Over the last 10 years, as a registered dietitian, I have treated many hundreds of clients working to move away from the messages of diet culture, to practice body acceptance, to heal their relationships with food and body, and to recover from eating disorders and disordered eating. I have heard my clients talk negatively about their bodies. I have observed how damaging body comparison can be. I have witnessed the disconnect between body and self and have helped to heal those rifts. But it wasn't until recently that I came face to face with my own struggle to accept my body for what it has become.
I have multiple sclerosis, a progressive disease of the central nervous system that affects about one million people in the United States. Symptoms of the disease vary widely from patient to patient, and I’ve experienced many, but not all, of them.
Although I was diagnosed with MS when I was in high school, I didn’t have any permanent disability until I was in my late 20s, when it became impossible for me to descend stairs without using a railing, I stopped being able to run safely, and I lost sensation in the toes on my right foot. Fast forward a few more years, I rely on a walker and experience symptoms that change daily. Living in a body with changing abilities is rather extraordinary. It’s a little bit like having the rug pulled out from under you when you least expect it, but over and over again.
In high school, I fell in love with shoes. High heels specifically. I felt like they made me look older, more sophisticated, and elegant. Near the end of graduate school, I stopped being able to wear high heels if I had to travel a long distance. I would ask my partner to park the car close to wherever we were going. I would wear heels to walk into places where I knew I would sit. I would take off my shoes if I was walking any great distance. As my disease progressed, I wore my high heels in my home only. I would walk in them as though I were practicing to wear them “for real,” but never did.
Nearly a decade ago, I stopped being able to wear my beloved heels. But I didn’t stop buying high heels for years after I was unable to wear them. I continued to go to the shoe department, trying on heels and trying to make my foot and body coordinate in a way that they literally could not. Sometimes I stood up in the heels. Sometimes, I tried to walk around. Sometimes I just looked at the shoes on my feet. And then I’d buy them. I would take them home, store them with the rest of my high heels, all the while repeating to myself the message that I “should” be able to wear the shoes. That to be a respected professional, or found desirable, or recognized for my work, high heels were a mandate.
There I was, unable to wear or walk in these shoes, yet equally unable to separate my feelings about what it meant to me to be able to wear high heels from the reality of my daily life. I was stubborn, and insistent that I should be able to wear the shoes.
At this stage in my process, I talked a lot of shit—about myself. I made nasty remarks about my body. I made fun of myself in a way that felt protective, but wasn’t. I would announce my “stupid leg” before anyone around me asked questions about it in the same way that some of my clients who live in larger bodies make self-effacing comments when they enter a room. I was so preoccupied by my disability, and my inability to meet my own standards, which were largely dictated by the cultural ideals of normative beauty and ableism, that I lost more time and energy then I am proud to admit.
And then I had an experience that ultimately changed the way that I viewed myself. I rented a scooter to get around at an eating disorder conference. For the first time I found myself dealing with something many people who use mobility aids experience every day: being talked over and ignored. I became invisible. And because I have not lived my entire life with disability, being looked through and looked over was a new experience for me, and an unmistakable one. Realizing how difficult it was to be made to feel less than helped me realize that I'd been thinking of myself as less than, by tying my self-worth to an abstract, normative standard of beauty, ability, and value—wearing high heels. It took a while, and it was difficult, but I finally eliminated the shoes that didn’t work for me. And I ultimately moved past the idea that heels—or a mobility aid—held much meaning for the way I viewed myself.
Truth be told, acceptance is a hard concept to wrap your head around.
Making any grand ovations about how I’ve been consistently graceful in the acceptance of my body would be insincere. And by the way, I’m under no illusions that body acceptance is what will free us all. There are very real cultural and structural barriers that make life difficult for people who have larger bodies, disabilities, chronic illness, or are members of any oppressed group. It’s not that I think the way to change those structures is through individuals practicing body acceptance. The reason I believe in body acceptance is because I have seen and experienced the good, the joy, the pleasure, the absence of shame, that can come from stepping out of the revolving door of rejecting the reality of your body.
Body acceptance can mean different things. For me it means practicing being OK with things, even things I don't like, and doing that because in this moment, they simply are. Does this mean that sometimes I don’t wish for something different? No. Does it mean that I have "given up" or "given in?" No. It simply means that I'm not fighting against the lived experience of this moment. I'm staring my reality in the face, and responding gently, “I see you.” Working towards acceptance of my body isn't something I do because I think it will magically make my life in an ableist world easier and uncomplicated. It's something I practice because when I put less energy into shaming myself and my body, or wishing my body was the body that I've been socialized to think is "better," I have more energy to advocate for myself, to work with clients who come to me to heal their relationships with food and their bodies, to show up in the fight against the normative standards and values that make my life and the lives of all marginalized people difficult.
I hear a lot from my clients about not wanting to accept their bodies as they are. Be this about body size or breast size or stretch marks or evidence of aging, the culture of the idealized body makes that gentle acknowledgement of your body’s reality a challenge, particularly if you’re someone with a body that isn’t up to snuff according to normative, mainstream standards. Not an impossible challenge, but certainly one that requires acknowledgement of the impossible standards we are working against.
When we call a truce in the war between our bodies and the standards we feel we need to live up to, we can use our energy to make room for the ways in which we are different instead of using it to try to push ourselves towards an elusive and unattainable standard. My body is disabled. Yours might be larger than someone else’s or more wrinkled or less coordinated. This is still your body. And not practicing acceptance of what is won’t actually change your body, it will simply make living in it more difficult.
Acknowledge that acceptance might require a period of grief. If you have been willing your body to be one way for any period of time, transitioning to a new way of thinking about your body might make you sad, might make you angry, and will take time. Body image healing and body acceptance are not a final destination, but rather, a process that will evolve as you move through life. The objective is to be as kind and generous with our bodies as they evolve as we are able to be. This is where and how my clients have healed.
This is where and how I have chosen acceptance over agony.
Anna Sweeney, MS, RD, LDN, CEDRD-S is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian and Supervisor, Certified Sports Nutritionist, Certified Intuitive Eating Specialist and owner of Whole Life Nutrition. Anna is an expert in providing care for individuals struggling with eating disorders, disordered eating, and emotional eating. She works by combining her knowledge of nutritional science, experience in the treatment of eating disorders, and heartfelt, thoughtful care. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.