Early in my body positive journey, I latched on to the phrase, “listen to your body.” To me, this phrase was a powerful reminder to take back the wisdom and intuition held in my body. I didn’t have to listen to some external rule or diet book or “expert.” I reclaimed my body as the authority. I took back my right to eat when I was hungry, stop when I was full, and move my body in ways that felt joyful, caring, and kind. I suddenly had permission to work hard AND to rest. I could focus on how fun it was to hit the bag at the boxing gym, rather than how many calories I was burning. I could do yoga and actually feel the body I was in, rather than constantly wondering what I looked like from the outside. Foods were no longer forbidden, which meant I didn’t secretly long for them, or even more secretly devour them. I wasn’t condemned to a life of carrot sticks, so suddenly (and paradoxically) I could eat carrots with abandon and enjoy them. Raw or baked or even in cake! It didn’t matter what I was “supposed” to eat because I was the final authority on what I put (or did not put) in my body. “Listen to your body” became my battle cry of empowerment and choice around my own body. And guess what? I discovered that bodies are pretty smart, after all, and will tell us a lot about ourselves and the world, if we learn how to listen.
But how do you listen to your body? What does this mean, in practice? The phrase is thrown around with an easy, breezy attitude which belies how hard learning to listen to one’s body actually is. We are not taught how to do this in our culture. What is natural as babies and children quickly becomes very complicated and confusing. We are told that our bodies will fail us if we listen to them. The “tsk-tsk” of a grandmother as we fill our plate at a family dinner, the constant loop of weight loss commercials on TV, and the water-cooler diet talk all tell us that our bodies are not to be trusted. For a lot of people the idea of listening to their bodies is terrifying. We internalize messages like, “If you listen to your body, you’ll eat cookies all day.” Or, “listening to your body means you’re going to gain a bunch of weight because nobody really wants to exercise.” The subtext of these assumptions is that bodies (and their people) are basically untrustworthy. The assumption is that bodies need to be controlled, our ravenous hungers need to be controlled, and our deep-down core laziness needs to be controlled. If we don’t, we are doomed to a life of depression, loneliness, rejection, and shame.
I call bullshit on that. Did you know that we have more brain cells in our bodies than in our heads? Did you know that there is a whole phase of digestion called “the cephalic phase,” in which our pleasure in and awareness of the food we are eating actually helps our bodies to absorb more nutrients? Did you know our bodies have a set-point for our own natural weight, and did you know that we screw with this every time we go on a diet? Did you know that exercise ACTUALLY FEELS GOOD? And that we can tell when we’re eating well because our bodies FEEL GOOD? It is ok to feel good. It is ok to relax and enjoy the bodies we are in. It is OK to listen.
And, it is OK that listening to your body is complicated and sometimes challenging to learn. It is common that people with poor body image and disordered eating experience disconnection with their bodies. What does a hunger cue even feel like? Does “feeling fat” actually feel like something in the body, or is it an uncomfortable mental state associated with judgement on what you see in the mirror? How do you stop seeing exercise as punishment and start seeing it as fun? What if you really do just want to eat cookies one day? What if your body has conflicting messages? Reactions? Stress? Illness? Wrestling with these questions for yourself is part and parcel of learning to listen to your body. There is a lot of work to do with the mind in order to actually listen to the body! Becoming consciously re-connected with yourself and your body is not a linear path, and it is not an overnight change. It takes time and effort and hits and misses. It takes courage and mindfulness and tolerance of your own imperfection along the way. It takes repeated, radical, unconditional acceptance every day, to the best of your ability.
Listening to your body and your self is a learned skill. Just like we wouldn’t expect ourselves to become a master violin player overnight, we can’t expect ourselves to be expert at listening to our bodies overnight. We have to hit some missed notes and keep going. We have to practice – and not just here and there but regularly, over a long period of time. Eventually, with practice, we really can become more versed in the language of the body. We begin to understand the body’s signals, and we get better at following through and meeting our own needs. I know there have been times in my life when I doubted that I would ever get to that place, and there are (and probably always will be) times of struggle because bodies change and their needs change and we change. But, to me, it is worth the struggle for those times when I can be truly present to myself, which is ultimately at the heart of listening to my body and to my whole self.