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- Real change can only happen when we accept our current situation without judgment. This is called the paradox of change.
- Cultivating a sense of self-acceptance can lead to behavior change and positive health outcomes, including weight loss.
- Limiting negative self-talk, feeling grateful for your body, monitoring your social media use, and seeking professional support can help you foster self-acceptance.
Most weight loss journeys begin with a strong feeling that our current body is simply not what we want it to be, that it's somehow unacceptable as it is. We tend to be dissatisfied with our appearance or health, and that dissatisfaction often serves as the catalyst that sparks our determination to take action.
But surprisingly, it’s the opposite state—self-acceptance—that can lead to long-term behavior change and better health outcomes. How can you accept something and want to change it at the same time? Isn’t that a contradiction?
As we delve deeper into the concept of the paradox of change, we start to unravel how cultivating a sense of self-acceptance can actually become the driving force behind reaching our weight loss goals.
Why a Negative Body Image Makes Weight Loss Harder
If you’re a woman struggling with your body image, you’re not the only one. Approximately 60% of women have a negative body image. Though this statistic is troubling, it makes a lot of sense considering the culture we live in.
On social media, we’re bombarded with images of the ideal female body and stories of people who have bounced back from pregnancy seemingly overnight. This constant comparison of our own bodies to the flawlessly filtered bodies we see all around us can lead to a negative body image and eating disorders.
When we view our bodies in a negative light, we tend to feel discouraged, defeated, and even ashamed of ourselves. These negative emotions can create a detrimental cycle that hinders our progress.
“We cannot hate ourselves to long-term change. Meaning, carrying a negative body image and hating our bodies is exhausting. We cannot fight ourselves to health. We weary of constant war and battles, just as we weary of trying to use negative body image in the search of weight loss.”
—Wendy Schofer, MD, pediatrician, lifestyle physician, and founder of Family in Focus: The Weight Coach for Your Whole Family
A negative body image can contribute to unhealthy coping mechanisms or lead someone to try unproven weight loss strategies that make reaching goals even harder. “Feeling shame or dislike of their body can cause people to engage in behaviors that feel more like punishment than self-care,” explains Alexa Stelzer, RDN, LD, CDCES, and clinical health coach at Robin by One Drop. “People may turn to unsustainable diets, disordered eating, or excessive exercise to reduce the dissatisfaction they feel.”
The emotions that come with a negative body image can have an effect on your hormones, too. Constant negative self-talk can create a stress response in the body, which produces cortisol, norepinephrine, and other stress hormones.
“Stressors can be external (like grieving a loved one) or internal (trash talking your body), so if you're constantly berating yourself and have toxic, ongoing negative thoughts about your appearance, it can activate the stress response in your body, creating chronic stress,” explains Jenny Eden Berk, MSEd, certified eating psychology coach and certified culinary nutritionist.
Elevated levels of stress hormones can lead to increased appetite, trigger emotional eating, and cause the body to store fat around the midsection, all of which makes weight loss even more challenging.
The Paradox of Change
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
—Carl R. Rogers from On Becoming A Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy
Real change—including sustainable weight loss—begins with radical acceptance. This means accepting what is happening in the present moment without judgment. Radical acceptance is acknowledging that we cannot change the choices we’ve made in the past or the circumstances that brought us to our present situation. It is simply recognizing where we are without adding to our suffering by judging or berating ourselves for being here.
When we love and accept someone, we want to take care of them, nurture them, and make sure they have what they need to reach their potential. It is difficult, if not impossible, to take loving care of someone we don’t accept, ourselves included.
As our self-acceptance increases, so does our motivation to take care of ourselves. A research study published in Body Image showed that people with a positive body image are more likely to engage in behaviors that promote health.
Another research study looked at the effect of a 12-month weight management program with an emphasis on improving body image in adult women. At the end of the program, the women with improved body images were better able to self-regulate when it came to eating, a critical component of achieving sustainable weight loss.
“Self-acceptance isn't about settling or giving up on growth; it's about loving yourself for who you are right now, while also acknowledging that it's okay—heck, it's fantastic—to want to make positive changes for your health,” explains Michael Julom, ACE certified personal trainer and a CrossFit Level 1 trainer. “It's about shifting the goalposts from striving for perfection (spoiler: it doesn't exist) to aiming for health, happiness, and all-around well-being.”
Reaching radical self-acceptance is an ongoing process. It happens when you start embracing your strengths and weaknesses and recognizing that you are worthy of love and respect regardless of your body size or shape.
How to Practice Self-Acceptance
Self-acceptance doesn’t happen overnight, especially if you’ve been struggling with your body image for a while. These negative mental models can take time to turn around, but with self-compassion and diligence, change is possible. Here are some steps you can take to reset your relationship with your body.
Begin by observing your self-talk.
The first step in making any kind of change is understanding where you’re starting from. Begin by paying attention to how you think and talk about your body. Some examples of negative self-talk could be: “I was bad for eating those chips.” “My thighs have too much cellulite.” “I’m never going to reach my goal weight.”
As you start to notice negative self-talk, you might experience feelings of sadness or heaviness. Honor those feelings by letting them move through your body and not trying to push them away. Take them as a sign that you’re ready to change your relationship with your body and more self-compassion is on its way.
Aim for body neutrality first.
Self-acceptance is a gradual process. There is a huge spectrum between feeling negative about your body and completely accepting your body. Instead of aiming for perfect self-acceptance, shoot for body neutrality as your first goal.
“Moving to a neutral body image—’I have a body’ instead of ‘I hate my body’ shifts the mindset to open to compassion and put aside self-hatred. When we practice compassion, acceptance and even neutrality, we can open the door to experimentation of thoughts, actions and possibility,” encourages Schofer. "’I hate my body’ becomes ‘I have a body.’ Eventually that may become ‘My body provides safety’ and ‘I am practicing accepting my body.’”
Express gratitude for all your body does for you.
Acknowledging ways that you’re grateful for what your body does for you can help you reshape your relationship with it. “One way to do this is to move through each body area, expressing gratitude in writing or verbally, of what that particular area of your body does,” says Stelzer. “For example: I am grateful for my arms because they allow me to hold my child. I am grateful for my legs because they help me get to where I want to go. I am grateful for my stomach because it digests the food that fuels my body.”
Examine who you follow on social media.
With the proven negative impact social media can have on our self-esteem, consider taking some time to look at who you’re following and decide if they’re helping or hurting you on your weight loss journey. “Your social media feed should make you feel good, not bad,” says Julom. “Unfollow accounts that make you feel self-conscious or promote unrealistic body standards, and instead follow ones that celebrate all shapes and sizes and promote health at every size.”
Seek the support of a professional.
Finding the right social support as you begin moving toward self-acceptance is critical. “Working through a negative body image can be challenging to do on your own,” explains Stelzer. “Working with a professional who specializes in negative body image can provide the extra support and guidance to help improve your relationship with your body.”
This article has been clinically reviewed by Hanna Rifkin, RD, CDCES, clinical health coach at Robin by One Drop.