Respect Your Body
The next principle of intuitive eating is all about developing respect for your body and honing your ability to trust and honor it.
I recommend completing this module over the course of a week, taking some time to review the material a couple of times, and to complete the exercises each day.
Start by listening to each of the talks below. When you're done, scroll down for the notes, journal exercises, and meditation.
Audio: Respect Your Body
PDF Workbook (new!)
Module 9 Notes
If you’re anything like most ex-dieters, the thing that probably brought you to your first diet was dissatisfaction with your body.
In a culture where we’re constantly bombarded with messages that our bodies are not OK as they are, it’s virtually inevitable that everyone will experience body dissatisfaction at some point in their life. And the $60 billion diet industry is right there with thousands of products, tips, and tricks that are supposed to “fix” the “problem” (which, of course, they don’t actually do).
So giving up the fight against your body is one of the most important keys to breaking free from the diet mentality for good and ensuring you don’t get sucked back in to disordered behaviors around food.
But how do you actually accomplish that? How do you start moving away from body dissatisfaction?
Tribole and Resch chose to call this principle of intuitive eating “respect your body” instead of “love your body” or even “accept your body” because it can feel impossible to jump from disliking your body to loving or even accepting it.
Indeed, it’s totally understandable if “body positivity” feels a million miles away. What you can do is practice respect for your body, even if you don’t like it right now.
When you respect your body, you’re much more able to take good care of it—which means eating according to hunger, fullness, and satisfaction; feeding yourself a balance of foods for fuel and fun; and engaging in other genuinely healthful practices such as movement, sleep, relaxation, meaningful connection with others, and medical care.
Practicing body respect can eventually lead to acceptance and even liking or full-on loving your body—but even if you don’t get to these stages of positivity, you’ll still be healthier and have a better relationship with food just by treating your body with respect.
Of course, even the idea of respecting your body can feel foreign and scary when you’ve spent years hating it and trying to change it. I get it, believe me—I used to totally resist the idea of respecting my body. I didn’t want to give up the fight against it, for fear that then I’d never actually get the body that would bring me happiness.
But the truth is, happiness isn’t contingent on having a particular type of body—and the fight against your body only serves as a roadblock to happiness. Attachment to the idea of how your body “should” be creates suffering, and the key to ending that suffering is letting go, and letting your body be exactly as it is.
The sooner you can accept that truth, the sooner you can start to live joyfully, both in your relationship with food and in your life as a whole. Genuine happiness arises when you’re fully engaged in the present moment, not fighting to change anything about yourself or the situation.
In reality, our bodies are constantly changing outside of our control anyway—our cells regenerate, our hearts beat, our lungs breathe, our digestive system extracts energy from food, we grow up and grow old. Our bodies are miraculous in their ability to function beyond our conscious control, and in their ability to carry us through our lives.
Recognizing the myriad ways our bodies support us and give us life is often a key to developing body respect, and potentially even awe or reverence for your body. You literally would not be able to comprehend my words right now without your body and its ability to perform the myriad unconscious functions it does every day.
We’ll focus more on developing appreciation for what your body does for you in the journal exercises below, so be sure to work on those when you’re done with this talk (and throughout the weeks to come).
Three Dimensions of Body Respect
Practice respecting your body in these three domains:
Your natural size and shape. Your body size and shape are governed by a genetic blueprint, just like your height, your shoe size, or the color of your eyes. Researchers have determined that genes are more than 75 percent responsible for a person’s weight and shape.
Environmental factors interact with genes, of course. For example, poor nutrition in childhood could keep you from reaching your genetic potential for height.
Similarly, we know that starvation can interact with the genes for body weight, causing people to store extra fat to protect against the next famine. This is why repeated dieting can drive your weight up above the range where it otherwise would have stayed.
But there is no known way to intentionally and permanently suppress your weight below its genetic potential. That’s why diets don’t work.
Learning these facts and truly accepting your body as it is can be liberating, but it also can bring up feelings of grief. It’s hard to give up the dream of losing weight or changing your body.
I totally get it, because on my journey to becoming an intuitive eater I went through a mourning phase myself, and I’ve seen so many of my clients go through it, too.
If you're experiencing grief at the idea of truly letting go, try the optional journal exercise below.
So we can’t control the size of our bodies, and yet society is constantly telling us we should. The “ideal” bodies of runway models that we see every day are thinner than 95% of the population—and thinner than nearly any healthy person could be.
Not only that, but nearly every image we see of supposedly “ideal” bodies in the media are digitally manipulated to remove all signs of humanity—the people in them sometimes don’t even recognize themselves! Talk about body disrespect.
The existence of these images influences how people at all body sizes see ourselves, and to develop body respect we need to continually push back against unrealistic ideas of how our bodies should look. (See the “further reading” section below for more on all of these ideas.)
Your needs for basic things like food, sleep, movement, rest, and physical contact. We’ve discussed the food component in depth during this course, so you’re already versed in ways to take care of your body’s needs for food, choose foods you enjoy without judgment, and stop eating when you feel satisfied.
We’ll also talk about movement and nutrition in the next two modules, and we’ll get into some broader aspects of self-care in Module 13.
