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Psychology Today

Psychology magazine published every two months in the United States.

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One Powerful Way to Feel Better About Your Body in 2018

01/11/2018 06:00AM | 1845 views

By Jessica Alleva Ph.D.

A simple change of perspective can help you feel better in your own skin. 

If I asked you to finish the sentence, “My body…,” what kinds of things would come to your mind first? Take a moment and try this for yourself now.

If you’re like most people, your first thoughts probably centered around your looks — aspects like body weight, shape, muscularity, etc. — and chances are they weren’t particularly positive, either (e.g., “My body is too ______!”).   

But what if I asked you, instead, to finish the sentence, “My body can…” What kinds of thoughts would come to your mind then?

Over the past six years my colleagues and I have been researching how this simple change of perspective can make people feel better in their own skin. With the start of a new year, and the fresh onslaught of messages that our own bodies aren’t “good enough,” there couldn’t be a better time to profit from the insights of our research.

What is body functionality?

Basically, what I just asked you to do was to think about your body functionality: everything that your body is able to do, rather than how your body looks. In our first studies on this topic, we simply asked people to write about what their bodies can do. By analysing what people wrote, we discovered that body functions fall into six categories:

  1. Internal processes (e.g., “My body can digest food and heal from a cold”);
  2. Physical capacities (e.g., “My body can walk and bike to work”);
  3. Bodily senses and sensations (e.g., “My body can see and experience pleasure”);
  4. Creative endeavours (e.g., “My body can dance and sing”);
  5. Communication (e.g., “My body can communicate using body language”);
  6. Self-care (e.g., “My body can shower and rest”);

Based on these initial findings, we developed an online programme that helps people to focus on their body functionality. The programme consists of three writing exercises delivered over the course of one week. Each writing exercise deals with two different categories of body functionality, and asks people to write about the functions that their body can perform concerning those two categories and why they are personally meaningful.

To date, we have tested this programme in several randomised-controlled trials. Our findings show that focusing on body functionality works: People feel happier with and more appreciative of their bodies. These positive effects last even one month after completing the programme.

Why does it work?

We live in an appearance-obsessed culture. We know that intuitively, but research backs it up, too. Research also shows that focusing too much on our appearance can make us feel badly about our bodies, especially when we focus more on how our bodies look than on what our bodies can do. By training people to focus on their body functionality, we can help them to regain a more balanced perspective toward their bodies. Focusing on why body functionality is personally meaningful — e.g., “My body can give my children a hug and be a shoulder to cry on, and this helps me to express my love for my family” — can also help people to appreciate the things their bodies can do that are often taken for granted.  

How can I practice thinking about body functionality?

If focusing on body functionality is beneficial, how can we make it a habit? Here are some research-based tips that can help you get started:

  1. Drawing from our own research, try writing down one thing each day that your body is able to do, and why that is meaningful to you;
  2. Make a plan that if you feel badly about your appearance, then you will name one thing that you value about your body functionality. Research shows that forming these kinds of if-then plans can help you stick to your goals;
  3. If you’re able to, try physical activities that help you to appreciate your body for what it can do, not for how it looks. Research shows that physical activities that encourage a focus on health, enjoyment, and relaxation (rather than physical appearance) lead to more positive feelings toward our bodies and help us stick to those activities longer;
  4. Throughout the day, check in with yourself and be mindful of what your body is doing at that moment. For instance, if you’re in the middle of cooking, you might think, “I appreciate that my body enables me to prepare this meal and smell the aromas of the ingredients.”  

It is important to note that body functionality is not limited to able-bodied individuals. For example, even if someone is not able to walk, that does not mean that he or she does not have a functional body. After all, body functions are diverse, and each body is functional in its own way. Similarly, even if we would like our body functionality to be “better,” appreciating our bodies for what they are able to do is more closely related to body positivity than actual physical ability.

The take-home message

Focusing on what your body can do — rather than how it looks — can help you to feel better about your body by creating a more balanced perspective toward your body and helping you to appreciate all of the valuable things it can do. There are many ways to incorporate a functionality-focus into your life. What techniques will you try first?  

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