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Positive Body Image: It's Not Just About Feeling Beautiful

Renee Engeln, whose TEDx talk on beauty sickness has received more than 300,000 views, tells Flo readers what positive body image is and how to be kind to your body even if you don't like the way it looks.

What is positive body image?

Positive body image is actually a complex idea. It has to do with how you think about your body, how you feel about your body, but also, maybe most importantly, how you behave toward your body, what you do for your body. 

When people think that positive body image is just about feeling attractive all the time, about feeling you’re beautiful, they're really getting it wrong. You don't actually have to feel beautiful to have a positive body image. Instead, you can have an appreciation for your body. So that might mean that you take time to feel gratitude, to thank your body for the things that it does, even when it's not perfect. Even if your body lets you down sometimes or it hurts or gets sick sometimes, you can still be thankful for all the things it does for you. 

Positive body image means that you listen to your body. So you try to be in tune with what it needs, what it's trying to tell you, instead of you just saying things like, "No, I'm going to starve you because I'm going to be skinnier." Positive body image also means that you feel compassion toward your body. So you forgive it, you accept it, even if sometimes what you see in the mirror isn't what you’d like to see. 

Most important, positive body image means that you care for your body. You try to give it rest, you try to stay active in whatever ways are good for you, you don't insult it. You treat your body like it's somebody you love, you treat it with kindness and respect and try to make strong, healthy choices for your body. You can do all of those things even if you don't like the way you look in your favorite dress. 

Positive body image means that you treat your body like it's somebody you love, you treat it with kindness and respect and try to make strong, healthy choices for your body.

What I always tell people is that you don't have to feel beautiful to be able to care for your body, to be able to show it respect. And what a lot of women find is that the more they think about their body with kindness and the more they treat it with respect, the more they start to like it. It's the same idea if you're nice to someone every day, you just start to like that person a little more. That can happen with your body too. 

You can say, "No, I don't feel beautiful today, but that's OK. I'm still grateful for my body. And I'm still going to take good care of it." That’s a much healthier way of approaching the world, because it's not your job to feel beautiful every day. You don't have to. You can still be a good, healthy, worthwhile person, even if you don't feel beautiful every day.

6 ways to be kind to your body even if you don't like the way it looks

  1. You can be kind to your body by paying really close attention to what it needs. You know what makes your body feel good long term and what makes it feel bad. Of course, you have to be careful because some things that might make you feel good right now, make you feel bad later, like eating too much ice cream or something like that. 
  2. To care for your body, try making a list of the things you're grateful for. You could think, even just in one day, "What has my body done for me today?", "What did it allow me to do?" Did you communicate with other people using your body?Did it take you somewhere? Did you go for a walk? Did it allow you to see something interesting or hear something beautiful? 
  3. You can really start thinking of your body as an instrument. Like it's something that allows you to explore the world -- because that's what your body is for. Sometimes you get the idea that your body is just for looking sexy to other people, but your body is actually your home and your instrument. And if you're pregnant, that's even more true. Your body is doing this truly cool thing, it is doing all kinds of processes, many that you can't even see, to help bring a baby into the world. And that has nothing to do with how you look. It's all about appreciating the functions of your body. 
  4. Sometimes if you get stuck feeling negative things about your body, you can try to take a different perspective and you could say, "If I was a best friend who loved me unconditionally, how would I talk to my body? How would I think about my body?" We've done some studies where we had women write letters to their bodies from that perspective. 
  5. You have to imagine you were someone who loved yourself unconditionally, and what would you say to your body. People say the sweetest, kindest, most accepting things. They say wonderful things to their bodies. You could practice doing that. You could even write yourself that letter and carry it with you. 
  6. You can also care for your body by getting rest, by trying to manage stress the best you can. It's not always possible, but you could use things like meditation or deep breathing, or yoga. You can care for your body if you're physically able to by exercising, which is something that can make your body stronger and make your health better. And you can do all those things without having to be sexy or beautiful to do them.

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