This is the eighth post in a 10-part series looking at the principles of Intuitive Eating. Last week’s post was on Principle 7: Cope With Your Emotions With Kindness.
It’s hard to make peace with food, honor your hunger and fullness cues, and all the rest, if you’re at war with your body. That’s why the eighth principle of Intuitive Eating is “Respect Your Body.”
This principle asks you to accept your genetic blueprint. After all, we don’t go around trying to make our feet smaller so we can wear a smaller size shoe, so why do we expect to be able to force our bodies to be a smaller size than they are meant to be?
When you respect your body (and no, this doesn’t necessarily mean loving your body), you can feel better about who you are. It’s hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic about or critical of your size and shape. All bodies deserve dignity.
Why does body respect matter?
- If you are at war with your body, it’s hard to be at peace with yourself and with food.
- Body vigilance begets Body worry which leads to food worry and that fuels the cycle of dieting
The authors of “Intuitive Eating” say that when we criticize our bodies, we are basically gaslighting ourselves. Specifically, when other people judge our bodies or say unkind things about our bodies, and we blame our bodies instead of blaming the judgmental or rude people, we are putting the blame in the wrong place.
The problem isn’t with our bodies, it’s with fatphobic culture, which drives both diet culture and weight stigma.
A brief look at weight stigma
Weight bias and weight stigma are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are distinctions between the two terms.
- Weight bias is negative, prejudiced attitudes and beliefs about weight. This may take the form of stereotypes, such as laziness, lack of motivation or lack of self-discipline.
- Weight stigma is directing that prejudice towards individuals based on their weight. This can happen across the weight spectrum. For example, someone with a BMI in the “normal” range could be subjected to stigma if their family or peer group idealizes a very thin frame. This can also happen in so-called weight-dependent sports such as gymnastics, wrestling and figure skating.
When weight stigma is perpetuated by others including friends, family, co-workers, or strangers, it’s known as external stigma. When weight stigma is self-directed, its’ known as internalized stigma, which can be especially harmful.
Regardless of the source, the driving force behind weight stigma is to motivate individuals who don’t meet personal or societal ideals for body size to alter their behavior to avoid this lack of conformity, as well as avoid the stigma itself. However, this isn’t what usually happens.
Internalized weight stigma
Research suggests that internalized weight stigma is a stronger predictor of poor physical and mental health than simply experiencing stigma.
When someone internalizes weight stigma, they are more vulnerable to developing depression, poor body image, low self-worth and a greater drive for thinness that can lead to unhealthy eating behaviors, including binge eating disorder.
Looking at physical health, when individuals experience weight-based stigma, and in turn start to self-stigmatize, research suggests this translates to increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and related health conditions.
The reasons for this are complex, but the main drivers of the negative health effects of weight stigma are increased stress, which in turn can cause chronic inflammation through the body and increased storage of fat around the abdominal organs. If internalized weight stigma leads to stress eating, dangerous dieting methods, and poor self-care habits, then that, too, can contribute to health risks.
Here’s something else important to keep in mind. When people try to lose weight and fail, especially if they place an extremely high value on weight and body shape, this may strengthen internalized stigma. But even with “successful” weight loss, research shows that internalized stigma may not lessen.
There’s also this idea that if someone feels bad about their body or their weight, that this will lead to positive changes—with weight loss being the supposed positive change. But that is simply not what happens. Stigma and shame are never effective motivators for positive change. You know what is? Self-compassion.
Body image vs. embodiment
There’s a lot of talk about how to cultivate better body image, but I prefer the term embodiment. Why? Because body image often implies looking at ourselves from the outside in, as if our bodies are objects.
Embodiment deals with how we inhabit our bodies, so we’re considering our bodies as a subject. (I wrote an entire blog post about this, concept last year.) The concept of embodiment, I think, syncs up better with not just intuitive eating, which involves tuning into to our hunger and fullness cues as well as to our emotional states, but to how it feels to move our bodies, which I’ll talk about in next week’s blog post.
Just as I think the term embodiment is more powerful and affirming than body image, I think the idea of body respect, which is the term used in Intuitive Eating, is more practical than body positivity.
Even people who feel pretty good about their bodies don’t feel positive about them all the time. That’s why it’s often easier to cultivate respect for our bodies and the things they do for us every moment of every day, like breathing and keeping our heart beating. The main principles of body respect are also highly compatible with being embodied:
- Your body deserves to be fed.
- Your body deserves to be treated with dignity.
- Your body deserves to be dressed comfortably and in a style you like.
- Your body deserves to be touched affectionately, with your consent and with respect.
- Your body deserves to move comfortably, to the extent it is possible.
Accepting your genetic blueprint
If changing the size and shape of your body remains a primary goal, it will get in the way of taking the actions and developing the behaviors needed to care for your physical and mental health in authentic ways — in other words, in ways that research shows improve health even when there are no changes in weight, and in ways that resonate with you.
The bottom line is that respecting your body means taking care of your health, but it doesn’t mean shrinking your body.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, part of body respect is making peace with your genetics. Your genetically determined weight is the weight range your body will maintain with “normal” intuitive eating and “normal” movement.
Unfortunately, the way many people eat is not normal, due to years of dieting, and the weight many people idealize is a weight that (if it can be achieved at all) can only be achieved under great duress — in other words, via restrictive eating and an amount of exercise that’s in excess of what is needed for good health.
Your genetically determined weight may not be the weight you have in mind, and this is where learning to respect your body and become more positively embodied can help to bridge the gap between the weight you wish for and the weight your body is actually supposed to be.
Next week, I’ll talk about Principle 9: Movement—feel the difference.
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Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health.