We live in a weight- and body-shape-obsessed society, and it’s easy (and normal) to develop body dissatisfaction.
I recently heard the term “normative discontent,” coined in the 1980s by researchers who found widespread negative body image, particularly among women, in the United States. I really love it, I think it describes the issue perfectly, and also makes it so obvious how easily we fall prey to cultural norms, even if they make us miserable.
Essentially, it’s become really normal and socially acceptable to hate your body to the point that if you don’t, you are the minority. Isn’t that sad? While this may be more common among women, men come under the same pressure to look a certain way.
It starts young, too. A staggering 42 percent of girls in first through third grades want to be thinner, while 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Further, eating disorders affect 10 million females and 1 million males.
While there are many causes for developing eating disorders, we see exponential increases in body dissatisfaction, internalization of the thin ideal (or muscular ideal) and disordered eating with increases in exposure to media and popular fitness culture. Feeling inferior or flawed can make us desperate, as evidenced by the $60 billion diet industry.
Why cultivating gratitude can help
As a nutrition professional who regularly counsels individuals with disordered eating and body hatred, I have found real benefit in helping clients cultivate a sense of gratitude for their bodies.
With such extreme societal pressures, it may not feel realistic to love — or even like — your body, at least right now. It may be easier to practice body respect, weight neutrality and less emphasis on appearance in general. Shifting focus from appearance to how your body feels or functions can help cultivate gratitude for what it can do, or what it allows you to do.
This quote perfectly summarizes why I feel cultivating gratitude for your body is so effective:
As you cultivate gratitude for your body, you embrace where you are, allowing you to connect with what your body needs. This leads you to take care of yourself in a way that can bring about improvements in overall health and well-being. It has nothing to do with changing or manipulating your body and everything to do with supporting, respecting and caring for it. If your body changes as a result, then there’s that.
If it doesn’t, it’s no less deserving of support, respect and self-care.
How do you do that?
So how can you cultivate gratitude? When I think of November I think of cooler weather, crisp and juicy apples and Thanksgiving. Most notably, I love the reminder November brings to practice gratitude.
This November I am about 6 months pregnant. I've had really positive body image throughout my pregnancy and obviously that has nothing to do with getting smaller. My belly is growing and some of the rest of me is too. But because this pregnancy was such a huge surprise and I really didn't ever imagine I would be pregnant again, I've had such a profound sense of gratitude for my body and for all it's doing to grow a baby. I have no idea how to do that, but it does, and I've trusted it to let me know what it needs. That may be extra food or rest or physical activity or something else entirely. I've had gratitude and trust for my body which I know is the reason for my positive body image.
That's important because we typically think of positive body image happening after we change or manipulate our body to be smaller or stronger or fit any other societal expectation. In reality, you can cultivate body trust and gratitude right now.
I asked some of my favorite body image gurus to comment ideas for how to cultivate gratitude. I hope you find their insight helpful.
“Feeling thankful for one's body often doesn't come easily, but everyone can develop a practice of body gratitude. No matter what your size, fitness level or health status, your body is doing its best by you. Begin by choosing one part of your body and saying something positive about it. If this feels too scary, start with an easier, less triggering body part. It could be as simple as, 'My ears keep me connected to the people I love by letting me hear their voices. I love to listen to my children's stories.'" — Barbara Spanjers, therapist and wellness coach
"Learning to cultivate gratitude for your body can feel really difficult when you are struggling with negative body image. One way to combat that is to allow yourself to let in a mix of feelings — both positive and negative. Giving yourself permission to feel grateful for a healthy set of lungs won't eliminate the judgment you feel about your thighs. But it will open the door for you to have a more nuanced experience of your body rather than one that is dominated by negativity. This will help open the door to a more peaceful relationship to your body." — Marci Evans, registered dietitian and food and body image healer
“YOGA! Yoga was the beginning of my well-being journey, and it continues to prove itself valuable. No matter the pose, I feel as though it's the best way to express gratitude for my body. I accept my body exactly how it is, which creates a space to stretch a little further if it feels right. If not, I'm still breathing, and that alone is something to be grateful for.” — Maggie Danforth, registered dietitian
"Body-hatred takes time to learn and thus, it makes sense that body neutrality (or even body love) is a process that takes time as well.” — Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW, psychotherapist and eating disorder specialist
I hope this has given you an idea of how to practice body gratitude. While it’s tempting to think you can hate yourself into feeling motivated to change your body, it’s never effective, it keeps you stuck and only causes emotional distress. I know food and body peace is possible and cultivating gratitude is the path to get there.
Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD