Bodylove–The Heart of Lifelong Weight Management
Without it, you are locked in a losing battle against yourself.
When I was 19 years old and decided I needed to lose weight (boyfriend dumped me), I joined a self-help group that met weekly in a local church basement. One of the first ‘techniques’ they instructed me to adopt was to tape to the front of my fridge the most unflattering ‘fat’ picture of myself I could find. This was to be my motivation.
I did as I was told. Taped the photo, dramatically cut my intake, swore off my favorite foods, and lost weight. Then I went to a party and enjoyed some of my favorite foods, decided I screwed up and did not deserve to be slimmer, and ‘found’ the weight I had lost.
Over the course of the next several years I lost and found the same poundage several times while I also began my psychology education. By the time I got to the end of my undergraduate training, I had learned a lot about learning. (Yes, I took courses actually called Learning. It is a thing!)
What I Learned in Learning Class
An important fact I learned about learning that applies to self-care is that we maintain new behavior much better with positive reinforcement than with punishment.
Positive reinforcement is something desirable that happens for you, or that you receive, after you do a desired behavior. Punishment is just what it sounds like. You do a wrong action and something bad happens. What we know from thousands of research studies is that positive reinforcement causes someone to keep on doing the new behavior much better than does punishment.
Positive Reinforcement, Bodylove, & that Icky Photo
It is easier to keep exerting energy for something that is lovable and valuable to you than for something you hate. You can think about this as positive energy and negative energy. Exerting positive energy feels good; it is not a chore to keep it going. Negative energy, on the other hand, is exhausting.
Try this exercise.
Scrunch your face into a furious expression and tense your body to match it. Hold that pose as long as you can without relaxing. Difficult, isn’t it? Exerting negative energy is draining and almost impossible to maintain for any length of time.
Now, relax your body and let a gentle smile shape your face. Sit like that as long as you can. Much easier to hold positive energy, isn’t it?
Shaping your lifestyle by making behavioral adjustments can be uncomfortable work. Doing that work to punish yourself, your body, is negative effort and much more exhausting than if your actions are about love. The best analogy I have for this is that of a new mom having to awake multiple times during the night to feed her baby. Tiring as it is, that is an act of love and much less difficult than having to get up several times each night to tell a noisy neighbor to pipe down.
Buy in to Bodylove
When I first raise this topic with patients who have spent their lives fighting to change their bodies, they are skeptical—to say the least! Whether they are chronic dieters or have eating disorders, the thought of loving their bodies sounds like rainbows and unicorns—nice idea but not possible given all the things they hate about their appearance.
Learning to love your body comes from expanding your body image. Most people who struggle with overeating or eating disorders let their body size and appearance blind them to its more important aspects.
Think about the things you enjoy in life. Do you love skiing? Or reading? How about music, sex, movies, dancing, cuddling babies, or petting puppies? Does great food or sunbathing (with sunscreen please) make you happy? Are you an avid hiker or traveler? Is making art your thing, or singing?
Whatever brings you joy in life and everything that makes you feel alive is a gift of your body. Your bones, muscles, fat, nerves, and skin are the source of everything that is life. To judge your body on the basis of only its size or shape is doing it a terrible injustice.
Bodylove Grows When …
You expand your focus to include all the wonder that is the human body. I may not love the shape of my nose or the length of my torso, but OMG, I love holding my grandbabies and dancing and listening to Chopin and …!
Think about the people you love and the things you love to do, and think about all the body parts (skin, eyes, nerves, muscles, etc.) that allow those experiences.
Look at yourself in the mirror and acknowledge the eyes that allow you to see those you love, the skin that tells you when the sun is warm or you are being caressed. Appreciate the nose that tells you when flowers are blooming and cookies are baking, and the ears that absorb music and words of tenderness. Love too the fat tissue that cushions your organs, preventing them from crashing against the bones that keep you upright.
If your body were another person, I think you’d agree it is a darn good friend.
Steps Toward Bodylove
Think about how you’ve treated your body over the years. You have put it on crazy diets, forced exercise routines, described it with mean language, and generally been the opposite of a good friend. In fact, if your body were indeed another person, it would have dumped you ages ago!
Grab a notepad and make a list of all the actions you’ve taken over the years in efforts to change your body. Include all the diets, exercise routines, surgeries, supplements, and programs you’ve forced it through. Add to that the words you’ve used to describe it (and yourself) when you have been unhappy with your appearance.
Then, start a second list of all the wonderful things your body does for you and enables you to do. Hint: Use a very large piece of paper and very small handwriting. The list is infinite!
When the two lists are done, write a letter of apology to your body. Include in that letter a summary of the bad-friend behavior you have shown it and a summary of the good it provides you. (I know this sounds a little dorky but do it anyhow. It feels goofy as you’re doing it but quite good when you’ve done it.)
Here is an example of what that letter might look like.
Dear Body of Mine,
I am sorry. I’ve owed you an apology for a long time. I’ve been unfairly critical of you over the years. I’ve said horrible things about you. I’ve put you through a lot. I apologize! Despite all you do for me, I’ve never given you the credit you deserve.
If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy skating or planting a garden. I would not have been able to enjoy my first kiss (and more!). Despite my lack of appreciation, you’ve managed to get me nice compliments. People are always saying how great your eyes are and how nice your hair looks. Instead of recognizing your gifts, I’ve obsessed on how much you weigh. I know it’s not fair for me to eat junk, starve, abuse you, and then blame you for my pain. Frankly, Body of Mine, you are not the problem. You are actually quite amazing!
I’m working to change how I relate to you, and being less critical of you. Instead of focusing on what I dislike about your appearance, I am embracing all the wonder that is you. I’m feeling better about me by being nicer to you.
The final step toward bodylove is implementing what you’ve begun here. Implementation happens if you take a moment each day to reflect on the non-appearance related gifts of your body. Appreciate what it allows you to do (like reading this blog) and do something nice for it. When you catch yourself focusing on appearance, remind yourself of the joys your body allows.
The Rest of My Story
As my psychology education and my maturity advanced, I figured out that how much I weighed and how toned or untoned my body was, just didn’t matter. The people who liked me, liked me because of my personality and those who did not like me (including the ex-boyfriend) … well, c’est la vie. I was done trying to impress anyone whose good opinion of me required so much effort. I decided that anyone who didn’t like the way I looked could simply look elsewhere!
Freed from trying to squeeze my body into someone else’s idea of beautiful, I also stopped dieting.
In addition to feeling better about myself and generally enjoying life more, my weight stabilized in a comfortable range and stopped being something I fretted about. Without the constraints of trying to follow a diet, I could enjoy the food I enjoyed, eat when I wanted to, and stop when I had had enough. Taking care of my body, instead of punishing it, made it dramatically easier to make choices that met my nutritional needs, pleased my palate, and allowed me to fully participate in my community and in my life.
The Bottom Line of Bodylove
I am not saying that if you are overweight or obese you should love that state and not work to improve your health. I am saying that you should love the multi-faceted nature of your body, embrace all the wonder of its form and function, and approach its care from that perspective. Love it enough to feed it healthfully, move it joyously, and appreciate its gifts.
 Adapted from: Cash, Thomas (1997). The Body Image Workbook: An 8-step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications