Repeat after me: “The body is not an apology.”
This mantra, coined by world-renowned activist, poet and author Sonya Renee Taylor, challenges us to shift away from shame for living in a perfectly imperfect human body.
Instead of viewing our bodies as problems that need to be fixed, we can heal from generations of body shame created by cultural messaging based on assumptions about health and perfectionist body ideals.
We can dismantle body shame by understanding its origins and the myths that cultivate it, by learning to separate wellness from weight and celebrating body diversity as part of the human experience.
First, we need to remember that we weren’t born feeling ashamed of our bodies. We learned it.
A study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found 50% of girls internalized the thin ideal by the age of 5. In my practice clients can easily pinpoint when they began to feel shame for the bodies, and, yes, it’s predominantly during childhood.
Body shame is a “fantastically crappy inheritance,” Taylor said. We continue to pass it down generation after generation, but we aren’t obligated to keep it.
We’ve been programmed to believe a culturally created idea that we should attain this “perfect” body type, at any cost, if we want to be viewed as healthy and attractive. It puts us at war with ourselves, according to “Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Leave Out, Get Wrong and Just Plain Fail to Understand About Weight,” by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor.
“Our culture perpetuates the anti-fat myths that keep people depressed and at war with their own bodies: a war where little battles might be won in the short term with a diet, but then lost overall because those who turn to dieting can rarely maintain long term the look that is accepted as norm — one that is not necessarily the best weight for them and they feel worse about themselves for their failure,” the book states.
When we understand that health comes in a variety of sizes and shapes, we can dismantle the myth that thin equals healthy. Health improvements, such as changing diet and exercise habits, are beneficial independent of weight loss.
In addition, weight and BMI — body mass index — are poor predictors of disease and longevity.
Millions of people became “overweight” overnight when in 1997 a panel of nine medical experts chosen by the National Institutes of Health voted to lower the BMI cutoff from 27 to 25 in order to stay in line with the World Health Organization Criteria. They argued that a “round” number like 25 would be easy to remember, according to Harriet Brown, author of “Body of Truth: How Science, History and Culture Drive Our Obsession With Weight and What We Can Do About It.”
Furthermore, the bulk of epidemiological evidence suggests that five pounds “underweight” is more dangerous than 75 pounds “overweight,” according to the Health at Every Size Fact Sheet.
We need to remember the reason we see so much weight-loss messaging: It’s big business. BusinessWire reports it an industry worth a stunning $72 billion in 2019.
Changing your future, today
I challenge our community to see weight and health differently, whether for our own mental, physical health and emotional health, or for our children or patients.
Instead of basing your health “success” on the number on the scale, create exercise goals based on improved strength, balance, agility and cardiovascular gains. Skip the restrictive 30-day eating plan and practice improving your nutrition without strict “no’s,” as there’s a place for all foods on your plate. And, of course, wellness is not just physical health. How are you caring for your mental and emotional health?
Finally, we need to see and accept body diversity and body changes as part of the human experience. Imagine a world without body judgment, a world in which we no longer had to apologize for our bodies. How would you live differently?
Here’s what Jacksonites had to say:
• “I would enjoy my glass of wine and chocolate guilt-free and not stress over trying to get back my six-pack abs.”
• “I would have breastfed in public instead of hiding myself in my house for days on end, going crazy with boredom.”
• “I would wear a bikini and try a sport I’ve always wanted to try: surfing.”
• “I wouldn’t hate my body and think of normalcies such as stretch marks and cellulite as hideous and disgusting.”
• “That little number on the inside of my clothes wouldn’t be a trigger for disordered eating.”
• “Doctors wouldn’t be worried about my body not returning to ‘normal’ after pregnancy.”
• “My growing sixth grader wouldn’t look in the mirror and say she’s fat and needs to lose weight.”
• “When I get dressed, I would no longer feel like I had to strategically hide body parts.”
• “There would be attractive outdoor clothes that fit me, whatever my size.”
• “My daughter would look at my ‘mom belly’ with its loose skin and stretch marks with wonder and respect for its ability to create a baby.”
• “I would stop obsessing over the 5 to 10 pounds that I am constantly gaining and losing and realize that it’s where my body naturally wants to be, just part of living my life, enjoying a scoop of ice cream with my kids, going for brunch with my girlfriends.”
• “I would finally feel relaxed, at peace, accepted and attractive, just as I am. I would feel liberated.”
There is no wrong way to have a body. Repeat after me: “The body is not an apology.”