The relationship that we have with our body is one of the most enduring long-term relationships that we will ever be part of - and yet most of us rarely pause to assess the health of this relationship. If we are in an intimate life-long partnership with our bodies, what type of partner are we? How do we relate to our body? How do we think and feel about it? What are our beliefs about our body? How do we talk to, and about, our body? How do we behave towards our body? Could we characterise the overall nature of our relationship with our body as healthy, respectful and positive?
Unfortunately, it seems that for many of us the answer is no - or at least, not yet. 8 in 10 Australians either feel negatively or very negatively about their bodies (which is a four-fold increase in body negativity rates since the 1970s). 6 in 10 of us rarely or never speak or think in a positive way about our bodies. And our level of body dissatisfaction is having a very real and detrimental impact on our ability to participate in our lives in a wholehearted manner. 9 in 10 of us have cancelled plans, missed out on activities, or avoided socialising because of our feelings about our bodies; and 8 in 10 of us have been driven by body negativity to make choices that put our physical and mental health at risk.
What are the consequences of a negative relationship with our body?
A relationship with our body that is overwhelmingly characterised by negativity and dissatisfaction has the potential to harm our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing in many ways, including:
Increased risk of mental health conditions,
Increased risk of disordered eating and eating disorders,
Decreased participation in recreational, social and work activities,
Lower levels of self-esteem,
Lower overall mood,
Lower levels of life satisfaction.
But if I feel positive about my body as it is, won’t I just ‘let myself go’?
The short answer is: no. Many of us believe that focusing on the things we dislike about our body motivates us to make healthy choices, but the opposite appears to be true. Although body negativity can drive behaviour change, these changes tend to be short-lived and unsustainable – and in the long-term, body negativity is actually more likely to cause unhealthy lifestyle behaviours and unhealthy relationships with eating and exercise. Body positivity, on the other hand, is associated with healthy long-term eating and exercise behaviours and lifestyle choices – not to mention higher overall mood, greater life satisfaction, improved resilience, and better self-esteem.
What does body positivity actually mean (and what on earth is body neutrality)?
Body positivity and body neutrality are both ways to create healthy relationships with our bodies. Body positivity typically focuses on developing a positive body image, feeling good about our bodies and appearance, and promoting body self-love. Body neutrality, by comparison, challenges the concept that we should (or can) always love or feel positive about our bodies. Body neutrality asks us to re-frame our relationship with our bodies as a small part of our self-identity and self-worth, shift the focus of body self-concept away from appearance and towards function, and accept that there will be times when we do not feel positively about our bodies. Some people have found body neutrality to be a more realistic middle ground between body self-criticism (or body self-loathing) and body self-love. Body positivity and body neutrality are both strongly associated with more healthy relationships with our bodies, and there is no right or wrong approach – it’s all about finding out what is best for you. You can find more information about body positive and body neutral approaches here.
How can we start to build healthier relationships with our bodies?
As with any other type of relationship, what works for one person may not work for another – it will likely take some patience, experimentation and curiosity to find out what works for you as you establish your unique relationship with your body. Here are some great things to try:
Create a relationship with your body that isn’t only about appearance – celebrate what your body can do (not just what it looks like)
Curate a social media feed that supports a healthy body relationship
Limit or challenge negative self-talk about your body
Move and nourish your body in a way that feels good
Accept that there will be ups and downs in your relationship with your body (just like any other relationship), but that you can continue to invest in and care for your relationship with your body even in the tough times,
Acknowledge that your body will change over time and that there are some things that you will not be able to control
Practice body gratitude – if this feels hard, try asking yourself the question: what would my 99-year-old self appreciate about my current body?