What is a positive body image?

Body image can be a tricky thing. You may hear a lot about having a positive body image on social media or from other professionals. You may even say, “Yes, Klara! I believe in body neutrality or body positivity, but I just don’t think I can do it myself. I think I will always struggle with body image, and nothing will change that.” I get it, body neutrality and body positivity is hard. Some days, you may feel neutral towards your body, and accept and understand the benefits it provides for you. Other days, it can make you want to scream. So today, let’s talk about body image and answer some questions that come up pretty regularly in my sessions.

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What is body image?

Let’s start with the basic definition.

positive body image

Sometimes these feelings are positive. Sometimes they’re negative. And sometimes these feelings can be a mix of both. They can also be neutral feelings. The way we see our bodies sometimes isn’t always how our bodies truly present in the physical world.

Can emotions change how we feel about our bodies?

If we’re having a tough day at work or school or just feeling lonely, it’s possible our body image plummets. But, if you’re having a super fun day, it’s possible body image is more positive (or you’re not thinking that much about it). But, logically, we know our bodies do not change drastically from day to day.

In recovery from an eating disorder, body image is a huge component for lots of people. It can often feel like the driving force to act on certain behaviors. But, if you dig a little deeper, and I encourage you to do this, you’ll find that often times body image concerns are related to another emotion we may be feeling, like self-esteem, self-love, belonging, and acceptance. These feelings can make us believe “well if I just do xyz, I will lose weight and feel better about my body, and then I will do better at work, or won’t feel like I don’t belong or that I am not accepted!” What I encourage my clients to think about is, what emotions are you actually feeling right now and how could that be translated to bad body image. If you are feeling lonely, let’s address the feeling of loneliness by reaching out to a friend! If you are feeling overwhelmed at work, why not try prioritizing tasks and delegating what you can!  Journaling can be helpful for this, or talking to a therapist! Here is also a great workbook* you can do.

positive body image

Okay, I hear you, but what if I still feel like I want to lose weight?

First of all, each one of us is subjected to ridiculous and unrealistic beauty ideals. We are also taught from a very young age that weight gain is “bad.” Whether chubbier kids are bullied or we hear negative comments from our health teachers or parents or doctors about weight or nutrition. So it makes sense we would either be afraid of gaining weight or wanting to lose weight (especially if you live in a marginalized body… larger-bodied/trans/non-white/disabled…). So, there is nothing wrong with a person if they want to lose weight. It’s actually completely understandable. The problem is diet culture as a whole. That makes us think losing weight is the best and the only way to health and happiness.

So can you be “body positive” and promote weight loss?

positive body image

The body-positive movement was created to make space for people in marginalized bodies. To give them a voice and to allow for a community that promotes unconditional body acceptance. Intentionally losing weight for happiness is exactly what diet culture teaches.  And it has no room in the body positive movement. Sure, it’s possible to lose weight and “feel better,” however I would challenge that person to think about what actually “feels better.” Are they getting compliments? Are medical providers praising the weight lost? Is there more engagement in joyful movement that doesn’t usually happen when in a larger body because they are worried about judgment? Do they feel like their bodies are more accepted? ALL of these things 100% play a role in people “feeling better” when a person starts to lose weight, which actually doesn’t have to do with the actual weight loss.

Doing body image work means being able to respect and accept your body and also truly believe that your body does not define your worth. If you are working to respect your body and establish trust with your body that may have been lost, engaging in “weight loss” behaviors such as restriction, over-exercising, or purging don’t pay your body the respect that it deserves. But, nourishing your body with the food that it wants and needs, hydrating, practicing self-care, and engaging in joyful movement all sound like forms of respect. Could weight loss come with this? No one can answer that question for sure. But, what will come from it is more energy, less stress when it comes to mealtimes, and hopefully overall more inner peace.

What is thin privilege?

Privilege is “ a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” So, thin privilege is the ability for a person to move through life easier because of their (smaller) size.

Thin privilege does not mean you automatically accept your body because it’s smaller. It does not mean you can’t have days where you struggle with body image. It also doesn’t mean that everything in your life has been easier because you are thinner. And you don’t have to “feel thin” to have thin privilege.

It means there are certain things smaller-bodied people are able to do without judgment. And certain things they can do without feeling uncomfortable. Examples include (but are certainly not limited to):

Being able to shop in mainstream clothing stores
Going to the doctor’s office and not being treated based on the number on the scale
Feeling comfortable in public accommodations (airplane and train seats, restaurants, movie theater seats…etc)
Not getting judged on food choices and what’s in the grocery cart
Earning a higher salary (yes smaller-bodied people get paid more!)

