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Body Image & Mental Health: Part 4

In the first three parts of this series, we have looked at the relationship between body image and mental health.  Body neutrality, positivity, and acceptance are all paths forward to a healthier body image and the associated mental health benefits. 

Another avenue is body liberation, and we will discuss that how it can help you foster an improved relationship to your body image and mental health.

Body Liberation: A Brief Primer

To understand body liberation, it may be helpful to keep in mind the concept of intersectionality (it’s also discussed here on our blog).  Intersectionality means that we live in a world where your experiences are informed by things like race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability/disability, religion, and socioeconomic standing - systems that can overlap with each other and result in relative discrimination or disadvantage.  Body image can be defined as freedom from systems of oppression that designate certain bodies are more worthy and desirable than others.   Overwhelmingly in western society, and even in other cultural contexts, ideal bodies are lighter skinned (more white-presenting), able-bodied (not disabled), healthy, young, reproductively capable, cisgender, representative of the gender assigned at birth, and slim/fit in build.  Body liberation differs from some of the other ways of positively conceptualizing one’s form - whereas body positivity and acceptance focus on embracing the body, replacing feelings of hatred with those of love, body liberation eschews the obsessive thinking/feeling about our bodies.  Body liberation involves throwing away the concept of beauty as currency, and recognizing that systemic issues in our lives contribute to how we see our physical selves.  It is not our duty to fix all these problems, and it is not our bodies that need to be punished, celebrated, or held to any standard. Body liberation is about giving ourselves permission to live our lives without having to place judgment on bodies at all.  

Body Liberation and Mindfulness

If you are feeling that body liberation sounds like a tall order, you are certainly not alone in that sentiment.  Learning to replace negative feelings towards our bodies with positive feelings (as is encouraged in body acceptance and positivity) can be a task that takes an immense amount of effort, and is an ongoing process. To be ever vigilant of systems that keep us oppressed, to challenge these systems, and to simultaneously ignore the thousands of body-oriented messages received in daily life… it may sound downright impossible to some.  One way to start cultivating feelings towards your body that are more aligned with body liberation is the concept of mindfulness.  Many folks have preconceived notions about the role of mindfulness in therapy, often involving concepts like meditation, journaling, and having gratitude in the face of challenges.  Mindfulness is much more nuanced than these concepts.  When we talk about mindfulness as a tool towards body liberation, we are talking about mindfulness as a place of non judgment (this short and sweet video does an excellent job of explaining this concept).  If you are to adopt an approach to your body that is more aligned with body liberation, remaining hypervigilant of the messages you’re receiving and the systems of power and oppression behind those messages can be an exhausting and even traumatizing task.  By adopting a more mindful approach to the messages you’re receiving, you can start to address the messages about bodies and value from a place of non judgment.  Not every message you receive is your duty to unpack; you are allowed to treat yourself with grace, and not assign judgment to these messages (and furthermore, you no longer have to adapt your body to meet the messages).  Being mindful about body messages is something you can cultivate over time, creating space between your life and the judgements you receive about your body and your worth.  This is a foundational step not just towards body liberation, but towards a life in which your success and worth is determined by you.  

Therapy as an Unlearning Process

“I have never seen a toddler lament the size of their thighs or the squishiness of their bellies. Children do not arrive here ashamed of their race, gender, age, or disabilities. Have you ever seen an infant realize they have feet? Talk about wonder! That is what an unobstructed relationship with our bodies looks like." - Sonya Renee Taylor

Regardless of the things that bring you to therapy, you do have a concept of your body and its worth in relation to others and to the messages (both overt and covert) that you receive every day about bodies.  We hope that body acceptance, neutrality, positivity, liberation, or even something entirely different resonates with you and gives you hope for a brighter future for how you see yourself (and the mental health benefits that come from a healthy self-image).  Perhaps the most important takeaway from this series is that your body image is something that is learned.  Just as you learned what bodies are valued and devalued in society, and how your body stacks up to ideals across the lifespan, you can unlearn toxic messages.  Working with a therapist to understand your narrative around your own body, find discrepancies in the messages, and setting the foundation for more self-love - this is within your reach.  

If this series on body image resonates with you, consider reaching out to a member of our team to schedule a free consultation to explore how therapy can help you repair your relationship with your body image.  The team at Sedâ Psychotherapy acknowledges that cost can be a barrier to accessing mental health supports, and we are thrilled to also offer high quality, low cost therapy with our new team member Sarah Khedr.

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