The admonition that we should love our bodies is oddly authoritarian. Nonetheless, I tried. And, for the longest time I couldn’t figure out why this advice irked me, or why it was slightly suffocating. Shouldn’t I want to love my body? Shouldn’t that be the ultimate body image goal? Not necessarily.
Love in itself is lovely. But telling women they need to love their bodies is not. Why? Because body love assumes our thoughts should fall at the extreme end of the emotional spectrum.
If you don’t love your body, nothing is wrong with you. Perhaps the quest is the problem.
Do I want women to hate their bodies? Of course not. Just like love, hate is extreme. I’d prefer women to appreciate, care for, even admire their forms, but not to confuse that with love.
What’s the Alternative to Love?
I don’t love my post-baby body. I accept it.
At first I didn’t. I tried to convince myself to love my imperfections, to appreciate the wonders brought forth from my crinkly, stretched belly. But those fleeting thoughts didn’t easily shake away a poor body image. Instead, I just felt guilty for caring so much about what it looked like.
Only when I realized I didn’t need to love my body did I learn to like it. Even as I struggled with acceptance, I got on with living in my body. I acted like my body deserved to be in this world and eventually I started to believe that—eventually I accepted it.
Rethink Positive Thinking
It is liberating to realize you don’t need to force positive thinking. Body acceptance often leads to more positive thoughts about your body, but the positive thoughts aren’t prerequisites to acceptance. This might seem backward, but it’s the only way I’ve been able to come to terms with my post-baby body.
Plus, positive thinking mantras always made my brain itch. They became a mental dictum that offered another opportunity for failure. Not only did I dislike my body, but I also wasn’t good at making myself think positively about my body. What an ironic form of self-defeating behavior!
I was able to relax once I realized I didn’t need to think positively about my body all the time, that some days I might preen with confidence and that other days I might shrink with self-consciousness. And that these variations were okay.
Allowing for emotional variation is a form of acceptance. Acceptance is the main tenet in most therapeutic programs, so I’m not breaking new ground by suggesting we accept our mom forms. Nonetheless, this is a message that often gets lost in the “learn to love yourself” memes. Usually love and acceptance are conflated. But I say love and acceptance are two separate notions, that they shouldn’t be lumped together.
Acceptance doesn’t require any sort of action or specific positive emotional state. It just means allowing your body to exist in the world without judgment. Don’t like your belly? You can still accept it. Frustrated by lack of function? You can accept that too. Don’t feel comfortable walking around in a bikini? That’s okay. Just accept that feeling.
Acceptance doesn’t prohibit self-improvement. It is not complacency or defeat or resignation. That’s the beauty of acceptance. It doesn’t expect anything of your thoughts other than to be. It doesn’t expect anything of your body other than to exist. It doesn’t expect you to love your body.
Acceptance alone won’t bring about change. We still need to take care of ourselves and, by extension, our bodies. But acceptance is a necessary passenger, our body’s crucial compatriot. Therefore, aim for acceptance and let love come on its own terms or not at all.
We don’t need to love our bodies. What a relief.
- I’m NOT a therapist and my one philosophy class in college made me a bit nuts, so don’t confuse my laymom’s advice with actual expert opinion. Much of my thoughts on acceptance have been gathered from texts about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ↩