Take one look at the body positivity hashtag on Instagram and you get a skewed picture of the concept: There are posts featuring gym selfies, “transformation” photos and images that seem more aspirational than anything. A more on-point snapshot includes the posts of people of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, gender identities and ability levels just living their damn lives.
After all, this was the true spirit of the modern body-positivity movement, which dates to the 1960s. A widely published 1967 essay, “More People Should Be Fat!” led to the formation of the National Association to Aid Fat Americans, a nonprofit at the forefront of the body-positivity movement whose “goal is to help build a society in which people of every size are accepted with dignity and equality in all aspects of life.”
In other words, body positivity is about embracing all types of bodies as they are. Posting side-by-side transformation photos or explaining all the hard work it took to get your butt to look a certain way might serve a purpose, but it’s not what the movement was meant to be. It’s not about changing your body; it’s about practicing acceptance.
What exactly does that entail? That means learning to respect your body as is, and internalizing the idea that no one body is inherently more “acceptable” than any other body. It’s challenging, but doing so can have a huge influence on your physical and mental health.
Below, experts break down how (and why!) to actually foster a better relationship with your body as it exists right here and now:
Unfollow anyone who makes you feel like your body needs to change.
Research shows that social media use “can alter your perception of yourself and your body,” said Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian in New York. “I recommend going through and cleaning out your feeds. Unfollow people who make you feel bad about yourself,” she said.
Side-by-side “transformation” photos can be especially damaging, since they inherently compare one body size or shape to another, implying that one is better. And, Rumsey pointed out, “most of those people posting those photos are straight-size, thin, white women, so they’re just centering this ideal body size that our culture holds up.”
When it comes to IRL friends posting pictures that trigger negative feelings about your body, unfollowing might not be an option. Rumsey suggested muting these people on your feeds so that you can avoid seeing these kinds of images without causing tension in the friendship.
Then, follow accounts that show a diverse range of bodies.
The good news about social media’s huge influence on how we see ourselves? You can actually use it to your advantage. “There’s research that says the more we’re exposed to different looks and body types, the more we find them attractive,” said Colleen Reichmann, a psychologist in Philadelphia who specializes in body image and eating disorders.
And it’s not enough to follow only people with larger bodies that fall just outside the ideal, able-bodied people, or people that come from the same background or gender identity as you, Reichmann said. True body acceptance means accepting all bodies as equally valid, not just accepting your own body.
To do this, make sure you follow a truly diverse range of accounts. You’ll likely be surprised how quickly this starts to have an effect. Rumsey said that many of her clients report feeling more accepting of their bodies in just a few weeks after diversifying their feeds.
Get rid of clothes that don’t fit …
It’s not news that hanging on to clothes that no longer fit ― or, worse, buying “aspirational” clothes that you hope to one day fit into ― is detrimental to the way you feel about your body as is. Christine Yoshida, an eating disorder and body image counselor in Portland, Oregon, said that it’s important to get rid of these clothes ASAP.
“Maybe you think, ′I looked so good when I was two sizes smaller.′ But, don’t forget to ask yourself: ‘What was I doing then, to be that size? How has my life and routine changed since then? Was my life really better when my body was smaller?’” Yoshida said. Eventually, you’ll likely realize that changes in your body are normal and that your size isn’t what defines your life.
Reichmann also pointed out that even clothes that technically fit might be working against you if they make you self-conscious about your body. “If you wear something that’s very tight on in an area they feel self-conscious about, your attention will get pulled back to that area throughout the day,” which just perpetuates the negative feelings, she said.
… And buy clothes that you love, no matter the size.
Wearing clothes that feel good on your body is an important step. “You can still be interested in the appearance of the clothes,” Reichmann said. “But put comfort as more of a priority than you may have in the past.”
Feeling uncomfortable draws your attention to your body, which can be really distracting. In comfortable clothes, it’s easier to focus on other things. “If you can, find a few pieces of clothing that will feel comfortable even if your body fluctuates,” Yoshida said.
Go to doctors you feel most comfortable with.
“I’m a dietitian in a bigger body, and I hear so often from clients in bigger bodies that it can feel invalidating to hear advice about intuitive eating and body acceptance from clinicians and experts in thinner bodies,” Severson said. “They think, ‘Of course you can love your body, because you fit the standard.’”
It’s important that people (especially clinicians) in smaller bodies embrace and endorse body acceptance, fat activism and body positivity.
“I’ve definitely had the experience of going to a thin doctor and having them tell me, ‘You should lose weight. If you just follow this eating plan, I’m sure you’ll lose weight.’ And it’s like, ‘Thanks for being super sympathetic with your advice,’” Severson added. “Some people are just more comfortable with people who look like them, and that’s OK, especially if you’re trying to be OK in the body that you have. Find clinicians who allow you to feel normal.”
Stop using exercise as a way to change your body …
“People’s relationship with movement and exercise is deeply intertwined with our fat-phobic diet culture,” Reichmann said. “So many of us have used exercise in a compensatory or punitive way.”
Figuring out your relationship to movement and exercise can be tough. “You need to start by asking yourself, ′Why am I doing what I’m doing?′” Yoshida said. “Am I lifting weights because I’m hoping for a certain outcome? Because I’m hoping I’ll have a different body composition? Do I actually want to run, or am I doing it because I think I should, or have to?”
… And start moving in a way that’s fun and feels good.
“Identifying that you have an unhealthy relationship with exercise can be tough, but it’s equally tough to move away from it and figure out what joyful movement actually looks like,” Reichmann said. “I suggest writing down all your favorite ways to move your body when you were a kid, whether that was running around the playground, dancing, something along those lines. Then, pursue movement that’s more along those lines, that’s actually fun. That can be a really healing experience.”
Yoshida pointed out that finding a mind-body connection in movement can be healing, too. “Yoga is a way to really connect with your body and your emotions because it forces you to slow down and really tune in to the way your body feels during different movements and poses,” she said.
All of this isn’t to say that you can never engage in fitness culture. Yoshida said she likes lifting weights because doing so makes her feel strong, but she no longer does it in a structured, rule-bound way.
Know that you don’t need to love the way your body looks in order to accept and respect it.
“Often people have in their head that they have to love their body, which can seem really far off and unrealistic,” Rumsey said. But it’s important to separate the idea of loving the way your body looks from the idea of accepting and respecting your body.
“Body acceptance and body respect, those are both necessary for living the life you want to live,” Reichmann said. “But body love, if that has to do with really loving the appearance of your body, I don’t think it’s really necessary. Even if you get to a place where you love the way your body looks right now, it’s going to change. We change every day. It’s going to look very different five years from now. If you get pregnant, it’s going to look different then. It’s certainly going to look different if you have the privilege of growing old.”
For all of these reasons, accepting and respecting your body as a vessel to live your best life is a much better, more helpful goal.
Realize that body acceptance can be challenging, but it’s really the only way to be at peace with yourself.
“At the end of the day, you can’t hate yourself into loving yourself,” Severson said. In other words: Trying to change your body so you can be happier just won’t get you anywhere.
“I think body acceptance is such an important piece of being present,” Yoshida said. “We feed on our own past and think, ′Well, I used to look this way.′ Or we focus on the future, and think, ′If I just do this, I’ll look this way, and everything will be better.’ The key is to slow down and just be where we are. Let go of the control you think you have over your body, and instead remind yourself that it’s worth appreciating whatever body you have right now.”