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So at first, this sounds like good news: When overweight women improved their body image, they lost an average of seven percent of their starting weight over the course of a year -- compared to a mere two percent weight loss for overweight women who made diet and exercise changes alone. It's all in a new study (PDF) published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (useful summary here).
Actually, that's not just good news. That's the holy grail, right? Instead of hating your body and torturing it with diets that never work, you focus on loving your body -- and presto, the weight just melts off!
But isn't it a contradiction to work on loving your body... only so you can change it?
I'm not saying these study authors didn't help women feel better about their bodies. The women assigned to the body image group kept journals of their body shame moments and the triggers that sparked them. They even worked on abandoning "the idea that they must look different to be happier." Yes, those are all hard and potentially life-changing revelations.
But at the end of the day, the women had also lost weight. They looked different. The study authors own up to this, writing, "we must acknowledge that some improvement in body image might have been experienced due to weight reduction per se." But then they add: "the rationale for adding a body image component to the intervention is that it will enable participants [...] to unlearn body image habits that do not give way to weight loss.'"
Put that way, it sounds like the only reason to improve your body image is to ditch habits (like emotional eating) that might be keeping you fat. Sure, food restriction and obsessive exercise can take a toll on your health. But those are okay because that kind of bad body image makes you thin.
I don't think weight loss should be the goal of body image improvement. I think we should work on having a better body image... simply to have a better body image. That means accepting that your body has value no matter its size or shape. It has value because it keeps your blood pumping and your lungs breathing. It has value because without it, you'd be dead.
Usually, when you start appreciating how your body takes good care of you, you start wanting to take good care of it by -- you guessed it -- eating better and moving more. Your body deserves that kind of TLC. It's an awesome feeling when you realize just how much your body can do -- run a mile, do a headstand, climb a tree. It's even more awesome when you and your body are finally on the same team. So pairing the "love your body" message with "now, change it!" just doesn't make sense.
When you learn to love your body, you might lose some weight. You also might gain weight. Or, stay the same. Or, lose and then gain and... you get the idea. But you know a number on the scale isn't your only raison d'etrat. Life matters more. And, the truth is, a positive body image isn't just about weight loss -- that too, is about so much more.