ACT and body image difficulties: Maybe not liking your body isn’t the problem

“Why doesn’t anyone tell us that it’s normal to feel bad about our bodies?”

What?!?  It’s “normal” to feel badly about my body? No, that can’t be right. It’s “wrong” to have a negative body image! I need to think more positively about myself and my body! Right?

Or maybe not…

Why do so many of us feel badly about our bodies?

If you grow up in American society, a society in which we are constantly bombarded with messages about one very homogenous, very unattainable image of beauty, you are likely to feel badly about your body. And yet, we’re also told we’re supposed to feel good about our bodies. Talk about a double bind! But what if this whole notion that we are supposed to feel good about our bodies, to have nothing but positive thoughts about how we look, is as unattainable the airbrushed pictures we see in magazines?

Yes, you heard correctly… I’m a psychologist who works with individuals who struggle with eating, food, and body image difficulties (meaning—I work with human beings) and I’m suggesting that maybe you “should” feel/think badly about your body. I wish it wasn’t the case, but maybe feeling badly about your body is an inevitable outcome of growing up in this society.

But what if the problem isn’t that we don’t like our body or that we have a negative body image? What if the real problem is when we let those thoughts and feelings get in the way of doing things that are important to us? Maybe what we need to focus on doing what is important to us, being active, being physically intimate, being more visible in this world, even when those activities might actually increase our negative thoughts or feelings about our bodies.

A different approach to body image struggles

This is the stance that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers on the whole issue of body image. Rather than focusing on trying to think or feel more positively about our bodies, ACT suggests that what is most important is focusing on not letting those unpleasant thoughts or feelings stand in the way of doing what would be meaningful for you.

ACT psychologist and assistant professor at University of Louisiana at Lafayette Emily Sandoz, Ph.D. is one of the country’s leading experts on in the area of body image and disordered eating. She is the author of several ACT books including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Eating Disorders, The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Bulimia, and the upcoming Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Body Image. Dr. Sandoz’s recent interview in the Huffington Post offers a great synopsis on an ACT approach to dealing with body image concerns. In her interview, Dr. Sandoz highlights that in ACT we ask our clients the following questions:

“Would you be willing to have these terrible thoughts and feelings about your body if it meant you’re able to live the life you want to live? Would you be willing to feel distress about your body image if it meant you could be more present with your children? If it meant you could be more active in your community? If it meant you could pursue companionship? Would that be worth it to you?”

We’re often taught that in order to live a good life, to treat our bodies well, to live active, passionate, vibrant lives, we first need to feel good about ourselves and our bodies. But what if it’s actually the other way around?

Author: Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D

Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D. is co-founder and President of Portland Psychotherapy Clinic, Research, and Training Center in Portland, Oregon. As a clinical psychologist, Jenna specializes in working with clients struggling with relationship difficulties, including problems with intimacy and sexuality, trauma-related relationship challenges, and struggles people have in their relationship with their own bodies. She is the co-author of the forthcoming book, “Values in Therapy: A Clinician’s Guide to Helping Clients Explore Values, Increase Psychological Flexibility, and Live a More Meaningful Life.” Jenna is also a peer-reviewed ACT trainer and provides ACT trainings to professionals around the world.


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