Working on a new book, I’ve been struggling to find the best word to describe how I wish people with body shame would feel about their bodies. Helping clients feel better about their bodies is one of the most difficult parts of my job. As I’ve blogged previously, making peace with a body that you’ve hated for a long time takes some doing, but is crucial to becoming a “normal” eater and engaging in self-caring practices.
Many words are used to describe the positive feeling we want to have about our bodies and none seem quite right. One is “loving” your body. But, I understood when clients counter that saying they love something they don’t want feels inauthentic and like a lie. Another word is “accepting” your body. Clients’ objection has been not wanting to say “it’s okay” to something they want to change. Although I’ve tried to explain that we can accept a body as is and still want it to be different, “acceptance” has been a hard sell.
Another word that pops up in the body positive movement is to “appreciate” your body. That didn’t feel right with clients who’d tell me that they do appreciate the ways their bodies help them and all bodies do for them, but it doesn’t stop them from being unhappy with their size. Likewise for the word body “respect” which didn’t quite fit, as clients would say that they don’t admire their bodies, so how can they respect them.
The word I’ve settled on is body “compassion” and I was delighted to see that my Boston colleague Jean Fain, LICSW, has a good deal to say on the subject, including: “Without a doubt, body compassion, or treating your body with self-compassion, is a potent antidote to food and body image issues…” (Body Compassion Video Series, http://jeanfain.com/bodycompassion.html, accessed 10/12/19) Another description of body compassion comes from Jenn Altman, Ph.D.: “the regarding of one’s own body, in appearance, competence and health, with mindfulness, kindness, and awareness of common humanity.” (http://bodycompassion.com, accessed 10/12/19)
Using the description of compassion by Kristen Neff, Ph.D., author of Self-compassion, as meeting suffering with kindness, body compassion would mean knowing that your body is suffering (from discomfort, pain, poor nutrition, poor health, whatever) and tossing a bit of kindness and mercy its way. Body compassion is a way of feeling kindly toward your body and wishing it wasn’t suffering, of feeling sorry for what it has endured and wanting the best for it. Simply put, it’s a way of feeling bad that it’s hurting and wishing it well. Is that really so hard? Body compassion leads to greater caring about and treatment of your body. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?