These days, this is the kind of image that gets paired with body-positive messages in the media. Stylish, confident, but still attuned to conventional beauty standards. Body positivity is much deeper than this; its most important effects exist beneath the glossy surface.
I’m particularly interested in women’s health and healing—and how body positivity fits into the picture. With this in mind, I recently got the chance to talk to an expert in the subject. Dr. Robin Henderson is a leading psychologist and chief executive of Behavioral Health at Providence Medical Group. She’s an expert at Well Being Trust, a national foundation advancing a vision of a nation where everyone is well—in mental, social and spiritual health.
What role do you think body positivity plays in someone’s overall health and wellness?
Dr. RH: Body positivity is HUGE! Regardless of what the media tells us, actual research shows that “health and wellness” doesn’t have a “one-size-fits-all” approach. We’ve debunked years of shaming concepts—from having the “perfect figure” to “BMI” to “food pyramids”, we know that there are as many different healthy bodies as there are healthy people, and your MIND is the most powerful tool you have to impact your overall health and wellness. So, body positivity is essential to impacting the biggest organ that impacts health and wellness—your brain.
Could body stigma (by parents, peers, etc.) be a kind of childhood trauma and what do you think can help us overcome/reconcile this as adults?
Dr. RH: Body stigma from childhood/adolescents is traumatic. Many of us remember being bullied, laughed at, made fun of and excluded due to being “fat,” not being an “athlete,” not being “pretty,” “buff,” or having the right clothes/hairstyle. These aggressions are real, and something we have to face as we move into adulthood. Talking about these experiences is one way to process them, and leave them where they belong—in the past.
We need to remember all the positive body moments we had and have every day. We are far more likely to remember and give weight to the “negative” body image commentary than the positive, even though for most of us, we receive a whole lot more positive feedback then negative. Realizing that we can magnify the negative feedback, distorting it’s importance and worth, gives us the ability to magnify and celebrate the POSITIVE comments as well.
There is someone at my office who takes the time each morning to write something positive and inspirational on a sticky note, and places it on the bathroom mirror. That always makes me smile, and it’s important. Positive self talk is the first step to developing body positivity, and to recovering from the negative tapes we learned as children and adolescents.
How can a person find a good doctor-patient relationship if that person has had bad experiences in the past (e.g. mean doctors, people who feel ostracized, not helped, by their doctors because of their weight, people who have an aversion to doctors as a result.)
Dr. RH: The first thing to remember is, doctors are people too—which means they are flawed, have inherent biases, and need constant learning to be part of the human race—just like the rest of us. Often, medical professionals get so caught up in the business of their days, their electronic health records, and getting to the next patient that they forget the patient in front of them. However, that’s not an excuse.
There are plenty of caring, professional providers who do take the time to engage with the person in front of them. If your provider isn’t one of them, then fire them. Bonus points if you send them a letter telling them how their comments and behaviors were hurtful, because sometimes that’s the only way we learn. However, there are many providers who really do care, and you deserve to receive care from them. And when you find them, sing their praises from the hills!
My conversation with Dr. Henderson left me thinking about my childhood and the things we must unlearn or leave in the past. This is hard stuff, but one thing that helped me was the realization that body insecurity hadn’t just appeared in me out of nowhere. My parents, strangers, the depictions of beauty that I saw (or didn’t see) in the world around—these all conspired in making me feel a certain way about myself. So maybe this feeling I’d been carrying around wasn’t really mine—or least not solely mine. Maybe I could put it down. Maybe something else could grow in its place.
Let me know in the comments if you have thoughts on these subjects too. Happy to continue this conversation!
In Collaboration with Well Being Trust