(Photo Credit: Liza Summer)

Dear Other Dad —
I really want to model body positivity — especially because my little sister and brother look up to me and I know they learn from how I act. But I hate my body. It’s not that I’m FAT fat. I just don’t like what I see and it’s hard to hide that. How do I change this?
Big Sister Issues

I hope you know that you are not alone in wrestling with this seeming contradiction. Just Google body positive + I hate my body and you’ll discover a lot of people share these feelings.

There have been social movements dedicated to fighting body shaming since at least the 1960s and the term “body positive” is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It’s especially prominent on social media now, which is likely how you’ve come to understand the importance of accepting — or, better still, embracing — one’s body as it is and not measuring yourself against others.

But I know you are also hearing much louder competing messages about what a body should look like. There’s no escaping the fact that models, actors, and influencers promote the dominant fitness and beauty standards of a given era. Naturally, non-famous people try to mimic what they see from these celebrities and there are plenty of retailers happy to feed that desire with whatever products will make that goal seem possible.

With so many people trying to look like so few, it’s easy to get caught up in concerns about your appearance. And that’s even more true if these body trends are endorsed or even amplified by your family and friends.

The proble is the emphasis on visuals above all else. To get out of that mindset, your first step is to focus on health, not looks, as the goal.

To be healthy, according to the World Health Organization, means a combination of three interconnected things: physical, mental, and social well-being. Measuring your actual health means examining how well you function in your own body and mind, and in your interactions with others. Can you complete all the physical tasks required by your life without injury or fatigue? Are you able to regulate your emotions? Are you maintaining relationships?

If you can answer yes to all three, that means you’re pretty healthy. If you can’t, this offers a guide to discovering what you can improve. That’s a far better approach than focusing on size, which is only a byproduct of a single component in the health triad.

It’s hard to take that in, not just because of what you see in the media but because you’ve grown up with the badly flawed BMI (body mass index) chart, which is still used widely despite a history of problems around gender, race, ethnicity, and ability (not to mention weight-loss-industry involvement in changing the standards). If you are concerned about your physical health, stop focusing on whether you are fat or not fat, and instead pay attention to how comfortably you walk, whether you have stamina when doing activities, how much energy you have most days, and the quality of your sleep. Only worry about weight or size if they’re impacting those more basic measurements of your physical health.

Another way to think of it is this: If your body is a machine made to serve you, is it running smoothly? Does it do the job it’s meant to do? If so, how it looks doesn’t matter. One of the best tips for reframing your thinking comes from the Chelsea Psychology Clinic: treat your body “as an instrument not an ornament.”

With that as your standard, choose the behaviors that will help fine tune the instrument. Build new habits that get you closer to feeling healthy. Always winded on stairs? Try walking more often and longer. Feeling sluggish? Eat more iron and less fried food. Whatever you do, measure success by the boost in your energy, not the fit of your jeans. Healthier living might yield visible physical changes or they might not and that’s ok; as long as your body serves you well, it’s a body to be proud of.

For your mental health, work on strengthening your self-esteem. Turn away from the mirror for a moment and consider what you do well, what your strengths are, and which attributes friends or family would say best represent you. Focus on these things — the elements of you that are singular — and foreground them in your sense of self-worth.

Changing your mindset extends to your interactions with others. When someone says something that feeds body negativity (to you or anyone else), remind yourself that their attitude is unhealthy; if this is a regular behavior on their part, consider whether you need to (or can) limit your exposure to them. And any time you realize you are the one criticizing someone’s appearance, check yourself: are you replicating the injury for others?

For instance, when you make the distinction that you’re not “fat fat,” you’re implicitly shaming those who weigh more, which feeds the same cycle that harms you. If this is how you see others, it’s likely that it shows. Be careful not to reveal that sentiment to your sister and brother, inadvertently starting them down the body-critical path. What they really need to see is you comfortable in your own skin, capitalizing on your gifts, and making the choices that lead to more ideal health in all regards.

A last thought: maybe forget the term body-positive for right now. (Maybe we all should.) Celebrating bodies “of all shapes and sizes” can still lead us to the mirror for validation, when what we really should be doing is focusing not on how we appear, but how we feel.

Swap out body positivity for self-positivity and focus on being the person you want your siblings to look up to.

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