Interview has been edited for clarity.
What is positive body image?
According to Dr. Engeln, it has to do with how you think about your body and how you feel about your body, but also how you behave toward your body and what you do for your body.
She explains: “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.”
Dr. Engeln says that to have positive body image you have to listen to your body. This means you try to be in tune with what it needs while also feeling compassion towards your body. You have to both forgive and accept your body to have positive body image:
“Most importantly, 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 sometimes,” says Dr. Engeln.
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.”
It’s OK to not feel beautiful all the time, as long as you’re still grateful for your body and take good care of it. Dr. Engeln says:
“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,” says Dr. Engeln.
5 ways to be kind to your body
Here are Dr. Engeln’s tips to be kind to your body, regardless of how you feel about it in the moment:
- Pay close attention to what it needs. You know what makes your body feel good long term and what makes it feel bad. It’s important to consider whether something that will make you feel good right now will make you feel bad later, like eating something unhealthy.
- Make a list of the things you’re grateful for. Dr. Engeln says to ask yourself questions like: “What has my body done for me today? What did it allow me to do? Did I communicate with other people using my body? Did it take me somewhere? Did I go for a walk? Did it allow me to see something interesting or hear something beautiful?”
- Think of your body as an instrument. Your body is something that allows you to explore the world. 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. When you’re pregnant, your body is doing all kinds of miraculous processes to create a baby. And that has nothing to do with how you look. It’s all about appreciating the functions of your body.
- Practice positive self-talk. If you’re feeling stuck thinking negative things about your body, try to talk to yourself like you would talk to a best friend you love unconditionally. Then incorporate that into how you think about your body.
- Get rest and manage stress. It’s not always possible, but you could use things like meditation or deep breathing, or yoga to reduce your stress. If you’re able to, exercise is another way to care for your body and improve your health.
The best part: You can do all these things without having to be sexy or beautiful.