Content Warning: In depth discussion of eating disorders, and self harming behaviors
People love to tell you to love yourself. I don’t believe this to be necessary. One shouldn’t be required to love one’s body. However, in the interest of one’s long-term health, one should apply their energies toward not actively hating oneself or their body. This stance is generally called body neutrality. This can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. A neutral stance towards your body could mean:
1. Focusing less on food/calories:
Depending on your particular mental health situation, taking some time off of focusing on one’s food intake can be beneficial. I have struggled with both weight and food control issues for my entire life. I have had symptoms of an eating disorder since I was about 5 years old. Food consumed my life. So, I decided that I needed to do something radically different. I told myself I wouldn’t weigh myself, count calories, or focus on the perceived “quality” of my diet for a period of time. I think I said 1 month initially. This did nothing for my weight, but it has changed my relationship to my food habits.
I have found that after not focusing on my diet for what turned into a few months, I have been able to reduce occurrences of obsessive thoughts around food. When these thoughts do crop up, I am better able to acknowledge them and let them go. This is radically different than the days long rabbit hole of obsession and control that I used to fall down. I have also found that I am better able to psychologically recover from the number on the scale. My brain used to obsess over that number every time I put a piece of food in my mouth, but now I have done a lot of work, and can more readily let those thoughts pass without much distress on the extremely rare occasion I do get on a scale.
But don’t get it twisted, body neutrality is not a “cure”. I will be in recovery from an eating disorder for the rest of my life, and thus will have to maintain daily practices that keep me mentally healthy. This includes not tracking my food or weighing myself, probably ever again. I have tried to resume these practices several times since taking my first break from them. Every time I try, I find my brain falls back into similar, if slightly less intense, obsessive thought patterns. I have sworn off both of these “healthy” behaviors in the interest of healing, and this healing does not have to include learning to love my body.
2. Body neutrality can help in identifying and reducing harmful behavior patterns:
It wasn’t until I took a hard look at all of the ways in which my eating disorders were affecting my life that I realized I have an issue with body checking. Which can manifest in many ways, but for me, comes in the form of pulling, pinching, squeezing, pressing on, or punching parts of my body that I see as undesirable, sometimes to the point of pain or bruising. For example, every time I looked in the mirror to brush my teeth my eyes lasered in on the pockets of fat and skin that have collected around my hips. For years, I would grab and squeeze and pull at this part of my body all while my head was calling my body the worst things. It wasn’t until I consciously decided to call these thoughts out that I realized how messed up they were. So what if that’s what your hips look like right now? They looked different in the past, and will look even more different in the future. Nothing is forever, so why obsess? For me, body checking is a habit that my brain has convinced me does something good. It doesn’t. It stems from severe childhood trauma that I have yet to process. I only know this because I finally took a step back from the mirror, and the scale, and the calorie counter.
3. Using certain Buddhist meditation techniques can support body neutrality:
I improve my ability to more fully inhabit my body by practicing breath control and passive observance of my thoughts. Breath control is simply focusing on your breathing and only your breathing. I usually try to breathe in a specific pattern such as 5 seconds in – 5 sec hold – 5 sec out – 5 sec hold. This is known in the military as “box breathing” and I have found that alternating this pattern with some regular, controlled in – out breaths can help when my nervous system is fried.
Passive observance of thoughts has been more challenging to implement than breath control techniques. Passive observance is exactly what it sounds like. While sitting quietly one simply tries to fully bring their conscious attention to nothing but the present moment. But at the same time, one should not try to control any thoughts that may arise. One should simply observe that one is having a thought or feeling and return their attention to the present. This means not exploring any lines of inquiry or delving deeper into any feeling that one may be having. Instead, you simply let them exist around you like water around a boulder. On the first few attempts, passive observance can be incredibly difficult to maintain for more than a few minutes at a time. But with practice you will likely see an improvement in your ability to feel present in your body, without positive or negative judgement, which is known as body neutrality.
This practice can also help introduce your brain to the concept that not every thought or feeling deserves a reaction. Simply remembering this can help a nervous system that has been primed by trauma to remain hypervigilant, and thus always ready to produce some kind of reaction.
Nothing presented here is new, or my original idea. Each one of the above is simply a technique or tip that helps me with my personal mental wellness. And don’t take this article to mean that I have an infallible recipe that guarantees this wellness. I grapple with insecurity, doubt, and downright hurtful thoughts on the daily. I don’t like my current weight, but I am working on not actively hating myself for that. Body neutrality has helped me learn to let good enough be good enough. And I guess that will have to be good enough!
If you are interested in some quality tips on how to actively love your body, complement this with an article by guest author Emory Oakley, or with an exploration of the myriad ways love reveals itself to us in our day-to-day lives.