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  • Hannah Whitley, LCSW

Changing the Narrative of Fitness: Body Acceptance and Empowerment

Updated: May 1

woman hugging self, man holding heart, woman taking selfie with hearts

For many people, when we think of fitness we think of the skinny, toned, and tan social media influencers. These societal images of what a ‘fit’ body looks like are not only unrealistic but damaging as they set a standard that is often unattainable. There are many factors that influence a person's body image, including: social media, culture, one’s family/upbringing, peers and past experiences. For many of us, we may have grown up in a family where appearance is often criticized or family members are regularly dieting and trying to lose weight. This can teach children to have a negative relationship with their body. Experiences being bullied or being criticized for race or gender are also factors that impact a person's relationship with their body. Although activities such as sports, gymnastics, dance, or fitness programs have many benefits, they can also  negatively influence a person's body image if the culture of these activities is one that is overly focussed on achieving a certain body type. Furthermore, in our society we are constantly exposed to images in the media of idealized beauty and thinness, which increases body dissatisfaction.

At Mind and Body Therapeutic Connections, we are rethinking the narrative of fitness and promoting body acceptance and movement that feels good to help those with a history of negative body image, disordered eating, or unhealthy exercise habits to heal their relationships with their body and physical fitness. We talked to Jennifer Mary Elizabeth, owner of THINK Holistic Fitness and mental health intern at Mind and Body Therapeutic Connections, to learn more about body image and body acceptance. Jennifer has helped over a thousand women develop a kinder and more compassionate relationship with their bodies while fostering their amazing physical and mental strength.

Body Positivity and Body Acceptance

Body positivity is a movement that has gained traction in the past several years, which pushes back against societal ideals, and promotes self love and the idea that everybody deserves to feel good about themselves. Per Jennifer “The body positivity movement has helped those who have larger bodies and bodies who have been viewed as “flawed” to become more mainstream. This has allowed being optimistic and loving oneself to be more commonplace.”

However, some have criticized the body positivity movement, saying that it is unrealistic to feel positive about one’s body all of the time. This is where the body acceptance movement comes in. Jennifer states, “ body acceptance allows for an individual’s insecurities and flaws. For many, especially those with body dysmorphic disorder, it might not be possible to eradicate insecurities completely. Yet, individuals can understand and deal with them without turning to disordered eating or disordered exercise habits. Body acceptance says, ‘It’s okay not to love your body today”, and instead have a neutral opinion of one’s body.

People with different body types exercising

The Role of Fitness in Body Acceptance

Jennifer states that fitness can play a role in increasing body acceptance and empowerment. She states, “finding a form of exercise that resonates with an individual's values and goals, while detaching from the idea that fitness is only for weight loss, can help individuals develop a more profound, connected, and compassionate relationship with their bodies.” She goes on to say, “In my experience of owning a women-only weight training facility, clients may initially have a goal to change the shape or size of their bodies, but when they develop a new appreciation for their bodies through weight training, their values begin to change.  They begin to appreciate the strength that develops, which changes the activities they can participate in.  Clients find pride in accomplishing complicated lifts they could not do early on and realize that their bodies are worth more for their ability vs. their size or appearance. Weight training encourages a somatic connection where a client can foster embodiment.” 

Tools to move toward Body Acceptance

Finding fitness programs like Mind and Body, that are focused on body acceptance rather than selling a “summer bikini body”, can help individuals work through body image struggles. Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT) can help individuals who have a history of an unhealthy relationship with their body. According to Jennifer, “ACT can help clients discover and align with their values and act in a way that feels consistent with the person they want to be in the world.  This can be translated into a relationship with fitness that aligns with those values while detaching from the superficial external result.” For those whose view of their body, food, and/or movement is  impacted by  deeper wounds or trauma, modalities such as internal family systems, psychodynamic psychotherapy, and somatic therapies can help individuals find healing through processing trauma, getting unstuck, and becoming more aligned with one's authentic self in order to move forward.

When asked what tools she recommends to help folks move toward body acceptance, Jennifer says, “For one, I suggest that people unfollow social media content that promotes diet culture/wellness culture and follow anti-diet, HAES (Health at Every Size) and content that promotes body neutrality or body acceptance. For those looking to open their mind to new information, and challenge their current self-beliefs, Jennifer recommends reading “The Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating” by Christy Harrison, “The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love” by Sonya Renee Taylor, and “The Intuitive Eating Workbook: Ten Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food” by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Lastly, Jennifer states, “Find a therapist to help develop an embodied and intuitive connection with their body while healing past troubled and damaging narratives.”

If this article has resonated with you, and you’re wanting to explore a new relationship with your body and fitness, Mind and Body Therapeutic Connections is here to help. With personal training and semi-private fitness and yoga classes centered around body acceptance, nutrition counselors who implement Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size models, and compassionate psychotherapists who will meet you where you’re at on your journey to self acceptance and self love, we can help support you in healing your relationship with your body and living a more empowered life.

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