When body love is appearance-focused, it’s not really helping our kids.
I recently messaged all the teenagers I knew on Instagram to ask them what they thought it means to love your body. I wasn’t exactly surprised by their answers; they matched the chatter I’ve been hearing on social media. According to the teens I contacted, loving your body means…
- Being comfortable with your imperfections
- Loving who you are no matter what you look like
- Accepting your flaws
- Loving your body no matter what others think of it
- Liking how you look and not worrying about what you look like compared to others, or your size.
- Being comfortable with how you look.
At first glance, these seem like positive, appropriate replies. For sure, this version of “body love” is preferable to teens feeling shameful and judgmental about their bodies.
But the answers these teens gave me don’t truly describe a healthy reality for teens, or anyone else. And they reflect misguided attitudes about “body love” in our culture at large.
The Problem with “ Accepting Your Flaws”
The problem with “accepting your flaws” or “loving your size” is that these versions of body love are rooted in our body’s appearance, and they assume the existence–somewhere, belonging to someone–of a “perfect body.”
But this doesn’t jive with a healthy attitude about bodies at all. Here’s why.
All bodies are different. If you proudly proclaim that your body is “the perfect size,” what message does that send to others with very different body shapes and sizes? Therapist Kim Daily said, “Teens are constantly measuring themselves against others (much like the rest of us). Noticing differences is not harmful. It’s when we apply values to the differences and then have an inflated or deflated view of ourselves.”
All bodies change. Year after year, no body stays the same. If you like how you look and your body changes, “body love” rooted in appearance can fade.
All bodies need care. When we focus on appearance before health, “body love” can become an excuse to eat poorly and skip out on exercise.
All this is to say: we need a new definition of body love. We need a message for our teens (and ourselves) that provides a better compass for us as we strive for a lifetime of real wellness.
We need the acceptance of our body’s appearance to be a RESULT of true body love… NOT the foundation.
What Does Real Body Love Look Like?
Real body love means appreciating the things your body can DO, and taking care of it in a nourishing way. These are the new lessons for body love we can and should start teaching our teens:
Feed your body the fuel it needs
When you love your body, you give it the optimal building blocks to thrive. You don’t stress your system by overeating OR restricting food. If you have an allergy or sensitivity, you take care to avoid the food that makes you sick. If you have a chronic illness, you eat to maximize your chances for staying healthy.
Move your body
When you love your body, you move it! Exercise releases endorphins our bodies crave. It improves circulation, heart health, and mental health, too. Can it change how you look? Maybe, or maybe not. But that doesn’t matter. Exercise is a celebration of what your body is capable of. And it feels good!
Sleep the right amount for your body
When you love your body, you make sleep a priority. You don’t stay up crazy late if you know you have to get up for school or work in the morning. You pay attention to how your body feels when you sleep too little, and sleep too much, and you take care to find balance in your schedule, so you feel your best.
Avoid harm to your body from drugs or other addictive substances
When you love your body, you say “no” to substances that do harm to your body. You keep your body safe and strong so you can accomplish what you want out of life!
Did you notice? My interpretation of body love has NOTHING to do with physical traits. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with accepting how you look. It’s just a reminder that loving your body is more than skin deep.
I want to end with a little story about someone I know. One of my neighbors (who truly honors and loves her body) was standing outside with me one summer day. She had been telling me about some stress and struggle she was facing, when she paused to apologize to her shoulders for being stressed out and making them so tense! She didn’t say, “Shoulders, you’re misshapen and pudgy, but I love you anyway.” She was literally talking to her shoulders with love and compassion.
It might seem funny, but it’s a perfect example of how body love– real body love–serves us best when we see our bodies not as something external for us to appraise, but as part of ourselves, worth honoring and protecting.
That’s true health, worth striving for!