By: Ann Rogerson, Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying)
Welcome to the second blog in our series on cultivating a positive body image. Today we’re exploring the first component of positive body image – acceptance and appreciation of the body. I know what you’re thinking, “easier said than done”. And you’re right! It is difficult to change the narrative we tell ourselves about our body. That’s why we’ll be taking it one step at a time, starting with research and ending with practical ideas to get you started.
Let me ask you this: have you ever received an unwanted comment about how you look? Maybe it was from a stranger on the internet or perhaps an aunt at Thanksgiving dinner (yes, I will have another helping of mashed potatoes, thank you very much). How did the comment make you feel? Did it shift the way you thought about your body? For many of us, these types of comments are not only unhelpful, they may lead us to believe that our body is evaluated solely based on its appearance. This is known as Objectification Theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). It’s the idea that in western society, women (and men) often experience self-objectification of their body.
How many times have we asked ourselves, “how do I look?” Self-objectification can leave little room for body appreciation and acceptance. Research actually suggests that if we want to cultivate acceptance and appreciation towards our body, focusing solely on its appearance likely isn’t going to get us very far.
Enter in, Body Functionality. According to Alleva et al., (2015), when we focus on what our body can do rather than how it looks, we can begin to generate appreciation and acceptance of our body.
Body Functionality describes just about anything and everything your body does for you. It includes the following 6 factors:
- Physical capacities (e.g. walking, lifting, sitting)
- Internal processes (e.g. digestion, forming a scab on a skin wound)
- Bodily senses and sensations (e.g. smelling, feeling, tasting)
- Creative endeavors (e.g. singing, dancing)
- Communication with others (e.g. hugs, laughter, body language)
- Self-care (e.g. staying hydrated, eating, sleeping) (Alleva et al., 2015)
Body functionality welcomes inclusion of all bodies into the conversation. The short example list above doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of our capacities! Regardless of one’s abilities or looks, we can recognize the uniqueness of each body and the functions it is capable of (Alleva & Martijn, 2019). Take a moment now and begin your own list. See if you can identify one example within each of the six factors.
The research on body functionality is vast and highlights its importance in the body image conversation. This is good news for those of us wanting to make changes to our body image! For example, Prichard and Tiggemann (2008) found that focusing on body functionality when engaging in exercise resulted in increased self-esteem and reduced self-objectification. Wood-Barcalow et al. (2010) also found that practicing a body functionality perspective was linked to higher levels of body satisfaction and an increased desire to care for one’s body.
As you can probably imagine, there isn’t one right way to practice body functionality, especially because everyone has a different body and abilities. With that in mind, I introduce to you three different activities that you can use and modify as needed. These activities ditch the “how do I look?” mindset and embrace questions such as “what is my body capable of?” and “how does my body support me?”
- Engage in a daily activity and consider how your body supports your participation. Why is this activity meaningful to you?
- Example: connecting with a friend, making coffee, brushing your teeth.
- Write a letter to a friend and express appreciation for their body functionality. Research shows that writing about a friend’s body functionality can have a positive impact on our appreciation and acceptance of our own body (Avella et al., 2021).
- Example: I’m thankful that your body allows you to hold your children and connect with them through touch.
- Consider the 6 factors of body functionality (list above) and go one step further with your own list of how your body allows you to engage in each one. For each factor of body functionality, write a statement of appreciation towards your body and why each factor of functionality is meaningful to you.
Please note: these activities are suggestions only and may not be suitable for everyone. For tailored care and support, don’t hesitate to reach out to a practitioner here at Redbird Therapy.
Alleva, J. M., & Martijn, C. (2019). Body Functionality. In Piran & Tylka (Eds.), Handbook of positive body image and embodiment : constructs, protective factors, and interventions (pp. 33). University Press. DOI: 10.1093/med-psych/9780190841874.003.0004
Alleva, J. M., Martijn, C., Van Breukelen, G. J. P., Jansen, A., & Karos, K. (2015). Expand Your Horizon: A programme that improves body image and reduces self-objectification by training women to focus on body functionality. Body Image, 15, 81–89. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2015.07.001
Alleva, J. M., Medoch, M. M., Priestley, K., Philippi, J. L., Hamaekers, J., Salvino, E. N., Humblet, S., & Custers, M. (2021). “I appreciate your body, because…” Does promoting positive body image to a friend affect one’s own positive body image? Body Image, 36, 134–138. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2020.11.002
Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of women quarterly, 21(2), 173-206.
Prichard, I., & Tiggemann, M. (2008). Relations among exercise type, self-objectification, and body image in the fitness center environment: The role of reasons for exercise. Psychology of sport and exercise, 9(6), 855-866.
Wood-Barcalow, N. L., Tylka, T. L., & Augustus-Horvath, C. L. (2010). “But I like my body”: Positive body image characteristics and a holistic model for young-adult women. Body image, 7(2), 106-116.