value Your Body While Changing It?

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KEY POINTS

  • Every body is worthy of respect, no matter its shape or size, but we don’t always act like it.
  • Having a poor body image and overvaluing what society thinks doesn’t help us lose weight.
  • It’s important to focus on what our body can do, rather than what it looks like.

“Treat your body like a temple” is a well-known expression suggesting that every body is worthy of respect, even reverence, no matter its size or shape. However, many people think a prerequisite to successful weight management is being dissatisfied with your body. It is mistakenly believed that such self-criticism—especially the kind directed at one’s body—is the most effective way to stay “motivated” to lose weight.

Some examples of negative thinking include:

  • “I can’t wear bright colors until I lose weight.”
  • “I hate my body.”
  • “I can look good only after I lose 50 pounds.”

No evidence exists that body self-hate “works” to get you to a better place.

The truth is that people who have a better body image when they begin a weight-loss journey are likelier to succeed than those with a poorer body image. This may be easier said than done in a society that stigmatizes larger body sizes and overvalues thinness.

Contrary to societal messaging, the weight-loss journey should not be exclusively or even largely about “looking better.” Instead, a weight-loss journey is most successful when you are able to make the mindset shift that neither your weight nor your shape defines your worth. One of the ways to do this is to focus and celebrate all the things your body does, as it is right now. Rather than focusing on “flabby” arms, focus on what your arms do for you—hugging loved ones, carrying things, clapping for your children or grandchildren.

The more you value your body’s utility rather than its appearance relative to some societal ideal, the less scorn you will have for your physical self, and the less fixated you will be on weight as the primary measure of success. And as studies show, when you have a better body image, you have greater overall well-being and are likelier to be physically active, which in turn makes your journey more likely to be a success. For other evidence-based techniques to improve your body image, I highly recommend The Body Image Workbook by Dr. Tom Cash.

How you can value your body and still want to lose weight?

It may seem like these ideas above are contradictory. The very notion of weight loss seems to suggest you’d be better off if you were thinner. If that were so, then how can you value your body as it is if you are trying to change it?

Valuing your body does not preclude you from wanting to improve some “usable” aspect of it—your mobility, your flexibility, your stamina. A weight-loss journey is not exclusively or even largely about “looking better.” It’s about wanting to do the best you can for your body, improving the way your body functions.

Weight loss and changes in body image are frequent outcomes of taking better care of yourself and your body. There are important reasons, having nothing to do with looks, for why someone who has lost weight tends to feel better about their body: They move in space better, they sit more comfortably in an airplane seat, they walk up steps without shortness of breath, they can play tag with their kids, their health improves.

To enable all these positive outcomes—through healthy eating, physical activity, and better sleep—is an act of kindness to yourself, not a punishment for past transgressions. It’s an act of valuing, not devaluing. The physical changes—or “improvements”—in your body that many people experience with weight loss will make your body feel better. You have fundamental value, and therefore your body does, too.

Ultimately, though, people’s reasons are their reasons. Cosmetic changes are real and important for some. Throughout my career, I’ve found that if the change being sought is motivated mostly by the desire to look better, in a way more consistent with many societal standards, then the change is not likely to last. If, on the other hand, the change is motivated mostly by the person’s desire to treat their body kindly or to feel better in their own skin, then the chance for lasting success is greater.

The reason to make behavior change is to live a happier, healthier life; that entails eating differently, moving differently, and thinking differently, as well as being kind to your body and yourself. To the extent that a successful journey also results in weight loss? Great, if it makes you happy, and that was one of your goals.

This turns the dilemma inside out: Your weight and wellness journey is about what is good for you and your body, not about your body being deficient and needing to be fixed. The weight-loss outcome, in and of itself, will not be enough. If the driving force behind the journey is to treat your body well because it’s valuable, not deficient—that is a position of strength that gives fuel for the journey.

Gary D. Foster Ph.D.

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