There’s no doubt the body-positivity movement gained momentum in 2015. Women’s Health banned the phrases “bikini body” and “drop two sizes” from its cover, The Pirelli Calendar got a revamp, and pretty much everywhere you looked women started changing their fitness goals from “get flatter abs” to “get stronger and feel great.”
But why now? As the cultural emphasis on looking perfect was coming to a head thanks to Photoshop, social media, celebrity culture, and advanced non-invasive procedures, people started putting more and more effort into changing their bodies. Couple all of this with the misleading information being thrown around about what kind of training would give people the body they desired, and it’s no wonder that the mantra “it doesn’t matter what you look like, only how you feel!” became popular.
As faulty information failed us, many women retreated to secret shame caves, convinced there must be something unspeakably wrong with their bodies. The harder they tried to look better, the worse they looked; we created an epidemic of people who feel fundamentally broken.
The body-acceptance movement can feel like hitting a pause button on the spiral of self-loathing and failure we’ve faced throughout the last 20 years. It’s a breath of fresh air to anyone caught in that vicious cycle of “try, fail, try harder, fail harder.”
But just because the old way wasn’t working doesn’t mean the new way is perfect either.
Backlash doesn’t usually take you back to neutral. It purposefully swings the pendulum a bit too far in the opposite direction in an effort to balance some long-standing injustice. Today’s body-acceptance movement is backlash.
There is a lot of public lip service paid to how “brave,” and “strong” a woman is for accepting her body’s natural state and not apologizing for it. (Trust me, I got mad props for this.) With so much talk about the high moral character of any woman who rocks her body—flaws and all—one might easily start to think that striving to change any of those “imperfections” is some kind of sin.
I personally advocate autonomy above all else. There’s no real reason for any kind of moralizing or divide here. Each person is entitled to do whatever she likes with her own damn body. And there is zero reason for anyone to judge another person’s body—or her motivation for training it.
For a woman who is blessed with a healthy relationship to her body, it may not be even slightly damaging or negative for her to pursue goals like “get a six pack” or “lose 5 percent body fat.” But for the majority of women that I work with, those exact same goals and behaviors would come with intensely negative psychological and emotional behaviors. For many, it’s just too difficult to maintain a healthy focus on changing a body part without slipping into an obsessively negative attempt to “fix” something that’s wrong with them.
The intention behind a goal or behavior determines the health of that goal or behavior.
Working out with the intention to “fix” something that you hate about yourself tends to come with a whole host of baggage: negative self-talk, hyper-monitoring of your body, and comparison—either with other people or your imaginary future self. All that stress and negativity actually makes it much harder to get the results you want. Obsessing over the aesthetic results of fitness while ignoring the rest of the benefits that training your body offers is the old way of doing things.
Working out with the intention to gain strength, skill, agility, endurance, speed, or power tends to be fun and rewarding. It’s more like a sport or hobby than a chore or beauty regimen. For many people, this mindset shift leads to much more enjoyment, consistency, gratitude, enthusiasm, and the complete removal of dread and habitual feet-dragging from the whole fitness affair. Training to gain something (instead of lose something) every time you show up to the gym is a lot less pressure, and it tends to foster body acceptance and positivity.
I’ve found that outright ignoring how your body looks for a while can be a totally valid and valuable stage of healing from a chronically negative body image. Learning to tune into your body’s signals and read other markers of progress can be just as important for healing the mind as cultivating relaxation is for healing the body. But there’s something that’s not being said.
Recently, I’ve noticed that many leaders in the body-positive community (myself included) say, “I just work out to feel good.” While that’s mostly true, I think it can be a bit misleading and over-simplified, and I want to clear it up. After all, the last thing I want is for the body-acceptance movement to create even more unrealistic standards and black-and-white thinking!
I do not work out however I want, regardless of how my body looks. I love my workouts, it’s true, but training the way I do is the perfect intersection for me between enjoyment of the process and enjoyment of the results.
I take an enormous amount of pleasure in moving and lifting weights, but I take an equal amount of pleasure in admiring myself.
In fairness, I usually choose my workout programming based on emotional or mental goals like, “I want to get strong AF in these major lifts,” or “I want to slow down and make sure my movement patterns are clean and tight for a while.” But even then, I almost always include extra glute training volume because I was born with a naturally flat butt, and I delight in keeping it big and round.
Sometimes I create mini-aesthetic goals, like when I check in with myself naked and think, “I wonder how muscular I can get my back,” or “I want my shoulders to be more ka-POW!” In these cases, I’m almost always coming from a place of admiration and ego-boosting, rather than feeling less than. I know exactly what goes into changing how my body looks, and instead of wondering how it would look on me, sometimes I just go ahead and do it. I adjust my program accordingly, without any stress or drama, and then I fully enjoy the process.
I find there to be something a bit naïve about preaching “stop paying attention to how you look and only ever pay attention to how you feel!” No matter how happy most people are with their bodies, that’s just not realistic. And guess what? That’s OK. I regularly use practices with my clients that involve ignoring their reflection just as often as I use practices that include looking at and admiring their reflections. It all depends on the individual person, where they’re coming from, and what will serve them best at that moment.
The important piece of the puzzle here is raising your own consciousness and being aware of your own intentions. You can notice you want to change something about your body and make the appropriate adjustments without coming from a place of self-loathing or trying to “fix” something that’s wrong with you. After all, the human body is amazingly adaptable and wanting to challenge it in a new way can be fun!
Likewise, feeling trapped or bullied into making those same changes from a place of not feeling good enough will most likely be no fun at all. The emotional and mental hell-on-wheels of feeling restricted and punished would be enough of a reason to find another plan, but add on top the fact that your body becomes less and less responsive as you try harder, stress, and obsess? No, thank you.
In summary, there is no moral high ground when it comes to training your body. There’s only the question, “what will serve me best right now?” If that’s working toward an aesthetic goal, great. If that’s just tuning into your body and never looking in the mirror, fabulous. No matter where you are in your journey or what your goals are, I encourage you to come from a place of positive, self-compassionate intentions.
Do this over the long term and you’ll find that you both feel better and look better.
And who can argue with that?