Mind and Body
Successful New Year's Resolutions Should Emphasize Self-Acceptance
New Year’s resolutions may seem like a great way to jumpstart a happier, healthier life, but too often, they just set us up for disappointment. Whether we resolve to exercise more, drink less, or spend money more wisely, any misstep can feel like a total failure. But a Florida State University psychology professor has proposed an alternative to this system, one that’s less likely to end in disappointment.
Instead of trying to change our bodies to make ourselves happier, Pamela Keel, Ph.D., suggests that a New Year’s resolution involving healthier, more accepting attitudes toward our own bodies is a more surefire path to a new year that’s better than the last one. As a researcher who focuses on body image issues and eating disorders, Keel is keenly aware of how the bodies people see in TV and movies can influence the way they feel about their own bodies.
“There’s a big gap between what we’re shown as being ideal and what to aspire to and where we actually are as a population,” Keel said in 2017. “That leaves people feeling bad about themselves, and, unfortunately, feeling bad about your body does not actually motivate a person to pursue healthy behavior.”
Seeing as more Americans than ever are overweight or obese, odds are good that most Americans don’t look like the people they see depicted in the media. So instead of trying to look more like a supermodel or a professional athlete, Keel suggests New Year’s resolution goals that emphasize self-acceptance over self-improvement.
And she’s got some useful strategies to help get you there. Adapted from an existing program called “The Body Project,” which helps to treat eating disorders and poor body image, Keel’s advice is simple and actionable. Here’s a couple of exercises from the program:
This exercise can feel a bit awkward, but it’s a concrete step toward focusing on what your body does right, rather than focusing on what you’d like to change. Standing in front of a full-length mirror — either naked or lightly clothed — identify specific parts of your body, and express why you appreciate them. The exercise can be as simple as gratitude for the fact that they work.
“You would say, ‘I really appreciate the way my legs take me wherever I need to go,’” Keel said. “‘Every day without fail, they get me out of bed, to the car, up the stairs and into the office. I don’t have to worry about walking.’ It can be that kind of functional appreciation of what your body does for you.”
She also suggests the exercise could focus on interesting, unique, or attractive details of your physical appearance.
“You can even go for higher risk body parts,” Keel said. “Rather than looking at yourself and saying, ‘I hate my gut,’ you could say, ‘I really like the shape of my legs.’ If there is something about you that you like, the idea is to spend time focusing on it.”
The basic idea behind the exercise, which Keel and colleagues clinically validated in a 2017 study, is that the positive attitude built during mirror-exposure directly opposes negative thoughts around one’s body image.
“If you make yourself consistently behave outwardly in a way that reinforces appreciation and acceptance of your body, then those actions will eventually get you to a point where you actually do feel that way about your body,” Keel said.
Doing Activities You Normally Avoid
Keel recommends identifying activities that you avoid — and then just doing them.
This one may sound harder than mirror-exposure, but it works on the same principle. Whether you’re too embarrassed to wear a bathing suit around other people, you’re uncomfortable being seen in exercise clothes, or simply don’t like to leave the house without a baggy sweater, Keel emphasizes that engaging in these behaviors will prove there’s no real danger in them:
“Most people experience a sense of freedom when they realize that nothing bad will happen if they wear a swimsuit or shorts in public — everyone is completely fine with it. This reinforces body acceptance through experience.”
So instead of suffering to lose weight in 2019, how about resolving to love your body for all the things it does right? Maybe you’ll be happier for it. And if you’re not, you can always go back to hating your body in 2020.