Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Is self-acceptance really such a radical idea?

Hello my foxes.

I want to talk about a few issues in this post that I think are reaching epidemic proportions in the health community and having some pretty unhealthy flow-on effects into society at large. These issues are superficial idealism, delusion, body-shaming, stress, self-rejection, and ultimately - hopefully - self-acceptance.

I'll try to keep it brief.

The "thin ideal" has been a large part of our society since roughly the early 1920's and no doubt has effected how many women - and men - view their own bodies and those of others. This has led to a fairly insidious belief by those who are naturally thin that those who are not are morally deficient in some way - they are lazy, they have no self control, they are greedy, or they are failures. While traits such as a lack of self-control can contribute to a whole range of poor life choices, projecting them onto those who you may view as overweight without actually bothering to learn why their body may be different to yours is unhealthy and unproductive.

It is unhealthy and upsetting for those who are on the receiving end of the judgement, and it is also unhealthy and damaging for those who are delivering it. It is fairly well-accepted that feelings of self-love and positive self-regard have the beautiful flow-on effect of higher levels of tolerance and acceptance towards others.

Badgering someone else about their physical appearance and being intentionally cruel only shows your own poor relationship with yourself.

In many ways, the "Strong is the new Skinny" movement has been celebrated as a return to healthy ideals and a rejection of a skinny ideal, now deemed "unhealthy". But is replacing "skinny" with "strong" actually a meaningful switch when we think in terms of true health and self-acceptance? If the switch is simply made without actually challenging the dichotomy or the immense sense of body judgement and shaming innate in its catch-cry, then I'd say not.

Don't get me wrong, if for you, your natural body type in its peak state is strong and muscular, then I applaud you for rejecting the ideology that skinniness is the ultimate sign of attractiveness and embracing your own body type as it is. That is exactly what I would love everyone to do, and the whole point of this post. IF, however, you are simply doing the old switcheroo with the two ideals, and believe that in order to be healthy and ideal, EVERYONE should be well-muscled and lean as you are, and engage in shaming those who are not - either publicly or privately - I'd say your self-congratulatory slogan and meme generating is a little premature.

Let me explain.

Some people are naturally thin. When they eat well and do plenty of an exercise they enjoy, they are lean with possibly not an enormous amount of muscle mass. This is their build. Some people can also eat incredibly well and engage in a lot of exercise they enjoy and become extremely muscular. Some will retain a significant amount of body fat, others won't. Some people's fat deposits in different areas that others. This is largely due to genetics and our natural build and predispositions (of course genetics are not everything and our choices do influence gene expression, but some things are genetically determined). Choosing ANY one body type expressed as one group of people's 'ideal' and projecting that onto all of humanity is another illogical judgement call and will inevitably result in the "us and them" mentality which so often leads us down the path of body shaming.

I know personally what my body does and what it looks like when I eat well and train enough.

Again, 'well' and 'enough' are fairly subjective measures. Eating 'well' for me starts with a basis of whole, unprocessed, mostly organic foods without any universal macronutrient restriction and requires a lot of personal experimentation, patience, and listening to one's own body and learning which foods are well-tolerated and which foods are not. Sometimes, you may need the help of a professional to fine-tune exactly what works for you and to learn how to listen to your body, but ultimately it is a personal and individual process. Exercising 'enough' for me involves training at least 5 times a week in something I love - for me this is krav maga, sparring, sprints, cross-fit, and yoga. I say 5 times a week is 'enough' because it is when I feel my most energised and radiant, and it is not too much to result in any negative outcome from overtraining such as injury, fatigue, or unhealthy (for me) weight loss. If I have a whole lot going on in my life, exercising 5+ times a week will result in injury or fatigue because I am not listening to my body's request for rest. I still fail to listen to my body asking for rest sometimes and suffer the consequences, and sometimes life gets in the way of these perfect practices. I am speaking about ideals here, and they are of course completely individual and subjective.

But here's the nifty thing,

What my body does when I treat it like this - like a deserving friend - is nothing short of amazing. 

It digests food well and produces plenty of energy. It produces the perfect levels of hormones for me without assistance - enough to keep me happy, alert, sleeping soundly, and having healthy, regular menstrual cycles free from side effects. It flushes toxicity from my system efficiently. It circulates blood and lymph effectively, thereby oxygenating and detoxifying my tissues as it is supposed to. It keeps my bones and teeth dense without the need to demineralise and feed a mineral-starved body. It fights off infection, renews cells quickly and keeps inflammation at bay.

In my opinion, that is what eating well and exercising should be about. And for a lot of people, it is. Hooray!

What my body LOOKS like when it is functioning in this state is muscular and strong with the softness of my natural curves retained. It doesn't look muscular with the absence of body fat - far from it. It doesn't look skinny. It doesn't look perfectly soft, feminine and hourglass-esque either. Actually, it doesn't fit perfectly into the main three ideals that I have come across of "Skinny", "Athletic", or "Curvy" - each with their own cult-like following, rejecting other body types as unattractive or "wrong".

But it is ideal. For me. Your ideal body type may fit into one of the common ideals above, or it may not.

So given that this is what MY body does when it is happy, would it be fair for me to form a community with other women whose bodies also react to healthy practices in a similar way to mine and engage in shaming other women whose bodies do not? Would it be fair for me to call these other women 'too masculine', 'too skinny', 'too fat', 'too toned', 'not toned enough', 'unhealthy', 'not real women', or anything else?

Of course not. It not only wouldn't be fair, but it would be completely counter-productive and cruel for me to do this. After all, don't I work in the health industry? Don't I want to spread and promote health above all else? So why am I wasting my time and energy spreading negativity and stress instead?

Engaging in this kind of behaviour is amusingly illogical at best, and extremely damaging to yourself and those around you at worst.

Once you can accept your own self as a whole, the practice of shaming and ridiculing others may not seem as appealing or as satisfying. Accepting and even praising how amazing your body is has to be one of the most positive health choices we can make in our lives.

Of course, there are times when our bodies, minds, and spirits are simply not healthy and we do need to work to change that, for our own sake. Accepting that health needs improving and committing to doing that for yourself should still not involve shaming or hating yourself the way you are. It should - in my opinion - involve loving yourself enough to do what it takes to feel the absolute best that you can.

Loving and accepting your body no matter what is called "radical self-acceptance" in psychology circles. What I want to ask after all of this is this: is self-acceptance really such a radical idea? Can you invite change in your body's health without inviting some level of self-rejection? Let's talk.

FF x

P.S. I deliberately didn't include any images in this post as examples of the various body ideals I mentioned because I don't want to invite shaming of any of the body types in any way, shape (ha), or form.


  1. Great post Eliza - I totally agree with you. Your comment about accepting yourself as a whole person seems really key. Without being kind to ourselves it's impossible to show real empathy to anyone else.
    Personally I really struggle with this. I am a perfectionist at heart and while I'm much better at ignoring the 'ideals' than I was, it's a conscious habit I've had to cultivate. It's hard to see through all the media/'health' industry hysterics but it can be done! Thank you for this xx

    1. Laura, I couldn't agree more with your point about our capacity for empathy being strongly related to our ability to love and understand ourselves. So true.

      And it is hard, REALLY hard, not to compare ourselves to other people and wish for perfection - especially gals like us with significant drive and strong goals. I'm slowly learning how to do this myself and it's been a really eye-opening experience for me. I didn't consciously realise how much negative comparison and shaming is constantly going on in fitness and health circles until I started listening for it.