When you’re unhappy with your body, what do you do? If you’re like everyone else, you try to lose weight, tone up, or cut back on sugar (or fat or gluten or meat or dairy). You try to change your body. And you’re not alone. A lot of us are in a constant battle to make our bodies different. Changing our attitudes toward our bodies, instead of our bodies themselves, doesn’t even feel like an option.
That’s because peace with our bodies is usually conditional. We’ll accept our bodies as soon as we’ve lost our love-handles or as long as we go to the gym five days a week. When those conditions go unmet (which they almost always do), we give ourselves hell. Our inner critic takes over. We diet. We set up rules about what we can and cannot eat, police our food choices, dole out punishments, compare ourselves to others, and spend way too much mental energy fixated on body parts we hate.
Most of us would never be friends with someone who treated us this way. Yet we think our inner critic is our friend–someone who protects us from developing a body we don’t want, or motivates us to achieve a body we will want.
The problem is that this kind of self-criticism–and the dieting it encourages–isn’t doing what we think it’s doing. It’s not helping us get the bodies we want. Five years after a diet, most people who’ve had success losing weight will have regained the weight. And 40% of them will have gained even more weight. At worst, all of this self-criticism and dieting (especially in young women) leads to eating disorders. So self-criticism isn’t making you healthy and it’s certainly not making you feel good. There must be another way.
Fortunately, a growing body of psychology research suggests there is. Developing self-acceptance, instead of fostering self-criticism, encourages both weight maintenance and weight loss.
The Science of Self-Acceptance
A study led by researchers from Stanford University and University of Washington in St. Louis gives us compelling evidence in support of the self-acceptance method. Researchers gathered 105 high school students who were overweight or at high risk for becoming overweight. Half of the students in the group received an online intervention program, and the other half–the control group–received no program.
Here’s the catch: the online program did not focus on weight loss. Instead, the curriculum taught skills for strengthening body image and intuitive eating. It taught students how to develop more realistic expectations about their bodies, helping them debunk the unreasonable appearance ideals that saturate popular culture. The program also emphasized mindful eating rather than calorie-counting or dieting.
The results were surprising. On average, students using the online program showed a significant decrease in their Body Mass Index 9 months after the start of their program, which simply means they lost weight. Even though the program didn’t aim to encourage weight loss, the students lost weight anyway.
And that’s only half the story. The students also showed a decrease in two symptoms that lead to eating disorders: concern about weight and body shape, and restrictive eating behaviors. So the students were able to boost self-acceptance, reduce their disordered eating behaviors, and lose weight all at the same time.
What this study suggests for all of us is huge: cultivating acceptance–changing how we think about ourselves–is what helps us manage weight in a healthy and effective way. In other words, it’s self-acceptance, not self-criticism, that empowers us to have a healthy relationship with our body.
How does self-acceptance work?
You might be wondering how exactly self-acceptance helps us maintain or lose weight. It’s a fair question. It’s not intuitive that we can be both at peace with ourselves and also making changes.
The short of it is this: our thoughts trigger our behaviors.
When we’re thinking self-critically, we’re constantly judging whether we’re succeeding or failing, looking good or bad, eating healthy enough or not. We create a win-lose situation for ourselves, and the idea of losing is terrifying. We’re focused more on what we look like than how we feel. And so we end up going on diets that won’t work.
Self-acceptance changes all that. When we think about our bodies from a place of acceptance, we see ourselves and our circumstances realistically. We’re not fighting against the truth, and we’re not judging ourselves for being where we are. The fear of losing is no longer a problem for us because we’ve changed the game. Instead of extreme dieting, we can learn to eat intuitively–to allow our hunger signals to tell us what, when, and how much to eat. To eat whenever we’re hungry, and to stop eating once we feel full. It’s this kind of eating that truly allows us to achieve and maintain a weight that’s healthy for us.
The idea of changing how you think might feel intimidating, or abstract, or impossible. But it can be done. Mindfulness meditation and mindful eating are skills that can help you develop a greater sense of self-acceptance. In the next part of this series, we’ll talk about how mindfulness meditation works and how it can transform your relationship with your body.
To learn more about self-acceptance in the meantime, go to golantern.com/body.