Body vs Body Image
What most people think is a body problem is actually a body image problem. They feel bad about they way they look and they think the solution is in changing their bodies. But in reality, that’s just a roundabout way of trying to fix your body image. The problem with that path to feeling better about yourself is it keeps your body image tied to your physical body.
Your body is what you see. While your body image is what you perceive. Your body is simply your physical body. It is rational and objective. It is observed without judgement. If you have fat, you have fat. If you have cellulite, you have cellulite.
On the other hand, your body image is how you perceive your physical body. It encompasses beliefs and feelings about how you look. It is emotional and subjective and rooted in judgement. If you have fat, then you ARE fat. And fat means something to you – usually pain, shame, or a loss of self-worth. If you have cellulite, then that means something about you, such as you’re ugly, disgusting, and need to be hidden at all costs.
For most people, their body and their body image are one and the same. So that makes their body image 100% dependent on their physical body. In order to feel better about themselves, be more confident, have more self-worth, accept themselves, or respect themselves, it requires them to change their physical body.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t focus on your physical body at all. What it means is that if you feel physically bad about your body, in other words, it is negatively impacting your health and keeping you from doing the things you want to do, then by all means you should work on taking care of it in a way that makes those things more possible.
However, if you emotionally feel bad about your body, then you need to separate your body from your body image and work on your body image independently of your physical body. That way they are both getting the attention they need, and you are maximizing their interdependent relationship.
Don’t just expect your body image to improve just because your body changes. It can, but your body and body image become so tied together that for you to feel happy, confident, and valued, you need your body to always be a certain size. You remain obsessed trying to be smaller, and you live in fear of being any bigger.
There are people who lose weight who end up becoming even more critical of their bodies, and there are those who gain 10lbs but love how they look even more.
You can be confident and have an amazing body image inhabiting any sized body. You can also be in a culturally ideal body and be miserable, critical, and so afraid of judgement that you end up not living your full life experience.
Body image can’t be seen by other people, so don’t assume that just because someone has a body you want that they must also be happy. I’ve spoken to enough people who tell me that they put on a good front for other people, while inside they are struggling with their appearance. And don’t assume that because someone is in a stereotypical bigger body that they must be miserable. These are your own body image projections.
Physical changes aren’t necessary for you to improve your body image and start feeling better about your appearance. The best thing about your body image is that it is perception and opinion, and both of those can be changed without a single change to your body. In other words, you can start feeling better about yourself today.
Even better, as you start feeling better about yourself, that affects how you go about eating and moving your body. Food struggles tend to be inversely correlated to your body image. In other words, the worse your body image, the more you tend to struggle with food. Therefore, improving your body image is a prerequisite to transforming your relationship with food.
Your body image determines how much you eat, what you eat, why you eat, how consistent you are, whether you are in a permissive state, your obsessive thoughts around food, and everything else.
With a negative body image you restrict, deprive, distrust, and see calories and hunger as liabilities. It holds your eating hostage, keeps you in a food prison, and forces you into decisions that aren’t in your body’s best interest. There’s always an eating bias towards eating less and being smaller, which makes it hard to heal your relationship with food.
With a positive body image you honor, satiate, satisfy, nourish, and see food as an asset. You stop using food to control your body and the way you feel about it, and instead start using it to address your mental, emotional, and physical needs of the moment. Satiated and satisfied feels much different when you love and accept your body versus when you hate and reject it.
So drive a wedge between your body and your body image. A lifetime of Diet Culture, societal beauty standards, sneaky marketing, life experiences, and limiting beliefs have led you to believe they are one and the same and that your body image can’t be changed unless you change your body first. That is false, and it keeps you from accepting yourself as you are – as a valued human being with inherent self-worth.
Living Your Full Life Experience
A good friend asked if I’d like to come over and swim. To a normal person this sounds like fun. In Texas, where the summer temps routinely hang out over 100 degrees, a pool is a nice reprieve from the heat.
But I’m not normal. The word “pool”, just like the word “presentation”, used to cause me immediate anxiety. Why? Because I was afraid of being judged. Afraid of what people would think of my body. Afraid I wouldn’t live up to expectations. After all, I’m a fitness coach, and in my head, every ounce of fat is a red mark on my permanent record.
So what did I do? I did what any sane person would do. I spent the day before the party outside without a shirt on. The goal was to get a nice little sunburn. That way I had a great excuse for keeping my shirt on at the pool party. After all, it would be really dumb of me to expose my already sunburned skin to yet more sunshine.
But the avoidance behavior wasn’t just limited to pool parties. It kept me from going to the beach, my favorite place in this world. It kept me from going to the gym more times than I care to admit. It has destroyed friendships because I wouldn’t leave the house, as I was too afraid to show myself after gaining weight. And it affected my closest relationship.
Don’t touch me! Those were the words that commonly came from my mouth at the apex of my body image struggles. They were mostly directed towards my wife, who became an affected bystander of my insecurities. Her hands around my stomach or sides sent deep feelings of insecurity and shame throughout my body, and the only way for them to be released were through the words – “don’t touch me there.”
