Spring has well and truly sprung and it’s natural to feel inspired by the longer, lighter days to enjoy the warmer weather, get outside more, and hopefully blossom and bloom. However it’s also the season where diet culture ramps up and sales of detoxes, and restrictive nutrition plans (diets by another name) explode. No matter how much you have practiced self-acceptance, there is still likely to be a ‘shame story’ or emotional hook that draws you into the dominant culture where conventional ways of thinking about your health and wellness are linked to your outward appearance.
The relationship we have with our bodies is a lifelong and intimate commitment. How do you relate to your own body? Do you pinch and poke and chastise unruly parts? Or do you touch yourself with kindness, exploring sensations with curiosity? Do you consider some parts of your body to be ‘problem areas’ to be disciplined or hidden away? Or do you feel grateful towards the body you live in, appreciative of its uniqueness? If you recognise a mixture of these feelings and thoughts, that is okay and likely to be pretty commonplace. It might depend on what you’ve been doing, who you’ve been spending time with, and the context in which you are observing yourself and your body. Like any relationship, there will be opportunities to grow closer or more distant, but unlike a friend, business, or lover, this one can’t be broken up with.
Take a few moments to reflect on when you feel most at home in your body…what does that feel like? What factors contribute to a feeling of peace, acceptance, and affection towards yourself?
Some body image factors are less modifiable than others – the messages you received about your body as you grew up, and the attitudes held by your family of origin, are not easily altered; mainstream media portrayals of acceptable bodies are typically limited to able-bodied, slim, symmetrical, highly groomed, and frequently fair skinned people – although diversity and inclusion are current buzzwords, change is slow to arrive in many circles. So what can we do to improve this crucial relationship with our physical selves?
Self-awareness is the key to shifting the messages you tell yourself. First, notice the nature of your thinking, by taking some quiet time to tune in. When you hear your inner voice, what does it say to you? Is it harsh, critical, or mean? Or do you also hear an inner aspect of yourself which is supportive, encouraging, and accepting? We don’t have to be the passive recipient of our own messages – through increasing our self-awareness, we can notice the patterns of our thoughts as they show up, and make a conscious shift to speak more kindly to ourselves, as if we are speaking to a good friend.
Choose your influences wisely. Yes, we are all swimming in diet culture messages, but we do have some filters we can apply such as making a conscious decision to mute, block, or unfollow any social media that makes you feel worse about yourself. When it comes to TV and mainstream media, do your best to support the creative work that feels aligned with your values, and start to notice the inner tension that exists when you are faced with content that undermines your peace. If you have friends and loved ones who are critical of bodies, make a nice firm boundary by letting them know if certain topics are off the table for you. Make the effort to spend more time with people who are loving and accepting of body diversity, you and themselves. A recent systematic review (Lawrence et al. 2021) found that weight bias is present among most health care professionals, and this is an area of concern, but most doesn’t mean all, and there are some health care providers who know better and who do better. If you are fat shamed in a health setting, you have every right to make a complaint, and ask for a different provider if possible.
Movement is really good medicine. When we move our bodies, especially in an environment that feels safe from scrutiny, we start to shift away from thinking about how our bodies look, and focus more on how our body feels, and what it can do. You might think focusing on what your body can do feeds into the same kinds of social comparisons as focusing on appearance, and that can certainly happen. So the messages we tell ourselves, and the cultural environments we choose to be part of, matter. You can get involved in movement cultures that foster striving, competition, and winning. Or you can seek out movement practices that cultivate a more holistic path, one that brings you closer to yourself and others, rather than separating people based on ability.
That’s where yoga comes in, especially at a studio like Surya Health, where we have done the work to come to peace with our own bodies, and have intentionally shaped a culture where it’s okay for bodies to change weight and shape, to have health issues that alter appearance, to age, to change, to set priorities that arise out of personally meaningful values, and to push back against any messaging that makes people feel like they are not good enough. Our studio has no mirrors, no-one minds what you wear or what size your clothes are, and while we sometimes explore postures that are challenging for some bodies, we get there via lots of building blocks that give everyone a chance to make their yoga practice their own. So, this Spring, why not resist the dominant messages and instead choose to be kinder to yourself, care for your body by moving with awareness, and join our friendly, accepting community.