I’d like to start this post by stating that in all the ways that matter, I am a sane person. I’ll circle back to this, but want you to feel comfortable knowing that I am sane. (This will come into question later.)
“But I don’t want to accept this body.”
How many times have you said those words? To yourself? About yourself? How many times have you heard someone else use these words about their body?
When I think about body acceptance, and all that it allows for, I am deeply relieved. And I haven’t always been. As I hear often from my clients, body acceptance gets confused with complacency. It gets confused with liking one’s body. And now, because it is a buzz-worthy expression, it has kind of moved to the cool kids table. If you’re not accepting, you’re not in the club.
When I think about body acceptance, I am thrilled to know that it is possible. I am thrilled because I know that it can happen after years of having complicated, tumultuous relationship with one’s body. I am thrilled to say confidently that body acceptance is one step to healing one of our most important relationships: that with our own bodies. For humans who feel at home in their own bodies, some degree of body acceptance is possible. This is not to suggest that body acceptance is simple, but for most, it is possible.
From this place of acceptance, we can be gentle. We can be kind. And we can be curious.
Over last 10 years, I have treated many hundreds of clients, at all levels of eating disorder care. I have heard my clients talk negatively about their bodies. I have observed how damaging body comparison can be. And I have encouraged my clients to speak kindly of their bodies. ‘Comparison is the Thief of Joy’ is one of my favorite expressions.
In that same time, I have also lived with multiple sclerosis. And over the last five years, I have become a disabled woman. Living the body with changing abilities is rather extraordinary…It’s a little bit like having the rug pulled out from under you when you least expect it. You continue to operate from a place of not expecting the rug to be pulled at all. And you know that it will.
I am not going to make any grand ovations that I have been consistently graceful in the acceptance of my body. That would be a lie. But I have learned a lot about body acceptance, and the good that can come from it.
A SHOE STORY
Although I was diagnosed with MS when I was in high school, I didn’t have any permanent disability until I was in my late 20s. Starting in high school, I loved shoes. High heels specifically. I felt like they made me look older, more sophisticated, and elegant. I acquired and wore lovely high heels through high school, college, and part of graduate school. Near the end of graduate school, I stopped being able to wear high heels if I had to travel a long distance. I would ask my partner to park the car close to wherever we were going. I would wear heels to walk into place where I knew I would sit. I would take off my shoes if I was walking any great distance. As my disease progressed, I wore my high heels in my home only. I would walk in them as though I were practicing to wear them ‘for real,’ but never did.
I completed graduate school in 2009. I stopped being able to wear high heels entirely in 2010. And here is where my declaration of not being crazy should come into question: I didn’t stop buying high heels until the end of 2012. I have strong memories of going into the shoe department, and trying on heels. Of literally trying to make my foot and body coordinate in a way that it could not. Sometimes I stood up in the heels. Sometimes, I tried to walk around. Sometimes I just looked at the shoes on my feet. And then I’d buy them. I would take them home, store them with the rest of my high heels, all the while repeating to myself the message that I “should” be able to wear the shoes. That to be a respected professional, or found desirable, or recognized for my work, high heels were a mandate. WHAT A LOAD OF SHIT.
Even as I was truly unable to comfortably wear these shoes, I was unable to separate my feelings about what it meant to wear high heels from my lived experience. I was living in the “I’ll get back there someday-land,” and not practicing any acceptance of what was. I was stubborn, and insistent that I should be able to wear the shoes.
In this part of my mourning-accepting process, I talked a lot of shit. I made nasty remarks about my body. I made fun of myself in a way that felt protective, but wasn’t. I was so preoccupied by my disability, and my inability to meet my own standards, that I lost more time and energy then I am proud to admit.
And then I was given an enormous gift that in the moment felt awful, but changed the way that I viewed myself. My fear of being seen as that which is other was confirmed, and out of my frustration, I committed to stop fighting against myself.. It took a while, but I did arrive to the space where I eliminated the shoes that didn’t work for me. And I ultimately moved past the space where heels held much energy.
This may seem like a small thing, but it was not at all trivial for me, as it was my first overt expression of acceptance of what is. I am a disabled woman, and I can’t wear high heels. Those are two facts about me that actually say very little about who I am. I imagine that you would find a similar ending if you thought about the parts of yourself that you struggle to accept. Those parts are not all of you, and they’re probably not the most important parts of you, either.
On my self acceptance journey, I have learned several things:
1. Acceptance is not the same as enjoying. Acceptance is a bit like gravity. You don’t have to like it, but no amount of wishing to float is going to make floating possible.
2. Acceptance might require a period of grief. If you have been willing your body to be one way for any period of time, transitioning to a new way of thinking about your body might make you sad, might make you angry, and will take time.
3. Acceptance makes life easier. I spent a number of years vigilantly fighting against my body, speaking negatively of it, and putting myself at risk unnecessarily. It is only because I accept my body that I’m able to live with the ease that I do.
4. Acceptance is good for you. In the same way that speaking negatively about yourself makes you feel worse, when you are able to speak about yourself from an accepting place - and that can be neutral - you’re better off. By simply changing the way I spoke about my body, I felt and feel differently in it.
5. Sometimes acceptance means needing help. This was a hard one for me, as I am superbly independent. But I accept that I need help navigating the world as a woman with different ability. I am choosing to ask for help more and more, and find that this process affirms itself. For you, this might look like speaking with your therapist or dietitian about body image. And about the challenges of self-acceptance.
6. Acceptance of what is leaves room for everything else. As I mentioned before, my process of accepting my disability was not always graceful. I fought it with all that I had. And now, I live, breathe, and sleep easier because I’m not fighting against myself.
I wish for you the all benefits that body acceptance has to offer. I wish for you the peace that I have found in accepting my present moment body as it is. I wish for you the ability to give yourself permission to approach body acceptance as a part of a larger body journey.
And whatever is in your collection of “should's” SHOULD be examined immediately...What is there? Get curious. And let me know!