I once worked with a woman named Ella, who told me that every morning she would routinely look at fitspo and then stand in front of the mirror and pick her body apart, in an effort to get “motivated” to work out.
Horrified, I asked Ella how effective this technique was. She said sometimes it worked because it made her want to change her habits immediately, but sometimes it made her feel so bad about herself that she would skip the gym and spend the whole day binging instead.
Despite those iffy results, she maintained the belief that if she were to stop this self-shaming ritual, she would *never* work out, and never lose weight.
Somewhere along the way, Ella had picked up on the idea that the best way to get “motivated” was to feel super terrible about herself.
This is understandable, since shame-as-motivation shows up everywhere from fat-shaming images in doctors offices, to Jillian Michaels screaming at fat people, to pretty much all advertising. Theoretically, the idea is that a person who feels sufficiently like garbage will do something to change.
The problem with this idea – especially when it comes to habits of health and fitness – is that it is horribly, woefully, and dangerously false.
Feelings of shame, humiliation, and negativity actually tend to make a person more likely to give up on the very behavioral changes they were trying to get motivated to do.
Let’s look at how this works in practice.
Shame as a Motivator – Does It Work?
Wanting to escape the shame of your grossness as quickly as possibly, you start a strict diet plan and force yourself to exercise daily in ways you don’t enjoy. You focus on being “perfect” with your plan to make up for being “bad” for so long, check in daily with how you look, and beat yourself up for not changing faster.
Within a few weeks you can’t maintain the strict diet or exercise plan anymore because you feel too hungry and miserable, and you’re still so far from the finish line, so really, what’s the point?
You binge on all the foods you promised yourself you wouldn’t eat, and then figure since the plan is ruined anyway you may as well stop exercising too, and you end up exactly where you started, only more frustrated with yourself.
Been There, Done That
Let me say that again: You are not a failure. You just happened to pick a plan destined to fail.
There are many reasons shaming yourself into long-term health and fitness success doesn’t work, from the physiological (like how both dieting and exercising tend to make you super hungry) to the psychological (like how strict rules like “I have to work out every day” or “I can’t eat sugar” bring out your inner rebel and make you want to do the exact opposite thing immediately).
The truth is, our bodies and brains just weren’t built to be controlled under the strict tyranny of shame. Instead we’re wired to blossom under, and lean toward, the sunlight of compassion, acceptance, and positivity.
A Kinder, Gentler Story
Despite what many people seem to think, accepting your body the way it is isn’t about giving up or settling, and it definitely doesn’t mean you can’t change anything! Accepting your body is about simply refusing to attach a story about how your current body means anything bad or negative about you.
Self-compassion goes a step further, and means that you offer yourself the same kindness, sympathetic concern, warmth, and understanding you would offer your best friend or a child.
Approaching yourself with compassion means recognizing that there is nothing wrong with you. It means acknowledging that you’re doing your best, and that you’re in good company – other people have felt how you feel and struggled how you’re struggling, so you’re not alone.
So let’s take a look at what the decision to make some changes from a place of self-acceptance and self-compassion might look like.
Acceptance and Compassion as a Motivator to Health and Hotness
With curiosity instead of judgement, you examine how you got here and realize that over the last few years you’ve let self-care slide because you were focusing on other priorities – work and family. Understandable!
You give yourself permission to move slowly in the direction you desire, as a way of bringing even *more* energy to both of those important parts of your life. You layer in one new healthy behavior at a time, aiming for progress rather than perfection. You pay attention to how these new behaviors make you feel, and remember that occasionally slipping up is part of the process.
Over time, you layer in more and more healthy behaviors, focusing on how much better they make your life and celebrating your successes. One day you wake up and realize you’re in pretty damn good shape and that you’re healthy and thriving.
Obviously this scenario is more successful in the long term than the first one, but doesn’t it also sound a helluva lot more pleasant? Exactly.
With endlessly layered and conflicting beauty and body standards, along with increasing pressure to look “flawless,” our society encourages us to see certain kinds of bodies (lean, fit, thin, muscular) as good, right, and worthy of love/attention, while other bodies (pretty much everything else) as bad, gross, wrong, and unworthy.
So is it any wonder that when your average Joe or Jane takes up a new health or fitness plan, they’re coming at it from a place of fear, shame, negativity, and a desire to “fix” what’s wrong with them?
It’s easy to see why so many people fail to reach their long-term goals, think they hate exercise, have disordered relationships with food, and generally blame themselves for not having enough “willpower.”
While this isn’t something that will be changed overnight (in fact, this may take years of work, if you’ve been deeply entrenched in shame your whole life!), here are a few places to start.
1. Focus on how you feel, instead of how you look.
Instead of spending your mental energy on what you want to change externally about your body, focus your attention on how you feel inside, and how you want to feel instead.
Then, pay attention to how you feel as you make changes and how you feel after making each change for a few weeks. How do you feel when you go for a 20-minute walk every day? How do you feel when you don’t?
Tune inward to the immediate changes in how you feel with each behavior, instead of outward to things like weight, size, or appearance.
2. Dismantle the hierarchy of bodies.
A lot of the shame we feel about our bodies comes from old, deep beliefs about which bodies are good/desirable and which are bad/undesirable. I call this the “hierarchy of bodies.”
Marketers and advertisers capitalize on (and even create) this hierarchy in order to make money, so it can seem more like fact than opinion, but think about other eras of history! Fat, pale, small-breasted, and even hairy women have all been the height of beauty in different cultures and times. Today’s body hierarchy is all about prioritizing thin, lean, fit bodies, but those bodies are not objectively better than any other kind of bodies.
Start to challenge your thoughts and beliefs about which bodies are “good” and which are “bad,” by asking where you learned them, and if they’re really true.
3. Uncouple health from thinness/ leanness.
Many people assume that getting healthier means losing weight and that if you’re losing weight you must be getting healthier. This is NOT true.
Health doesn’t look any particular way, and it does us all a disservice to assume that lean/thin is healthier than average/fat, because not only does it reinforce the hierarchy of bodies (aka some bodies and acceptable and some are not), it also puts our focus on external feedback like size, weight, and numbers, instead of how you feel!
Get educated about the fat bias and fatphobia that are so common in our culture by reading books like Health at Every Size, Intuitive Eating, or Body of Truth to help yourself uncouple these two unrelated concepts.
4. Change your self talk.
Bring awareness to these negative self-talk messages, and interrupt them with something neutral or positive. If you’re not ready to replace “my body is so gross” with “my body is beautiful and amazing!” that’s ok, don’t force it. Try replacing it with something neutral like “my body gets me where I need to go,” or “it’s ok for me to look like this.”
Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with us, we have to start focusing on what’s right about us, refusing to buy into the narrative that some bodies are “good” and some are “bad,” and offering ourselves the same kind of compassion, kindness, and understanding that we offer everyone else.
If you do this, you might discover that you naturally want to eat more nutritious food, move your body more, get more sleep, drink more water, or otherwise take better care of yourself – all because both you know that both you and your body are worthy of love, care, and respect, and that you deserve to thrive and feel your best!
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