Intuitive eating isn’t just about eating whatever you want. It’s part of a larger goal: Respecting your body and giving it what it needs. In order to do this properly, you must also work towards body acceptance. This means accepting your body weight and appearance. It also means accepting your ability level and the way your body works.
As an anti-diet dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and does plenty of body image work with clients, I can tell you that the process is different for everyone. But, healing your relationship with your body is crucial to healing your relationship with food.
What is body acceptance?
Body acceptance isn’t about loving every bit of your body, all the time. In fact, body acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean loving your body at all. Instead, it’s about accepting your body as it is, and appreciating it for all it does for you. What I love about body acceptance is that it takes emphasis off of your appearance (in a way that body positivity doesn’t) and allows you to relate to your body in new ways. In body acceptance, you respect and care for your body with proper nourishment (no dieting!), regular movement (not punishingly hard exercise that you hate), adequate sleep, and more. You’ll certainly have bad body image days, but that’s OK. Part of body acceptance is acknowledging the feelings you have about your body, good and bad, and learning to live your life in spite of them.
Social media gives a pretty skewed picture of body acceptance.
If you’ve heard about body acceptance and want to work towards it, Instagram probably isn’t the best place to start. Scroll through the #bodypositivity tag and you’ll see lots of thin women pinching small stomach rolls, or “before and after” photos showcasing weight loss transformations.
That’s not body positivity, and it doesn’t help you accept your own body. Before we get into the specifics on this, just think about how those photos tend to make you feel. Does seeing someone else’s “transformation” boost your own body image? Does seeing someone “embrace” their “flaws” — almost always code for fat, and occasionally for acne or cellulite — help love your body? Or, does it make you feel worse? The latter is more likely, particularly if your own stomach rolls or acne scars are bigger than the ones they’re showing. (A lot of the time, that’s the case!)
The body positivity movement is about fat acceptance, not transformation.
A main reason why body acceptance and intuitive eating go hand in hand is that they’re both about giving up the pursuit of weight loss. In order to practice either one, you must stop trying to lose weight. Let’s take a look at how the body positivity movement started.
In 1967, writer Lew Louderback published an essay titled “More People Should Be Fat!” He highlighted the discrimination that fat people face. Eventually, the essay led to the formation of a group for fat activists, now called National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). These activists started the body positivity movement. The goal wasn’t to make thin people feel more comfortable with their cellulite. It was to end discrimination against fat people.
Transformation photos aren’t what body positivity is about. Instead, it’s about accepting your body as it is, and ending your constant quest to lose weight.
It’s OK if you’re struggling with how to accept your body weight.
Unfollowing influencers (and maybe even friends!) whose Instagram posts make you feel bad about your body is a great first step towards accepting your body. But changing your mindset isn’t going to happen overnight.
Probably the hardest piece is learning how to accept your weight. You might have an easier time accepting other so-called “flaws” on your physical body, like cellulite or a big scar. Why? Because you understand that those things are impossible to get rid of. You accept them because you know that you don’t have another choice.
So, try applying that same logic to accepting your weight. The truth is that you really can’t change that permanently, either. Despite what diets tell you, weight loss is practically always temporary. In a 2011 review of existing evidence, authors Lindo Bacon and Lucy Aphramor point out that nearly all dieters regain lost weight in a matter of years. Up to one-third of dieters actually regain more weight than they initially lost.
Plus, constantly dieting in an attempt to lose weight can wreak havoc on your mental health. A 2005 randomized controlled trial looked at 78 “obese” women. Researchers found that the women who were assigned to a diet program ended up less healthy after two years than the women in the Health at Every Size (HAES) program. The diet program focused on weight loss. The HAES program focused on intuitive eating, size acceptance, and mental health.
Learning how to practice body acceptance is a journey.
Just like intuitive eating takes time, body image work is a process. And, it’s complicated by the fact that our bodies are changing all the time! Most of us will gain weight as we get older. Our body shape will change as our hormones shift and gravity pulls. Our flexibility and mobility will decrease over time.
But that’s another reason why radical body acceptance is such a great tool. When you learn to accept the reality of your body as it is in any given moment, you’re able to move on with your life without fixating. You’re able to be present in the moment, instead of always making decisions based on how to change your body. (For example, choosing lower-calorie foods that you don’t actually want. Or going for a run when you’d rather be spending time with friends.)
Think of it as body neutrality, instead of body love.
Another mindset shift that’s often helpful is reframing how you think about body acceptance itself. It doesn’t have to be about loving your body all the time. In fact, it doesn’t have to be about loving your body at all, if that seems totally out of reach. When you’ve spent your entire life absorbing cultural messages about how your body should look, it’s pretty impossible to immediately shake those off and start loving your body for looking another way. Body love could be in the cards down the line, but it’s a lofty goal early on.