There’s SO much to unpack with thin privilege, and this blog by Kristina Bruce is a good place to start.

Is a positive body image possible for someone who has a negative body image?

Yes, of course, it can. Improving body image is an uphill battle. Our culture is mostly to blame. But it is possible to realize you have worth outside of what your body looks like especially with the help of a HAES friendly dietitian, therapist and support group. Getting the support you need can allow yourself to live a full life without body image holding you back.

How can I improve my body image?

Gosh, this is just such a complicated question! Improving body image is something that takes time. I mentioned digging deeper at the beginning of the blog, but a discussion I’d recommend you have with your therapist or dietitian is to answer the following questions:

positive body image


1. Start with just body respect.

It’s okay if you can’t get to a place of liking, loving or even accepting your body. You actually don’t need to like the way your body looks in order to accept it. Make a list of what you can do to respect your body. Examples include: nourishing yourself, setting boundaries, engaging in self-care time, engaging in joyful movement, going to see your treatment team, following positive social media accounts, reading this blog about “Why It’s Okay to Not Love Your Body.”

2. Remember, it is a journey.

Body Hate, Body Respect, Body Neutrality, Body Peace, Body Love

body image spectrum

3. Intentionally losing weight is not body respect.

I can tell you how many times I have had clients in my office telling me that their doctor (or other person or health professional) tells you it’s “better” for your health. What you have to remember is that weight loss is not sustainable for about 95% of people. Diet culture makes us believe that if we can’t keep the weight off, we have somehow failed. But that is not true. Those diets were never designed to work, otherwise, all of the businesses that profit from you buying diet products would be out of a job. And weight cycling (losing and gaining weight repeatedly, often a side effect of chronic dieting), actually has super detrimental health effects. Like increased cortisol and increased heart disease risk. So in that case, you could argue losing weight is actually worse for your health. And what’s “better” is taking a more weight inclusive approach and focusing on behavior changes to aid in helping you feel emotionally and physically better

4. Go with it.

Meaning, body image changes drastically from day to day and even minute to minute. No one has amazing positive body image all the time. It’s okay to have moments (some days more than others) where body image just sucks. And through that all, although a challenge, it’s important to continue to live your life.

What can I do when I’m having a “bad body image day?”

Those days are so hard! And what can be even more frustrating is “good”/ “bad” body image is something that’s so fleeting. In any given day, someone can have moments of “bad” body image and moments of “good” (or “okay”) body image.

Firstly, remember that body image isn’t something that we can control. Even people who are generally accepting and appreciative of their bodies can have plenty of moments where they’re not feeling it. As difficult as it can be, see if you can continue about the day as “normal.” For example, if you have dinner plans, I challenge you to keep them. Still wear clothes that feel comfortable to you. Still eat regularly throughout the day. Still show your body respect.

Next, ask yourself if it’s helpful to go on social media. On my Instagram account, make sure to follow a TON of anti-diet, HAES, body-positive advocates. And also meme accounts. So for me, going on social media while struggling with body image may actually be super helpful. However, if you notice you follow mostly friends, Instagram ~influencers~, or celebrities, and you tend to compare yourself to them, it might be useful to stay off social media.

5. Think about what else could be going on.

Can you identify any feelings? (Loneliness, sadness, shame, stress…etc). Could any of these be contributing to how you’re feeling about your body? Did something happen that’s making you feel crappy about your body? If you’re feeling lonely or sad or shameful, taking it out in your body acts as a distraction. But it’s not the solution.

6. Don’t forget body neutrality

If having a positive body image doesn’t seem feasible right now (or ever), don’t discount the feeling of body neutrality. Here is a great blog about body neutrality and why it could work for you! You don’t have to feel positive about your body all the time, but you don’t want your feelings about your body to stop you from living the life that you value.

Want support in improving body image and your relationship with food? Visit our contact us page; we’d love to work with you!

Klara Knezevic is a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Maryland. She has over a decade of experience in the nutrition field and currently serves as the CEO and co-owner of Rebecca Bitzer and Associates, one of the largest nutrition private practices in the country. Klara is passionate about sharing practical nutrition tips to help you feel confident in the choices that you make. Coauthor of Cooking with Food Sensitivities Survival Guide and Nourished: 10 Ingredients to Happy, Healthy Eating.