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Being Thin Is Not a Value

February 22, 2022

Getting unstuck from negative body image with ACT by observing body image experiences with compassion and taking action toward your values.

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Diana Hill, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, international trainer, and sought-out speaker on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and compassion

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How To Get Unstuck From Negative Body Image With ACT

Key points:

  • Observe and label body image experiences for what they are.
  • Turn toward body image thoughts, memories, and feelings with compassion.
  • Take action toward your values.

I learned years ago “the dead person’s rule” from ACT co-founder Kelly Wilson. It goes like this: If a dead person can do it better than you, it’s not a value. A dead person can be thinner than you, have fewer wrinkles than you, and thighs that don’t jiggle. So, what is a value? Values are qualities of action that demonstrate what you care about.

When clients tell me that they “value” being thin. I ask them, “What would you be doing that you aren’t doing now, if you were thin? Who would you talk to and where would you go? What life would you build?”

Why We Get Stuck in Negative Body Image Cycles

It’s not your fault if you are stuck in a cycle of negative body image. You are doing everything that society has told you to do to be happy. We are inundated with messages that we will feel better when we have a flatter stomach, unblemished skin, or straighter hair. Many of these messages come from white European standards of beauty (and oppression) and lead us into cycles of “fixing” our bodies, only to feel worse about them when we don’t measure up to these ideal standards.

There is a term in economics called Goodhart’s Law, which is often stated as, when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. When walking 10K steps a day becomes your target, it ceases to be a good measure if it results in you walking in circles in your living room at 10:00 at night. (Yes, this happened to my husband.) When having thighs that don’t touch becomes your target, it can lead you to fixate on your legs, instead of using them to enjoy a hike with your friends.

We get stuck in negative body image cycles because we have come to believe that our bodies are problems to be solved, and that if we solve the problem of our bodies, we will feel better. Much like a bird flying against a window, we keep hitting our heads on what we think is the way out, only to do it again. Trying to fix and control your body can keep you in a cycle of dissatisfaction.

Body Image Flexibility

If you want to shift your body image paradigm, you need to do something differently. Emily Sandoz and colleagues define body image flexibility as: The ability to embrace a present-moment experience of potentially distressing emotions and cognitions related to the body, particularly when doing so allows for pursuit of life values. (Sandoz, Webb, Rogers, & Squires, 2019).

Instead of trying to fix your body, what would it be like to be present with your body and accept the thoughts, sensations, and memories that come with it? Acceptance does not mean you have to approve of your body, or even like it. It means that you open up to your experience in your body, as it is now, and stop resisting what is. (I explore what this means in an episode of the Your Life in Process podcast.)

Many folks have body image shame that dates back to early memories of being teased, not fitting in, or praised for their looks. With body image flexibility, you…:

  • Observe and label body image experiences for what they are: “This is a moment of body shame.”
  • Turn toward body image thoughts, memories, and feelings with compassion: “I can stand by my own side with kindness in this moment.”
  • Take action toward your values: “I will move forward toward what I care about, even with this memory and feeling.”

Questions to explore body-image values

If you are unclear about what it means to live your values in relationship to body image, there are a few questions I find helpful to discuss with clients. In the service of being flexible, turn toward the uncomfortable questions with curiosity.

  • What was the most meaningful moment of this week? Often it’s the small moments of our lives that bring the most satisfaction. When you consider a meaningful moment from yesterday, what does it say about what you care about? What were you doing that made it meaningful? How can you create more moments like this, even with the body you have right now?
  • Who do you envy? Comparison is a common reason why people get stuck in negative body image. Your brain is evolutionarily designed to compare yourself to others, and society is set up to stimulate that cycle. Instead of just saying, “stop comparing yourself,” try looking at the values behind your envy. Who do you envy and what do you envy about them? What does this envy say about what you care about? How can you act on that care, even if your body never changed?
  • What do you regret? In the Power of Regret, Daniel Pink explores how regret can be a great indicator of what is most important to us. Many of us have regrets around how we have treated our body. According to Pink’s research, regret falls into 4 main categories: Foundational regrets (I wish I wore more sunscreen); Connection regrets (I wish I allowed for more intimacy); Moral regrets (I wish I didn’t self-harm); and Boldness regrets (I wish I danced at that wedding). When we are inflexible in our body image, it can lead us to miss out on our lives. What do you regret? How can you use this regret to move toward a more fulfilling life, in the body you have?

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