The much-needed body-positive movement is all about accepting yourself at every shape and size, but where does that leave those who still want to make changes?

By By K. Aleisha Fetters
February 18, 2018
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Photo: RuslanDashinsky / Getty Images

It seems you can't scroll through Instagram without seeing a couple (okay, a couple dozen) #BodyPositive posts. Some women show off their belly rolls; others show side-by-side "real life" vs. "posed" photos. And you can't forget the awesome transformation photos of women who have sworn off restrictive eating in favor of accepting their bodies exactly the way they are. The body-positive movement is in full force, and the message is important.

The thing is, most of us aren't altogether ready to ditch our body-changing goals: We want to love and accept our bodies, yes, but we still want to build some biceps or get our body mass index to a number our docs are happy with. (Related: Is the Body-Positive Movement All Talk?)

"Sometimes, I feel like a hypocrite for trying to lose weight," says Carrie Dowling, 32, of Denver. "I think everyone should be comfortable with and own their bodies, and I tell my friends that when they struggle with body image issues. But I'm trying to change my body." Following Weight Watchers, Carrie is 20 pounds into her weight-loss journey. Her goal is to lose 75 pounds.

What is body-positivity, exactly?

"Looking back, maybe this movement could have been called something else, like the 'body kindness' movement rather than the 'body positivity' or 'body acceptance' movement," says psychologist Renee Engeln, Ph.D., director of the Body and Media Lab at Northwestern University and author of Beauty Sick.

"In its essence, what this 'positivity' is really about is loving and being kind to your body. Part of that is taking care of your body-listening to what it needs and giving it that," she says. And, sometimes, not all of the time, that means being open to making some changes.

"Striving for something different doesn't mean there's anything 'wrong' with you right now. It just means that you're in the middle of a journey-and the path is more worthwhile than the destination," says certified strength and conditioning specialist Molly Galbraith, C.S.C.S., owner of Girls Gone Strong, an online fitness community. "This feels like a conflict to so many women because, when it comes to our bodies, we've been taught that we need to criticize ourselves or judge ourselves harshly."

Galbraith admits that, even as a personal trainer trying to help other women become more body-positive, she struggled with this thinking herself: "I thought that if I wanted to improve anything about my health, performance, or aesthetics, it could only mean that something was wrong, and I didn't deserve love or embracement," she says. "Can you imagine applying this logic to your partner? Or child? Or best friend? As if the only way they might deserve your love, embracement, and compassion is when they are finally in a place where there is absolutely nothing you would ever change about them, and everything they do is exactly as you'd like?"

That's why Engeln often reframes body acceptance to women as simply treating your body as you would a friend's. "We're conditioned to talk about our bodies with a nastiness that we would never use with a friend," she says. "If we heard them talking about their bodies that way, we would quickly tell them to stop."

You can't hate your body into being healthy.

"If body-shame were a great way to change your body, obesity rates and obesity-related illnesses wouldn't be so prevalent," says Engeln, noting that research shows that, more often than not, body-shame and poor body images result in pounds gained, not lost. One study from the University of New South Wales shows that people who believe their body type affects their worth exercise less-no matter their body type. Meanwhile, when people work out with aesthetics as their main motivator, they're less likely to stick with exercise, according to a Psychology & Health study.

"Changes motivated by looks don't last," Engeln says. "If that's the change you are shooting for, it's going to be hard." Part of this comes down to the enjoyment factor: You're less likely to focus on workouts and healthy eating when they are all about "fixing" your so-called "flaws" or punishing yourself.

Plus, "self-criticism and harsh self-judgment activate the threat and stress responses in your brain and body," Galbraith says. This flood of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, results in anxiety, inflammation, and for a lot of women, emotional eating, and yet more body-shame-hardly a formula for healthy change.

If weight loss is indeed your goal, you'll be more successful in your journey if you treat your body kindly: Choices rooted in self-worth were more likely to lead to results, in one Canadian review. They're also more likely to lead to better health.

Take body-positive speaker and trainer Kelly Coffey, who lost 160 pounds through gastric bypass, only to gain back more than 60. "Prioritizing weight loss didn't result in sustainable weight loss," Coffey says. That's when she switched her mindset: "Instead of trying to lose weight, I prioritized making the most caring choice I was capable of making whenever I had a choice, not just around food and exercise, but around every aspect of my life," she says. "Since I shifted my focus in that one critical way, I've naturally arrived at a weight I feel comfortable with, developed a body I feel sexy and confident in, and maintained or improved on that for over 10 years."

You can develop a body-positive approach to change.

A major part of the body-positive movement isn't just loving your body, it's about shifting the one-size-fits-all beauty ideal we've all been fed our whole lives. "Making choices for ourselves (including whether or not to lose weight) without the influence of problematic beauty ideals is possible, but requires a lot of introspective work," says body activist Erin Brown, author of Sovereign: Autonomy, Accountability, and Other Queen Shit. (See also: Why America Hates Fat Women, the Feminist Take)

That's because there's a lot working against us when it comes to loving our bodies: "One, people who are overweight and/or obese face discrimination in ways that other folks do not," Brown says. Second, the overwhelming focus on women's bodies needing to be 'beautiful,' by virtue of being 'lean,' quickly becomes an obsession where we learn to place our value." It's easy to hate your body if it doesn't fit into the mold.

If you're trying to lose weight, it's important to ask yourself why. "Kindness-driven answers are more like 'I want to be healthy,' says Susan Albers, Psy.D., a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, specializing in body image and eating issues. "Unfortunately, when you dig deep into people's motivation for losing weight, it often comes from a place of body hate. They want to discard their current body rather than take care of their body and treat it well."

So how do you reprogram how you think about, value, and care for your body? Galbraith says it starts with awareness. "I always encourage women to notice what they say to themselves about their bodies," she says. "Is it positive, neutral, or negative?"

Instead of thinking, "I'm so fat. I've got to get to the gym," [negative], say, "I want to the gym because I deserve to be healthy," Engeln says.

"For me, it required professional help," Galbraith says. "I've been in therapy for almost nine years now, and it's been incredible. It allowed me to tune in to my self-talk, question my assumptions about who I was and from where my worth was derived, reframe my perspective, and shift the stories I was telling myself."

For some women, those stories may still include the need to change. For others, they won't. But true body acceptance is about making those decisions from a place that honors your body for the amazingly awesome home it is-no matter its size or shape.