Learning to love your body when you really don't is no easy task, and it's not as simple as the body positivity movement can sometimes make it seem.
Going from "I hate my body" to something more positive will take time and conscious effort. Here are a few small, concrete ways to start:
Commit to it
"You have already started," sex therapist Cyndi Darnell tells mbg. "The fact that you acknowledge you want to change is how you start to change. Congratulations. Acknowledgment is 50% of the labor."
The first step to changing how you feel about your body is committing to the change. You need to acknowledge that you have a negative relationship with your body and that you want to have a positive, healthy one. Tell yourself, I want to have a positive relationship with my body.
And make sure you mean it!
Ditch the narrative that looking a certain way will make you happier
Ask yourself this: Why do you want to look different?
Most likely, it's because you want other people to like you, and you believe looking a certain way will make you more loved and accepted.
"We are sold this idea that looking a certain way will bring us approval, affection, love, respect, value, etc.," Kara Loewentheil, J.D., a former women's rights lawyer who now coaches women dealing with insecurity, tells mbg. "But the whole thing is a myth. Looking a certain way will not make you happy. Look at all the literal fashion models with drug addictions and eating disorders!"
Before you can learn to love your body, you need to relinquish the idea that you wouldn't feel sad, lonely, or rejected if you looked different. "Human life involves beauty and suffering for everyone," Loewentheil explains. "The more you can really internalize this idea, the less attached you will be to meeting certain conventional beauty norms because you will understand that they will never deliver what you want. Peace and happiness have to come from inside."
This isn't to say that size discrimination, racism, and ableism aren't real—yes, unfortunately, these physical factors do affect how people treat us. But bending over backward to meet their impossible ideals will not help you feel better about yourself. Is your body the problem, or are the ideals the problem?
Instead of continuing to try to fit into a system that pits you against your own body, what if you adopted a new way of thinking that designates you as valuable exactly the way you are? What if you stopped trying to appease others at your own expense?
Try repeating this to yourself: I deserve to be loved and accepted in this exact body. I will no longer entertain people or messages that tell me otherwise.
Stop judging other people's bodies, period
For you to learn to love your body, you need to stop judging other people based on their bodies. When you criticize another person's body, you send the message—both to them and to yourself—that bodies are a valid measure of a person's value. Quit it. You deserve to be loved and accepted in your exact body. So does everyone else.
Cleanse your social media feeds of anything that makes you feel bad about your body
Those super-skinny, shiny, glamorous-looking celebrities and reality TV contestants you follow on Instagram? You might think they're harmless to scroll by, but research shows us time and time again that exposure to media featuring unrealistic body types is linked to lower body image2. Take control of what images and messages you allow into your brain.
"It's my job to make sure I'm filtering those things and that I'm being very mindful and proactive and putting up boundaries around myself," sexuality doula and sex educator Ev'Yan Whitney tells mbg. "I get to choose which messages that I internalize, and I get to create boundaries around the people, places, and things that take me out of my body."
Sexologist Megan Stubbs, Ed.D., recommends curating your social media feed: "Look at the accounts you are following. Do they make you feel empowered? Delete and add new accounts as necessary because what you surround yourself with influences you, no matter how immune you may think you are to those images."
Follow social media accounts that show bodies that look like yours
If you're plus-size, start inundating yourself with images of plus-size people being happy, confident, sexy, and on display. If you're a person of color, up your intake of content featuring black and brown joy. Curating your media consumption can make a huge difference in your psyche and your perception of what makes a beautiful body.
Get to know your body
To love your body, you must first know your body.
"The body is the physical expression of emotions, and this has nothing to do with how it looks or how old it is," Darnell explains. "Once you are familiar with your body's language (not body language), you are better able to know what it's trying to tell you. Slowing down to hear your body's messages is how you develop compassion—which is a type of love."
There are so many ways to get to know your body on a deeper level. For example, if you've got a uterus, try tracking your menstrual cycle in more detail. Consider trying something like a menstrual cup to manage your periods, since the process of inserting and removing a cup requires you to feel out your cervix with your fingers, see and feel your menstrual blood, and generally get intimate with your body. Or you might consider trying a form of exercise or movement that requires a lot of control of the body—belly dancing, weightlifting, or even yoga.