My insecurity quickly led to fewer and fewer hugs and intimate moments, as she was afraid of doing something that might upset me. What my body felt like to her as she put her arms around me with feelings of love never even crossed her mind. It only mattered to me. I was never able to see through the insecurity so that I could share in the loving moment.
You can see how a negative body image can keep you from living your full life experience. And not to make you feel worse, but you aren’t the only one that’s affected as a result of how you see yourself. In my case, my family didn’t get to go on those beach vacations or spend as much time at the pool. And obviously my wife lost the ability to fully connect with me.
I have had to talk so many clients through the idea of going on a vacation where they have to wear a swimsuit. Each of them was extremely anxious about the possibility of being judged by others. But after a shift in perspective they all were so glad they went. They had the courage to not let their body image get in the way of their life experience.
That’s what we’re really trying to accomplish here – living a full life experience. That means getting our physical bodies to a place where we can move in the way we want and do the things we want to do. And it means getting our psychological bodies, aka our body image, to a place where our thoughts don’t create avoidance behaviors and keep us from doing the things we love.
The Misery Gap
Most of us live in what you’d call the misery gap. This is the space between where you are and where you want to be. In terms of your body, it’s the gap between the body you have, and the body you desire – usually some kind of societal ideal.
It’s no fun being in the misery gap. You’re kind of in no-man’s land. You’re neither happy with nor accepting of the body you have, nor have you achieved the body you want. You’re just kind of “there” floating through space – letting life pass you by as you live in a state of discontent.
Some people’s misery gap is huge. The space between what they currently look like and what they desire to look like is so large that hope is crushed. But despite having little hope, they still spend their entire life in Diet Culture chasing after minimal success rates.
You don’t want to live in the misery gap. After all, you’re miserable there. But more importantly, it’s hard to get out of it once you put yourself in it. Why? Because the thoughts and behaviors that encompass the identity of someone stuck in the misery gap just reinforce the misery. You put yourself into this prison and then you put a lot of effort into keeping yourself there. It feels like you’re trying to get out. You’re trying to lose weight and achieve society’s ideal body. But you never get there. Perpetual dieting becomes your norm. And this just becomes your life.
The good news is you don’t have to stay in this prison. You put yourself in it and you can let yourself out. But you won’t get out of the misery gap so long as you reject your current body and put the societal ideal up on a pedestal.
You have to deleverage your belief system. You have to close the gap. You have to minimize the space between how you feel about your body now, and what you think it should look like.
That means you approach this problem from two fronts – the first through body acceptance, and the second through managing body expectations.
Body acceptance is the antidote to body rejection, body hate, and negative self-talk. Most people think the solution is changing your body, but that’s the very thinking that threw you into the misery gap in the first place.
Acceptance is essential to your success. The behaviors that are born from a place of self-acceptance are much different than the ones born from a place of rejection and self-hate. When you value yourself more, you take care of yourself. Your behaviors then move away from body control, and are approached from a place of self-care. The latter means you act in a way that’s in alignment with your body’s needs. You choose behaviors that make you feel your best. Rejection leads to you engaging in diet culture behaviors that have nothing to do with meeting your body’s needs. Instead, you act from a place of fear and misery that just lead to inconsistency.
As you work on body acceptance you’ll also need to work on changing your body expectations. By moving closer to body acceptance and by challenging your body expectations, you close the misery gap and get yourself out of the prison of suboptimal life experience.
Body expectations are changed by exploring the value you’ve placed on having a particular body. You have formed beliefs about what is beautiful, what is valuable, and what you need to look like to feel worthy in society. These beliefs are not facts. They are conditioned opinions that have been internalized over and over again until they feel like truth. But these beliefs are not universal laws of truth, so they can be changed.
We define the new Ideal Body as the body you’re in when you’ve healed your relationships with food, body, exercise, and mind. It’s the body you’re in when you’ve done what is possible based on the unique confines of your personality, circumstances, psychology, and genetics. It’s the body you’re in when you’re happy, healthy, confident, and living your full life experience because you’re choosing to run your operating system using an empowering belief system.
When you choose to accept your body and focus on healing your relationships with food, body, exercise, and mind, the misery gap narrows, and you’re able to act from a more effective and empowering place. You will never achieve what you desire by keeping yourself in the misery gap. Only by closing the gap can you live your full life experience.
The Double Standard
We want people to love us. We want people to respect us. We want people to accept us unconditionally. We even get mad and upset when they don’t do these things. Yet we won’t even do those things for ourselves.
How do you expect other people to love, respect, and accept you and your body if you aren’t willing to do it yourself? We keep trying to change our bodies so that we can earn value, increase our self-worth, and finally feel worthy of acceptance. Yet in the meantime, we live in a state of hate, disrespect, and rejection.
If this is how you choose to treat yourself, and make no mistake, it is a choice – then don’t expect others to embrace you unconditionally. We teach people how to treat us by modeling our own standards. If you have low standards for yourself, others will fall to your standards.
