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Can you be body positive if you hate your own body?

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How to move past believing all bodies are equal—except yours.

I’m all for body positivity—at least, I think I am. I’m passionate about people accepting themselves. I’m for ending the constant emotional torment women put themselves through to adhere to an impossible body standard. I’m all about people eating intuitively, stopping crash diets, and walking away from extreme exercise routines. I really am. Except when it comes to me.

Because despite the best of intentions—affirmations, mindful yoga classes, and brutally honest self-assessments—I can’t make myself love my body. Scrutiny, criticism, and self-consciousness are so deeply ingrained that they feel like compulsions. I don’t think I’m alone in this. For many of us, it’s a habit. An instinctive, unconscious response from years or decades of conditioning.

I’ve been dieting since I was 8. I’ve been obsessing over my body and struggling with disordered eating since before puberty. And though I’ve made huge steps toward being more self-accepting, it hasn’t gone away. Still, the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check my stomach fat in the mirror as I walk to the kitchen. I can’t have a scale in the house, because I’ll get on it dozens of times a day. I think about food, my body, and what I look like tens of times an hour. Those thoughts and behaviors just don’t disappear.

And the exercise. The punishing, obsessive exercise. I wish I could say that I worked out just to be strong. I like being strong. I am also constantly trying to make myself smaller. And in that, no matter how much I wish it wasn’t the case, there is an implicit criticism of others I can’t ignore.

Do I think that other women should behave like this? No, of course not. It pains me to think of anyone being so self-critical. But how can I claim to be body positive, really body positive, if I can’t let go of my ingrained, habitual dislike of my own body?

“When someone that struggles with body image/positivity poo-poos it, it’s usually because the issue is very much a part of their identity,”  Dr. Erika Martinez, licensed psychologist, tells the Daily Dot. “Participating in, or otherwise accepting, the movement would come with a loss of identity that would leave the person asking, ‘Who am I without this?’ Instead of wading into the emotional quagmire, it’s easier to be resistant and hate, judge, criticize, ridicule, etc.”

Maybe I am clutching onto my obsession over my body, my weight, because it’s strangely comforting in its familiarity. It easier than fighting the habit. But aside from working on my own issues, I’d like to get to a place where I feel truly genuine in my support of body positivity. Where I don’t feel this niggling guilt about my own body image issues as I try to encourage others to love themselves. I want it to ring true.

“If you find yourself having a strong negative emotional reaction to your body, just noticing the discrepancy between your reaction and that of indifference is a good first step,” Martinez says. “Getting curious about what might be the cause of your big reaction is wonderful follow-up step. Reach out to people you trust (who won’t judge you but will be honest) for any insights regarding your reaction. Ask them if they’ve noticed anything about the way that you talk about your body that might be concerning. Reach out to a professional if you’re not sure there’s anyone you can trust to have this conversation with.”

Taking this advice, I spoke to friend and comedian Sofie Hagen, host of the Made of Human podcast. She’s also a fat activist, which sounds exactly like what it is: someone who advocates for the equal treatment of people, regardless of their size—and the social changes we need to get to that place. She’s also just a force of open-mindedness and emotional honesty. I explained my struggles with my own body image and how I felt like that compromised my relationship to acceptance more generally.

“There are thoughts, intentions, and actions, and I think it’s important to separate them,” she explained. “Being body positive means that you believe that all bodies are good bodies. That being fat doesn’t equal being lazy, stupid, or unhealthy. That fat people shouldn’t be shouted at in the street. That you understand thin privilege and that you acknowledge that you are treated better by society if you are not fat. If you truly believe this, you’re halfway there.”

This was helpful. Because I can say, in all honesty, I believe these things. I can even say my actions back it up: I don’t ever, to my knowledge, treat people differently because of their weight. But as Hagen explains, it goes further than that.

“So what you can do is change your language around people—especially fat people,” she says. “Don’t say, ‘I feel fat.’ Don’t say, ‘She lost weight and now she looks gorgeous.’ Don’t talk about diets.”

So, I still have some work to do. I spend way too much time thinking and, in some company, speaking about diets. I use the word fat more often than I would like to admit. And, even if it’s just with close friends who understand my history, it’s still contributing to a damaging rhetoric.  

When Hagen points out why this matters, she also shifts the focus less on the minutia and more on the bigger picture. “I should say, that I don’t consider myself part of the body positive movement—I aspire to be part of the fat-activism movement,” she explains. “Body positivity has now become about white women with waistlines, size 12 max, who are dancing in underwear saying ‘love your body’ which is just… fine. But fat activism is about changing the societal structures and politics, not about individuals loving their bodies.”

It’s not that individuals shouldn’t love their bodies, as body positivism suggests, but in many ways, fat activism makes more sense to me: I want to live in a society where bodies are truly accepted, where little girls didn’t have to grow up like I did, where fat people receive equal healthcare and work opportunities and aren’t subject to discrimination.

I want to snap out of it, out of myself, for the larger cause. I want to say to myself, “How can you talk about diets when you know that systematic fat discrimination is a problem in the workplace, in healthcare, and beyond?” But I know it won’t be as simple as flipping a switch.

Habits are tough to break because of the unconscious nature of them. Where to begin controlling those self-criticisms? But I can remind myself that I do believe women should stop punishing themselves, that being fat isn’t bad, and that the psychological toll we put on ourselves is destructive. I can remind myself of the bigger picture—that there are huge systemic shifts that need to be made to stop discrimination against fat people.

My thoughts are in the right place, my intentions are too. And I can only hope that if I keep it up, my actions will follow—toward everyone and then, maybe eventually, toward myself.