One particularly powerful way of getting embodied is through doing a mindfulness exercise called a body scan. Breathe slowly in and out, close your eyes, and then focus your attention totally on the top of your head. What sensations are you feeling up there? Any tension? Tingles? Pain? After a few moments, move down to your face and do the same. Then to your neck. Then to your shoulders. Then your chest. And so on and so forth all the way down to your feet.
Darnell's suggestion: "Right now, where are you, what are you sitting on? Notice how it feels...hard, soft, cold, warm, damp, sticky, etc. What parts of your body is it connecting with? What are your feet doing right now? What about the inside of your cheek? This is how you tune into your body."
You'd be surprised how much getting to know your body better can make it so much easier to love.
Do something that makes your body feel good every day
Make it a habit to do something good for your body every day. Maybe that's setting aside a few minutes to just give yourself a hand massage. Maybe it's putting on your softest, fuzziest pair of socks to wear around the house. Maybe it's doing a refreshing face mask or putting on a full face of makeup for no reason other than it makes you feel good.
This is all about training your brain to associate your body with positive feelings. Make it a habit to shower your body with love, and it'll start to feel natural and instinctual over time.
Feed your senses
"Any time that I am feeling some type of way about my body, I'm usually disconnected from it and I'm usually disconnected from the pleasurable experience of having a body—of being able to taste delicious things, to see beautiful sights, to hear things," Whitney explains. "Our bodies are primed for pleasure. The whole purpose of us having a body is for us to feel good."
Feed your senses, she recommends. Really engage with them. "That creates body connection, and that body connection helps disintegrate the body hate."
Masturbation is a powerful way to get in touch with our bodies and remind ourselves of all the pleasure our bodies can give us. "This can be the turning point for a lot of people when it comes to making peace with their bodies," Stubbs explains. "Understanding that you are worthy of sexual pleasure is so powerful. You, in whatever body shape, right now, can and deserve to experience pleasure."
There are so many benefits of masturbation, so do it often. Treat yourself to good sex toys and indulgent self-pleasure rituals. When your body is a tool for orgasmic highs and rushes of oxytocin, it becomes a lot easier to love.
Do new things with your body
"When you challenge your body to do something new, something outside of your comfort zone, you get to see your body in a new light," sex and relationship therapist Vanessa Marin tells mbg. "You get to appreciate what it's capable of."
She suggests trying different types of exercise, dancing, exploring intuitive eating, or trying a boudoir photo shoot.
Try intentional, sensual dancing
Dancing—intentionally, by yourself—can be a powerful way to reconnect with your body.
"There's something about just letting our bodies move the way our bodies want to move, without judgment, without trying to do any choreography," Whitney says. "It just feels really, really good, especially in this day and age where we're so rigid with our bodies, with the way that we sit, with the way that we stand. There's so much rigidity. Dancing for me, it just feels like I give my body permission to do what it wants to do, to show up the way it wants to show up, to feel and emote in a way that it wants to feel and emote."
Whitney leads sensual dance meditations on her Instagram, or she says you can always just put on a song that you know gets you moving. "Whatever comes up, however my body wants to move, I'm going to let it move," she says. "I'm going to be very mindful in the dancing. Like I'm not going to just dance it out. I'm going to breathe. I'm going to ask myself, what emotions are coming up for me in this moment? As I move my arms like this, what emotion wants to be released? Or as I move my hips like this, what am I shaking loose?"
Practice gratitude for your body
"It's so much more helpful to think about what our bodies do for us on a daily basis," Marin says. "Our bodies carry us through our days with so much strength and grace. Our bodies are also capable of infinite amounts of pleasure! If we can be grateful for all the things our bodies do for us, that can help us see them in a different light."
Make exercise about feeling good
"When it comes to exercise, I love to have people frame it as moving your body in a way that makes you happy. Exercise in a way that brings you joy," Stubbs says. "We want to frame this as a way to celebrate our body, not beat it down until it's into a shape that pleases us."
Exercise is a natural way to increase energy, reduce stress, and keep our bodies healthy. But when we look at exercise as a weight loss or body-shaping tool, we turn something that's nourishing into something that's hurtful and even hateful toward our body. Exercise as a way to love your body—not as a way to change or fight it.
Dress your body affectionately
Sometimes when we're feeling insecure about our bodies, we consciously or subconsciously put on clothes meant to cover up as much of our body's "trouble areas" as possible or attract the least amount of attention. This bolsters shame and negativity around our bodies.