When you don’t love yourself, you teach others how to not love you. When you don’t respect your body, you teach others how to not respect your body. When you don’t accept yourself unconditionally, you teach others how to only accept you conditionally.
You need to be your own role model. We’re all looking to other people to set the standards for the way they will see and treat us. But you don’t need to rely on others to feel better about yourself. You can take your own stand and start expecting new standards from yourself.
There is zero reason to not accept yourself unconditionally. Zero. Every reason you have for rejecting your current body is rooted in a limiting belief.
Accepting yourself unconditionally is not the same thing as giving up on yourself. It doesn’t mean you’ll never change. It doesn’t mean you won’t lose weight. It means that the change that happens will come from a place of self-love and compassion. And frankly, it’s the only kind of change that truly works.
We think this rejection of our body is harmless, or worse, we think it helps us lose weight and feel valued. Yet most people struggle to accept themselves unconditionally and continue to struggle with their weight and body. You can’t hate yourself into a smaller body while also improving your life experience.
Achieving your Ideal Body is a side effect of body acceptance. It’s not the cause of it. It happens as a side effect of healing your relationship with your body. You can’t reject yourself to your Ideal Body. All you end up with is a smaller body (maybe) and the same self-hate, criticism, negative self-talk, and self-worth tied to your body. All this baggage just comes along for the journey. It doesn’t go away simply because you lose a few pounds.
Body acceptance starts with you, and it also starts you on the right path of your Ideal Body journey. Embracing who you are and what you look like in any given moment is what improves your life experience. Your body changing is just the side effect of that newfound self-respect and acceptance.
Acceptance Isn’t Giving Up
Acceptance of who you are and what you look like starts today – not at some future date once you look a certain way.
This is one of the hardest things for people to do or even accept. The simple thought of accepting a body that has created so much pain creates all sorts of negative feelings.
I’ve had people get angry at me at the mere suggestion of acceptance. There’s annoyance, dismissiveness, frustration, and confusion. But this is all because of a misunderstanding of what acceptance means for you now and for your future.
When you don’t accept yourself you’re actually pushing yourself away. You’re rejecting who you are today even though there’s nothing about this moment that can be changed. This moment is all we have. Your future beyond any given moment is not guaranteed. So rejecting yourself and waiting until a non-guaranteed future date just means you’re going to be in pain every step of your journey until you reach your goal.
Is this what you want? Do you want to live 24/7 with someone you dislike and reject? What about in real life? If you were living with someone you didn’t like, or you had a neighbor that bothered you or created resistance every moment of every day, what would the quality of your life be?
And how do you treat the people in your life that you love and accept vs the ones you dislike and reject? Who do you take care of more? Who do you want to spend your time and energy with? Who creates more happiness in your life?
Acceptance is not giving up on yourself. Continuing down the same weight-obsessed path for 30 more years is giving up on yourself. Acceptance is the first step to changing who you are and is the greatest form of self-care there is. As soon as you choose to accept yourself as-is today without any conditions, it’ll be the moment you feel in alignment and at peace with who you are. Your journey will be more enjoyable and the actions you take will come from a place of self-care instead of from a place of self-hate.
Acceptance is not complacency. It does not mean you’re burying your head in the sand. You absolutely can want to change yourself. Acceptance and change are not mutually exclusive goals. They work together. You accept yourself for who you are today and you get excited about the person you will become. And then you enjoy every step of your journey – accepting yourself every moment of it for where you are.
I’ve approached my own journey both ways – from a place of rejection and shame, and also from a place of acceptance and self-respect. I’m not going to lie, the first way did get me some weight loss. But I was miserable the entire time. I was never good enough or looked good enough. Surrounding yourself in a cloud of body shame is a horrible way to live. I learned very quickly that self-hate can’t be overcome with food and exercise. It has to be smothered with acceptance.
When I approached my journey from a place of acceptance, I got to enjoy all the positives of experiencing a future outcome – today. From day one I felt peace, confidence, and was able to live my full live experience. I didn’t put my life on hold until I looked a certain way. I went to the beach. I went to the pool. I went out in public without fear of judgement or not feeling worthy enough to just be me.
There are a lot of people who will say that acceptance is the easy way out of your pain – that it’s a way around doing the hard work of changing your behaviors and body. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Your journey of self-acceptance will be one of the hardest things you do. Changing your physical body is easy compared to having to reprogram the thoughts and perspectives you have surrounding who you are and how you perceive yourself.
All I can tell you is this – acceptance is the single greatest thing you can do for your transformation. Whether it happens now or in the future, it will be the thing that brings you peace. No amount of physical body change will do that for you alone. You can’t change your internal state through external means.
So yes – work on your body if it means you’re going to feel healthier and will have a higher quality of life being able to live all the experiences you want. But independently of that, accept yourself for who you are and what you look like from day one of your journey. Be proud of who you are and get excited about who you will become.