So, try aiming for body neutrality instead. Quit trying to fall in love with the way your body looks right now. Instead, just aim for a more neutral opinion. Practice thinking about your body as just one part of you, and just one part of your life. Think of it as the thing that allows you to do all the other things! This helps you de-emphasize the way it looks, and feel more neutral about it.
Here are 5 ways to work towards body acceptance right now.
1. Focus on what your body can do.
The best way to snap out of bad feelings about how your body looks is to shift your focus away from appearances. Go move your body in a way that feels good. That might be a particular workout that you love, or a walk, or even just certain stretches that feel great. While you’re doing this be intentional and pay attention to how different parts of your body move and feel. Tapping into this sense of awareness can be really incredible, and give you appreciation for how cool your body is. At first, it might be tough to stop thinking about how you look while moving. But with some practice, it’s possible.
2. Eat foods that are satisfying and make you feel good.
Body acceptance is a key part of intuitive eating, and the same is true in reverse. Just as body acceptance can help you break free from dieting, feeding your body properly can help you accept it. When your body tells you it’s hungry (sometimes with a rumbling stomach, other times through less obvious cues like a headache or fatigue), feed it! And, give it foods that actually feel satisfying to you.
3. Change the way you talk and thing about other people’s bodies.
Body acceptance is about accepting all bodies, not just your own. Sure, body confidence might play a role, but that’s not the only goal.
This is about respect for others, but it’s also key to your feelings about yourself. Pay attention to the thoughts that come up when you see other people’s bodies. If you tend to think of some bodies as “good” and other bodies as “bad,” work to reframe these thoughts. (Also, don’t feel ashamed that you do this. We’re all conditioned to think this way!)
This is one way that social media can actually come in handy! Fill your Instagram feed with people in all different bodies. Seeing bodies of different sizes, gender identities, races, and ability levels helps you realize that body diversity is normal and wonderful. Eventually, you’ll internalize this, and you’ll stop holding your own body to an impossible standard in your head.
4. Stop comparing yourself to others, or to a past version of you.
The comparison trap is really hard to avoid. But, comparison isn’t healthy when it comes to food and body image. Constantly comparing ourselves to the bodies we see on social media and TV can lead to dissatisfaction, depression, eating disorders, and a slew of other mental and physical health conditions.
Ending comparison takes time and practice, but the first step is to notice when you’re doing it. If you’re always comparing your body to someone else’s, try hard to focus on other things when you’re around them. If social media leads to comparison for you, consider taking a break. (Or, take the advice above and fill your feed with diverse bodies!)
Often, the hardest comparison to quit is the comparison you might have going with a former version of yourself. So many of us think constantly about fitting into old clothes. Or trying to look the way we did 10 years ago. To snap out of this, focus on the things in your life that are better now than they were then. Maybe you’re farther along in your career. Or, maybe you have more fulfilling relationships. You’re likely wiser and more experienced, which is a great thing. Plus, you wouldn’t realistically expect to travel back in time and be a former version of yourself. Why would you expect your body to do this?
5. Buy clothes that fit the body you have right now.
The most actionable way to work towards body acceptance, I think, is to wear clothes that fit and feel good. Wearing clothes that are too tight, or that just don’t fit quite right, makes us constantly aware of our body in a bad way. If your waistband is digging into you and making you uncomfortable, you’ll be aware of your stomach all day. If your shorts are squeezing your thighs, you’ll think about that every time you sit down, stand up, or move. Wearing a dress that clings in places that don’t feel comfortable to you (and this is totally personal? You’re going to feel uncomfortable while you wear it!
It’s not about looking great. (Although, clothes that fit do tend to look better!) It’s about feeling confident and being able to forget about your body while you do other things. When clothes are pushing or pulling on our body parts, your attention stays on those body parts. On the other hand, when clothes fit the way you want them to, your attention can drift elsewhere.
When you stop fighting your body, you’re able to live a much fuller life.
When you quit dieting and stop trying to change your body, your life will get better. You’ll be able to enjoy food without obsessing about it. Your brain will have space for other things. Existing relationships will improve, and new ones will be easier to start. Life is fuller when you’re living in the present. Instead of always working towards some “ideal” body you want for your future self.
If you’re sick of falling for terrible diets and “wellness” trends, I can help. I’m a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating. I take a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, patient-centered approach. Learn more about my nutrition counseling, offered in Raleigh, NC, and virtually to clients in several states. If you’re not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.