Dress your body like it's a piece of artwork. Be intentional, attentive, and expressive. If you're financially able, treat yourself to a shopping spree and buy clothes that make you feel good and make your body feel good. When we dress our body intentionally, we're treating it as something that's worthy of attention and love. We send the message—to others and to ourselves—that this is a body that is loved.
What are your feelings around being fat?
If you have a deep fear of being fat or believe there's something wrong with being fat, you're dealing with what's known as fatphobia3. Fatphobia is the fear or hatred of fatness. It's similar to homophobia (the fear or hatred of gay people), except the target is fat people.
Ask yourself this: What's wrong with being fat? Sure, being overweight is strongly linked to many significant health problems. So is stress. But you won't see people having as strong of a reaction to the idea of being stressed as they do to the idea of being fat. Stressed people also don't get discriminated against in the workplace4 or mistreated by their doctors5 in the same way fat people do. That's all the product of fatphobia.
It's time to start getting over our fear of fatness. That means celebrating your fat body, supporting and empowering your fat friends, and calling out anti-fat comments from your peers.
Undoing internalized fatphobia isn't easy, of course. Here's some reading material to help you out: The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor, Fat Activism by Charlotte Cooper, Body of Truth by Harriet Brown, and You Have the Right To Remain Fat by Virgie Tovar. The Instagram of sex therapist Sonalee Rashatwar, LCSW, M.Ed., (@thefatsextherapist) is also a great resource.
Do mirror work
Learning to love your body will not happen overnight. Small daily rituals are key to moving forward on this journey and slowly training your mind over time to stop being so critical of your body. One excellent habit is a positive affirmation practice done in front of a mirror: Take a moment each morning to look at your full body and say something kind about it.
You might also want to pinpoint the parts of your body that you don't like to focus your positive affirmations on. For example, if you hate your thighs, you might try reciting to yourself: I love my thick thighs, or My thighs are strong and sensual.
Importantly, however, don't force love if it's not there just yet.
"Let go of having to love it," Darnell says. "If you don't get there, it will be another reason to beat yourself up. Stop piling on the shame. That may be too much, too radical, or damn near impossible for you at this stage in your evolution. Can you attempt to find a few things that you perhaps like instead? Maybe you have nice hands, or ankles, or pretty eyes, great shoulders, or amazing hair."
Try sensual self-portraiture
Take sensual selfies, Whitney recommends. Not of your face but of your body, "where you are doing it for the purpose of connecting to your body, of seeing your body, your radiance, your softness with your own eyes," she explains.
The intention behind it is key: "I'm going to take this photo to just connect with my body, to see myself with my own eyes, and to begin to process the feelings that come up for me when I look at myself. ... I'm going to rewrite these scripts inside of my head that say that I'm not enough. I'm going to use these photos as proof that I am enough, that it is possible for me to be connected."
If body positivity isn't working for you, go for body neutrality
If jumping straight to the positive thoughts feels inauthentic to you, that's OK. Loewentheil recommends first moving to what she calls "neutral thoughts" about your body.
"If your thought is 'my stomach is disgusting,' it's not believable to tell yourself your stomach is beautiful yet. But you can practice the thought: 'This is a human stomach' every time you look at it or whenever your brain starts complaining about it," she explains. "The more you practice these kinds of neutral thought swaps, the easier they get—eventually they will become your default natural thoughts."
For people who struggle with body positivity, body neutrality can be surprisingly freeing.
Work with a professional
Listen, learning to love your body when you hate your body at the moment is not easy. Even when you understand why you should love your body rationally, getting there spiritually can sometimes take guidance. Don't be afraid to reach out to a therapist or coach who can support you on this journey, give you tailored advice, and catch you when you fall.
Remember that your body is a piece of nature
In her book Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown writes:
"I know that my body could never be inappropriate. If I walk around naked all the time, or wear a muumuu slit to the moon to show my big dimpled thighs, or let my tummy hang soft and low, it's right. I am of nature. I have cycles in my body that reflect the cycles of day and night, of seasons, of the moon and the tides. My body is a gorgeous miracle."
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
You can stay in the loop about her latest programs, gatherings, and other projects through her newsletter: kellygonsalves.com/newsletter