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What is Body Image and Debunking Diet Culture

Debunking the myths perpetuated by diet culture

by Juliet Lam Kuehnle

We’re coming off the season of “summer bodies.” As a therapist, I wholeheartedly reject the notion that there are seasonally appropriate bodies. All bodies are summer, fall, winter and spring bodies. We live in a society that, no matter your gender, perpetuates messaging around what we “should” look like and what foods we “should” be eating. This is diet culture — the pervasive belief that is centered around us feeling as though our body size and appearance is of utmost importance. It is a multibillion-dollar industry that is counting on our insecurities and comparisons to fall into its trap. We have so much work to do to unlearn this prevalent and damaging messaging and to truly grasp that our worth has nothing to do with our weight, size or shape.

So what is body image? At its simplest, body image is the thoughts and feelings we ascribe to our body, which not only includes how we perceive it but also how we assume others perceive it. The way we think or feel about our bodies can impact our behaviors and our moods. Bad hair day? Not taking a selfie. Thinking I look fluffier in a particular outfit? Going back to change. But it can also be much more impactful, completely changing the course of a day because it has tanked our mood, triggering compensatory behaviors (e.g., overexercising, restricting food) or avoiding the activity altogether.

I recently had Ashley Moser, clinical education specialist at The Renfrew Center and owner of Next Steps Counseling, on my podcast, “Who You Callin’ Crazy?!” Ashley and I met eight years ago while working at The Renfrew Center, an eating disorder treatment center. I named our podcast episode “Negotiating Your Relationship With Your Body,” because that’s just it — we are in constant renegotiation with our bodies, just as we are in any relationship.

When we consider it a relationship, we can understand the power dynamic and influence in ways that can help us move to a more neutral point of view, because change in relationships is possible. “Body image isn’t fixed and it’s very much influenced by so many factors,” Moser says. “It is something that ebbs and flows through the day, let alone a week and a lifetime. We want the relationship with the body to not be the thing that holds you back, to not keep you from the things that you want or think that you deserve. We can choose action that’s most in line with who you want to be, what you value and the life that you want for yourself. Choice, power and authority help us make changes toward body acceptance.”

Making these shifts goes beyond your own mindset. The language we use around each other is important, as well. Making comments about other people’s bodies and food choices is shaming and does not take into account people’s individual needs or histories with their food and body relationships. Because of constant societal messaging, this can be hard. “I’m empathetic because it is a big change and mind shift, and that takes a lot of time and practice for people,” Moser says.

We don’t all have to jump to “self-love,” but we can surely start with acceptance and move away from the judgment of — and assigning morality to — food, exercise and our bodies. It’s simple, but it’s not always easy. Here are some tips to help:

1) Understand that body image is just one component of your entire self-image. What other qualities make up who you are? At the end of the day, do you want to be recognized for your appearance or for some other quality?

2) Practice gratitude for what your body can do. Rather than focusing on a body part’s appearance or how it’s changed, what are you grateful that it can do?

3) Practice self-compassion and catch your inner critic or comparison to others and meet it with an affirmation or friendly reminder.

4) From Moser: ”Try to think about how you take care of and nourish your body, even if you don’t necessarily have the positive or neutral language to attach to it. Can you wear clothes that feel comfortable? Can you find lotions that have scents that make you feel calm and connected? Can you choose hair brushes that feel good on your scalp? Start off with these small concrete things that don’t cost a lot of money or time. Nurturing your body will change the relationship. Shaming, blaming and hating your body will not.” SP

Juliet Kuehnle is the owner and a therapist at Sun Counseling and Wellness. The full interview of Kuehnle’s “Who You Callin’ Crazy?!” interview featuring Chayil Johnson can be found on Instagram @yepigototherapy or wherever you stream podcasts.

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