Trips to Target don’t usually lead to revelations, but last month it happened. As I looked through the plus size dresses, I saw photos of actual plus size models on the wall. Women who were size 2x and above. That might seem obvious. I was in the plus size section, after all. But I vividly remember shopping the Target shelves as a teen in the 90s and never seeing a hint of fatness. The plus size models were slightly bigger than the incredibly thin “regular” size models and far thinner than me, the person needing to buy plus size clothes.
I bring up this little Target journey to show that things are getting better for people of all sizes. The body positivity movement is growing and Instagram is full of influencers spreading messages of self-love. Like Megan Jayne Crabbe who has 1.2 million Instagram followers that love her photos and thoughts on body acceptance.
Though the body positivity movement is heartening, it’s hard to overcome years of anti-fatness. Influencers may tell you to “love your curves,” but one survey found that only 20% of people “like their body the way it is.”
Sure, Dove can tell me that “real beauty” comes in any size, but I’m still told to lose weight when I go to the doctor’s office. One study found that healthcare providers have a strong negative bias towards patients with obesity. Providers thought patients with obesity were less likely to follow treatments, spent less time talking with obese patients about their health, and had less respect for people with obesity than people without.
So with all these mixed messages, how can you actually like your body? I spoke to therapists and body-positive fitness specialists to find out how we can internalize this wonderful movement and really feel positive about our own bodies.
What Do You Really Think of Your Body?
To start changing your thoughts about your body, it’s important to get to know what those thoughts are. “Humans have an average of 30,000 thoughts per day, going many different directions, often out of our awareness,” said Megan Tarmann, MS, LMFT with a specialty in disordered eating and anxiety. “You can start by slowing down, pausing, and reflecting each day on themes and patterns that show up in your beliefs surrounding your body.”
This might not be fun at first, but it gets easier with time. You’ll see recurring patterns and be able to recognize negative self-talk — and start talking back. “The more you get to know your internalized beliefs about your body, the more empowered you will be to question them and transform them,” said Tarmann.
Feel free to lightly question those negative thoughts. If you think “ugh, my body is terrible” ask yourself “is that really true?” You may not have an exact answer, but questioning those beliefs leads to change.
Don’t Force Yourself to Be Positive
It’s called the Body Positivity movement, but it doesn’t have to be all sunshines and rainbows.
“The whole concept of body positivity is predicated on the idea that what we are constantly bombarded with day-in and day-out is body negativity,” said Dr. Elizabeth Degi DuBois, PhD/CDC and empowerment coach. “We are fish swimming in toxic waters telling us that there is a ‘right’ way to look, and if we do not look that way, not only are our bodies wrong, so too are we.”
It takes a little time to deprogram ourselves from all the negative messaging. “Do not force yourself to pretend you are happy with your body if you’re not actually happy with your body,” said Alison Gomez, MS, LMFT. “It invalidates the feelings that are coming up for you and it also creates an added layer of stress as you gaslight yourself in this experience.”
Instead, honor your feelings. If you feel disappointed, sad, or angry, that’s okay. Acknowledging those feelings will help them pass more quickly. Then you can get curious about the beliefs that trigger emotions, according to Gomez.
Make Friends with the Mirror
Once you begin to understand and question some of your negative thoughts, it’s time to get naked. Really. Dr. DuBois recommends talking in front of a mirror naked. Not to give yourself some overblown pep talk. But to see your body how it really is and move your thoughts from negative to neutral.
“Gently run your hands over your skin, especially the parts of your body you are currently uncomfortable with. Then, try neutral messages like ‘I allow you to exist, I see that you are here, I accept that you are in my life in this moment, you being here doesn’t make me wrong or bad,’” said Dr. DuBois. She suggests taking deep breaths and imagining your negative thoughts running down the drain.
As you start to feel more relaxed, move to positive statements. Dr. DuBois suggests “I love you unconditionally, I am grateful for the lessons you are teaching me, having you in my life is a source of joy, I feel sexy and hot in this body.” Though it might feel weird to have a conversation with your body or use “I’m Too Sexy” as a mantra, these positive affirmations help rewire your thinking. So a glance in the mirror when you step out of the shower can go from “ugh” to “oh yeah!”
