Body Respect: How the heck are we supposed to respect our bodies?
When it comes to options for how we feel about our bodies, most of us are aware of the body hatred and body positivity options. Some are aware of body neutrality, where the focus is not whether we love or don’t love our body’s appearance, but rather the purpose of our body, which is to allow us to live.
For most of us, body hatred is a given and body positivity feels impossible. Body neutrality is more conceivable but still very challenging. It is really freaking hard to have a decent relationship with our bodies!
I’ve got a fourth option to consider: body respect. Body respect is a part of body positivity and body neutrality. It is also a stand-alone option that might be a tad easier to practice.
I recently had someone ask me the difference between body respect, which I was preaching at the time, and body appreciation. I fumbled on the response – what is the difference between appreciating and respecting your body?
As I do, I consulted the dictionary. "Respect" has a number of definitions, many of which center around admiration, which feels akin to appreciation. But then I found a definition that felt useful. I shared it with this person, and she told me I needed to write about it, so here we are.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “respect” as:
"a feeling that something is right or important and you should not attempt to change it or harm it."
So, you can respect someone else’s decision or opinion (without agreeing with it) by recognizing that it is important and that you should not attempt to change it.
Similarly, you can respect your body by recognizing that it is right and important, and you should not attempt to change or harm it.
Let’s unpack that challenging statement, shall we?
Your body is right and important.
I bet you disagree on at least one count. We are taught to believe our bodies are wrong. We are taught to believe our bodies are wrong. Every doctor who has weighed you is suggesting that there is a “wrong” or “unhealthy” weight (in the large majority of cases, there isn’t). Same with every ad and institution, and person who has tried to sell you a weight-loss product – likely including your gym. Every time you got the message that you would be better if you were thinner, you were being taught that your body is wrong.
We are not taught that bodies are supposed to be diverse in weight (just like in height, hair, skin color, eye color – we accept it everywhere else!). We are not taught that not all bodies are supposed to be thin. We are not taught that weight is not an indicator of health. We are not taught that you can be healthy and fit and fat (or that you can be unhealthy, unfit, and thin).
Your body is not wrong.
We are also taught that our bodies are not important. We’ve learned that our body’s functional needs are much less important than what we want it to look like. We’re taught to ignore most of our body’s signals: we are taught to disregard our hunger and our cravings as if they’re “bad.” We are told to ignore fatigue and pain and just “push through.” We are taught that what we want to weigh is even more important than our genetics.
If we believe our body’s genetics and needs and the signals it sends us are irrelevant, we believe our body is not important, right? We’ve learned to listen to diet culture instead of our bodies. We aren’t taught why our bodies need fat and carbs. We aren’t taught the damage that eating only 1200 kcal a day will do to our bodies. Do you know roughly how much energy (e.g., how many calories) your organs alone need to keep you alive?? (Hint: it’s more than 1200 kcal.)
It is an understatement to say that your body is important.
Let’s move on to not wanting to change or harm our bodies. Millions of us want to change our bodies from the time we are young. We have been taught that we should change our bodies if they are outside of the acceptable level of thinness. Most of us believe we will be healthier if we make our bodies smaller.
Now we’re talking about harm. It turns out that 98% of intentional weight loss attempts (i.e., diets) do not work. This means that although many people do initially lose weight, the vast majority of us gain it all back within 1-5 years (and for most of us, even more). Not because we lack willpower, but because our bodies are biologically programmed to not allow long-lasting weight loss; even our bodies know that weight loss is not a good thing.
The weight cycling that happens when we lose weight and gain it back (multiply that by the number of diets you’ve been on) is where the harm comes in. The emotional harm is obvious: dieting negatively impacts self-esteem and leads to eating disorders, self-loathing, and depression. The physical harm is just being understood. Much of the harm previously attributed to “obesity” (this word promotes weight stigma) seems actually to be due to weight cycling. Weight cycling causes inflammation and puts us at increased risk of chronic diseases, hypertension, insulin resistance, decreased cardiac health, and shorter lifespan.
When we see our bodies as wrong, we are causing ourselves harm. When we see our bodies as unimportant, we are causing ourselves harm. And absolutely, when we go on diets (ANY diet), we are causing ourselves harm.
Disrespecting our bodies is harmful. So how do we stop? How do we respect our bodies?
Practice seeing your body as right and important. “Important” might be the easier starting point. What does it mean to practice seeing your body as important? It means that you listen to your body and take it seriously. Take your hunger seriously and eat. Take your fullness seriously. Notice when you’re thirsty and have something to drink. Take that pain in your back seriously. Rest when you are tired (I know, but you can take at least a few minutes).
To practice seeing your body as “right,” consider the fact that your body and its genetics know better than anyone else outside of you what your body is supposed to look like. Consider the fact that bodies are not all supposed to be thin or look the same, and that fighting against your body’s natural size causes more harm than benefit. Consider the fact that you can be healthy at your current body size.
Practice not wanting to change or harm your body.
Imagine what it would be like if you did respect your body. Can you get a sense of how it would feel to let go of all the energy you put into wanting your body to be different?
There are many actions you can take to help you stop wanting to change your body: Read the research (see Resources, below) to understand that it is harmful to try to lose weight – this goes against everything we have been taught. Stop weighing yourself immediately. Throw away your scale – that number literally says nothing important about you, and the act of weighing yourself impacts your self-esteem. Stop saying mean things about your body (including that it should be different), whether it’s out loud or to yourself. Speak about it as if it is important and right. Stop grabbing your fat in a mean way. Be kind to your body. Touch it gently.
It is not going to be a quick or easy journey to get to body respect, and it will likely be an ongoing effort. But there are concrete actions you can take; there is a path. Body respect is liberating and empowering – standing on our own side always is – and it is possible.
Your body deserves respect.