Toxic Body Positivity?

Jena Morrow Margis, CADC – Faculty, Timberline Knolls Clinical Development Institute

The term “body love” sounds great in theory; it evokes images of people inhabiting their bodies with great joy: Dancing with abandon, smiling with delight as they leap through the air or hold a yoga pose. This imagery sells books and looks great on billboards. But, my concern is this: Are we setting people up for frustration in early recovery by promoting a goal so lofty as “body love?”

As a professional as well as someone in recovery myself, I used to wonder what it was about the concept of body love that bothered me when listening to a recovery speaker or a lecture at a conference. But then, as years went by and more individuals unburdened themselves to me about their struggles with body image, I began to hear my own thoughts come out of my clients’ mouths — and I realized mine was not an uncommon frustration.

What I often hear, both in my work at Timberline Knolls as well as in my own counseling office, is this: “Sure, it would be great to ‘love my body’ — but I am just not there yet. I feel like a failure since everyone around me is preaching body love — and I’m over here still working on body acceptance.” To which I always respond, “And that’s a great place to start.”

The more work I do with eating disorder clients, the more they teach me about having patience with the recovery process. In AA, participants are taught to take “life on life’s terms” — and we would do well to cultivate that same willingness in eating disorder recovery. Sometimes, loving one’s body is not a reachable benchmark from where that person is currently standing. In fact, I’ve found that the first conceptual benchmark often reached is that of “body neutrality.” From there, one can progress to “body acceptance.” And from that place of acceptance, though they may camp out there for years, sometimes body love is glimpsed or occasionally experienced — and maybe eventually fully realized. Maybe.

Honestly, I’d like us all to move away from the idea that loving one’s body is some sort of holy grail in eating disorder recovery. It’s not as if the person who accepts their body is getting a B in Recovery and the person who loves their body is getting an A. Rather — and this is a concept with which many of our clients (and perhaps many of us) struggle — there are no grades. No tally sheet. No scorecard. “Progress not perfection” — right? You may even have a mug or a poster in your office adorned with that phrase. But do we mean it?

As much as we want the very best for our clients, as much as WE want them to be able to love their bodies and inhabit them as freely as the models on the self esteem posters, we also must be willing to meet them where they are in their process.

If a person comes in with years of misdirected resentment projected onto her body, asking her to love that body is like asking her to draw a blue line with a red crayon. No matter how eloquently we affirm her and encourage her to draw that blue line, she will only experience frustration as she holds her red crayon and wonders why “everyone else” is able to draw blue. (Spoiler alert: Many times, “everyone else” is either faking it or having the same thoughts!)

Our clients come to us in bodies that, in many cases, carry years of traumatic memory. Years of abuse. Years of self-imposed torture. They’ve often been hated on and labeled and name-called and bullied. And often the first step is to remove the labels and help our clients to see their bodies as neutral vessels (“This is my body. I am safe in my body today.”). From here we can move into gratitude for what the body is able to do for the client. (“My body got me to session today” or “my body allows me to hug my children” or “my body allows me to lift things at my job” etc.) And this sort of neutrality and gratitude can become one of the pathways to acceptance of the body parts toward which the client has feelings that are particularly complicated.

So let us be patient with our clients. Let’s not unwittingly peddle toxic positivity in our well-meaning zealousness to see them learn to love their bodies. Of course we want that for them; we all do! But let’s discipline ourselves to slow down when necessary to meet them exactly where they are without forcing their progress.

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*The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders and not intended as endorsement by iaedp™ Foundation, Inc. or its Board of Directors.*

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