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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Townsend

On Body Image

I've been working in the mental health space for a decade now. And what I've learned overtime, despite what a lot my training encouraged and what we may hope for is that mental wellness is less about being anxiety free or never feeling sadness, depression, lost, or lonely. Instead, it's about being able attend to our emotions with gentleness, curiosity, with compassion, and acceptance. It's about being flexible and expanding our capacity—learning how to flow through both life's toughest and most joyous moments, not with grace, but with respect for our inherent humanness, our deepest vulnerabilities, and our most empowering strengths.

What I often teach is that we can't attach or define ourselves as being either happy or sad. Joyous or in despair. Confident or fearful. There's surely a middle ground, a nuance, right? Happy and also sad. Joyous with moments of despair. Confident, brave, and scared and fearful. Accepting of both ends of the spectrum and sometimes falling in between?

Emotions change. They pass. They come and go. And creating a little bit of space and distance from them, can help us practice skills and resiliency in the in-between. If you've ever the heard the phrase "you are not your emotions", that's what I'm referring to here. We feel our emotions, and feel them deeply. And when we can experience them with more acceptance, curiosity, and non-judgment, they do not always persist with the same grip or nagging that they may have when turned away from.

And so, when we think about body image and consider what our world socializes us to feel about our bodies—we're told we must be either hating on or loving of our bodies. "Working" on our bodies (whatever that means) if we hate them, or letting ourselves go if we don't care enough to change them. I'm just not convinced.

Because life is not a binary between good-or-bad, black-or-white, marvelous or disastrous.

Mostly, I'm not convinced that we have to feel "positive" or "good" about our bodies at all or assign a value to our body. That's the whole problem anyway. Our patriarchal, racist, body policing culture does put a value and approval rating on our bodies.

It's a radical thing, you know, when we who inhabit these bodies are kind towards them. Particularly—especially—in a society where that's anything but encouraged. When our relationship with our bodies is ours and and ours alone. When how we feel about our bodies is not dictated by how we're supposed to look, but instead comes from having inward attunement and connection within.

I'm writing all of this as a mixed cis able-bodied woman that passes as white and lives in a small body, by society's f*cked up standards. So, I recognize with sincerity that I do not have the lived experience that you might. I may not relate to your body story, and I have inherent privilege that happens to come with my body size that protects me from having experienced weight stigma from doctors, employers, or strangers on the street. That doesn't mean I can't or haven't struggled in my relationship with my body. It just means that journey has not been made harder because of sizeism. I don't know exactly what that's like for you, though I can imagine, much like so many other intersectionalities and systems of oppression, it's painful and harmful. Wherever you fall on the kaleidoscope of body experiences, it makes sense that this is hard. Really damn hard.

And so if feeling aligned with body positivity does not feel accessible, what if you instead thought more about being accepting towards your body and fostering a body-neutral mindset? What if instead of feeling like you had to love your body, you accepted that you have a body, and one that deserves to be treated kindly to. Now, acceptance sometimes implies this idea of "giving up." But that's not the type of acceptance I'm talking about here. I'm referring to the idea of psychological acceptance—embracing our experiences without having to react or respond immediately to distress or struggle. Recognizing an emotion or experience without trying to change it. Detaching ourselves from our thoughts and our feelings. Becoming a mindful witness to what we go through with a compassion and humanness lens.

Being accepting of our bodies means:

- Being kind in the thoughts you have about yourself

- Being respectful of your body's needs for for rest, nourishment, hydration, etc.

- Being gentle with how you treat your body

(restriction, dieting, forceful exercise are not gentle)

- Being aware of the toxicity of our "wellness" culture and opting out

- Being able to name grief and/or be with the emotions that may come up for you

- Being curious about the stories we hold about our bodies and working out of beliefs that hurt us and our experience in our bodies

- Being radically accepting of who you are and whatever shape or form your body is in

- Being able to honor the simple notion that our bodies are our home

- Being able to notice and return to the above practices when you may (naturally) stray

Does this sound more realistic and possible for you? Maybe it's a start. Towards something else. Something new, different, and softer. I hope so.


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