Do a Media and People Cleanse
As you learn to love your body, it’s time to remove things that reinforce any negative beliefs. “Pay close attention to the media you experience each day which might include social media, radio, podcasts, television, magazines, and notice how they impact you,” said Tarmann. “Ask yourself how certain bodies are portrayed and what bodies are left out.”
If you’re only seeing one body type in your feed all day, your brain wants to believe that’s the only acceptable body type. Tarmann suggests unfollowing anyone who makes you feel bad about your body.
That’s easy when it comes to unfollowing the Kardashians, but what can you do if the negative influence is a person close to you in real life? “Leave,” said Dr. DuBois. “In all seriousness, that option is rarely on the table when it comes to close family and ‘friends’ who have been in our lives forever. However, limiting contact and putting strong boundaries in place with people who make either subtle or overt comments is essential to protecting your mental well-being and honoring your body.”
Follow New People
“GO WATCH EVERY LIZZO VIDEO EVER!” said Dr. DuBois (and yes, she said it in all caps).
Start following people who truly love their bodies. With Lizzo, you get the double effect of watching a confident, beautiful woman and hearing an absolute bop.
In an interview with GHB News, author Lindy West spoke of the healing power of looking at photos of fat women online. “You can really rewire your brain to not feel this thrill of discomfort when you see fat bodies.” Though she was initially uncomfortable looking up fat photos, that soon wore off and she began to see the wonder of bodies at all sizes. Which helped her love her own body.
Dr. DuBois suggests following plus size models on Instagram like Roseline Lawrence, Erica Jean, and PlusSize Queen. Caroline Anderson, AFAA certified fitness instructor and owner of Fitness Hedonist training recommends using #bodypositivefitness on Instagram to see people gaining strength without weight loss as a goal.
The best part, you can do this on your phone while Stranger Things plays in the background. As West said, “You just look at fat bodies.”
Fitness has been tied to weight loss for so long, it can be hard to motivate yourself towards movement. But fitness doesn’t have to be punitive. For Anderson, she found a whole new world of self-acceptance when she started lifting weights and becoming a licensed trainer.
“It’s easy to hate your body when the only language you have for it is binary — Good and bad, strong and weak, fat and thin,” said Anderson. “Fitness has demystified that all for me and has given me merit-based metrics for myself. Can I squat lower today than I could a month ago? Can I deadlift more? Can I balance on one leg for longer? These are all more esteem building for me than numbers on a scale or a dress hanger.”
Movement of any kind, whether it’s walking the dog or bench pressing 145 pounds, will get you in touch with your body. Seeing your strength improve can help you realize how incredible your body really is, no matter your size. You don’t need to push yourself to run a marathon, just try to incorporate small movements whenever you can. “If you are so able, sit down on a chair and stand back up ten times. There, you worked out,” said Anderson. “Do that two days in a row and you have a fitness practice.”
Get in That Swimsuit
As the new meme goes, every body is a beach body. You don’t need to be a certain weight to enjoy the beach, swimming, or any other hobby you may have put off until you were “thin enough.” It may be hard to jump into these activities, but Tarmann suggested that challenging your negative beliefs will help you overcome them. “Practice wearing that swimsuit you love but avoided wearing in your house before going to the beach. If that’s hard for you, wear shorts or a dress but build up to it.”
You don’t need to go out in a thong and pasties day one (or ever if that’s not your thing!). But letting yourself enjoy any activity, no matter the clothes, is so important. It drives home the message that you deserve enjoyment, you deserve fun, and you deserve to live your life beautifully at any size.
You can’t get rid of body negativity overnight, but practicing these tips can help you dismantle bad self-talk. Because there’s no real “ideal” body. “Whatever you’re most insecure about on your body, someone else is getting paid a lot to model,” said Anderson. “Hotness is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”