But for now, just reflect on other ways you could show respect for your body and its needs. Do you allow yourself to ask for and receive affectionate physical contact, for example? Do you get enough sleep? What about downtime, where you just allow yourself to chill and have fun? Some areas might come easily, while others are harder—and that’s totally understandable.
Your physical strengths and limitations. Respecting your body means respecting both.
Say, for example, that your body is powerful but not very flexible. Respecting that strength would mean acknowledging your body's power even in settings where it's not the "ideal" body type (e.g. in a dance class where everyone else is smaller and more flexible). Respecting that limitation would mean that you don't push yourself to do anything unsafe (e.g. attempting to do the splits in said dance class).
Or you may be living with a chronic condition like diabetes, celiac disease, or allergies. Respecting your body's limitations means managing your condition with medication, food, or other tools and techniques, from a place of self-care rather than self-control. Respecting its strengths means acknowledging all the other things about your body that function well.
Practice self-compassion as think about your body’s limitations, and try not to get down on yourself for any of them. Recognize that you’re not alone or weird, and that it’s part of our common humanity to have physical limitations. As researcher Linda Bacon has said, “We’re all born with challenges in our genetic code—as well as in our life circumstances—and these are the challenges you were dealt.”
MEDITATION: BODY SCAN
A huge aspect of learning to respect your body is to start experiencing how it feels rather than how it looks. This meditation will help you do that.
Journal exercise 1: Thanking your Body
You may not think about this when you’re obsessing over how your body looks, but it has served you faithfully in myriad ways throughout your life. This exercise will help you reflect on those ways.
- Make a list of positive life experiences you've had. Focus on ones that are particularly meaningful to you; for example, you might include traveling to places you love, or work you've been proud of, or connecting with friends, or the birth of your children, or engaging in activities that made you feel great. List as many as you can think of.
- Now write down everything your body had to do in order to allow you to have each of these experiences. Think about anything you consciously chose to do, as well as all of the “behind-the-scenes” work that your body did on its own—things like breathing, visual and auditory processing, sensitivity to touch, etc.
- Remember that no body part works in isolation; your body’s actions are governed by billions of connections between neurons that control everything from thoughts and emotions to breathing, moving, and digesting.
- Keep writing down as many meaningful experiences as you can think of, as well as all of the conscious and unconscious ways that your body helped you have each experience.
- When you’ve made your list as comprehensive as possible, read through it aloud. After each item on the list, thank your body aloud for allowing you to have this experience.
- Read back through this list anytime you start to feel down about your body’s looks or abilities. Continue adding new experiences to the list as they arise.
Journal Exercise 2 (Optional, also included in Module 2): Mourning the Loss of the Body-Change Fantasy
If you're experiencing grief at the idea of giving up the effort to change your body, try this exercise to help process it.
- Note the feelings that arise when you think about giving up the pursuit of body change. Do you feel sadness, anger, or rebellion? Or are you bargaining with yourself (e.g. "I can still try to change my body a little without disrespecting it")? These are all normal feelings to experience during the grieving process.
- Offer yourself compassion for these feelings, as we did in the "self-compassion break" in Module 1 (you may want to give that a listen during this exercise, too):
- Say to yourself, “this is a moment of suffering," or "this hurts."
- Next, say to yourself, “suffering is a part of life” or "we all struggle in our lives," to help you recognize that you are not alone in your pain.
- Finally, put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch on your chest, and say, “may I be kind to myself.”
- Next, write down everything that you'd hoped to gain by changing your body. Note all the hopes you've pinned on body change, whether big and small—everything from finding love and happiness to finding a bathing suit you like.
- Whenever you're ready, reflect on other ways to pursue the hopes you listed, besides body change.
- For example, if one of your hopes is to find a romantic partner, you might write, "I can look for a partner who accepts and loves me for who I am, including my body." (Partners like this are out there, I promise you!)
- Or, if one of your hopes is to feel comfortable in a bathing suit, you might write "I can work on improving my body image, and eventually I'll be able to wear a bathing suit without hating my body." (I've seen this happen for many people, and I know it's possible for you, too!)
- You don't have to try any of the things on this list yet, or even believe them, but simply practice writing them down and acknowledging them as options. There are alternatives to body change that will give you what you want in life!
- Repeat this exercise as often as needed until you've moved through your grief.
- "Photoshopping: Altering Images and Our Minds," via Beauty Redefined
- "Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift" by Linda Bacon, Ph.D. and Lucy Aphramor, Ph.D, RD (Nutrition Journal 2011, 10:9)
- Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight by Linda Bacon, Ph.D. and Lucy Aphramor, Ph.D, RD
- The Body Image Workbook: An Eight-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks by Thomas Cash, Ph.D.
- Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight--and What We Can Do about It by Harriet Brown
Journal Exercise 3: Post-Lesson Reflection
In your journal, reflect on what you learned in this module.
- Are there particular aspects of respecting your body that seem more challenging for you than others?
- Did anything seem easier than you'd expected?
- How will respecting your body help you move closer to your goals and intentions?
Please provide your feedback to help us improve this module.