The body positivity movement exploded in the past several years. Beginning in the corners of the internet on sites like tumblr, the radical idea of loving your body no matter what it looks like has spread to dominate twitter hashtags and news headlines. Celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Adele, and Serena Williams regularly speak out about the damage done by impossible beauty standards, and the importance of liking yourself in spite of them.
Recently, body positivity was propelled into the spotlight yet again in conjunction with a certain Kim Kardashian selfie. Kardashian was subject to vitriolic criticism after posting a naked photo of herself (strategically covered by black censor bars) to Instagram. In response, the star explained her body positive motivation behind the photo, saying, “I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my own skin”.
But despite the popularity of #bodypositive, many people, particularly women, still find it incredibly difficult to disengage from negative thinking about their bodies. This is explained, at least in part, by our neurobiology. Because stress and worry releases dopamine, we actually receive a pleasurable dopamine rush when we criticize ourselves. Add to that the fact that women often commiserate together about their perceived physical shortcomings, releasing the bonding neurochemical oxytocin, and you get a powerful mix of oxytocin and dopamine that is very efficient at reinforcing behavior.
Additionally, neuroplasticity means that every thought, action, or feeling we have strengthens the brain pathways responsible for that thought, action, or feeling (like working out a muscle strengthens that muscle). So the more we practice criticizing our bodies, the stronger those pathways of shame, self-doubt, and discouragement become. In a society that constantly reinforces the idea that only one, very specific body is desirable, it can be incredibly difficult to break out of the cycle.
However, neuroplasticity also means that it IS within our power to break the cycle. Practice liking yourself, and over time, it will become easier and easier. Resist the urge to criticize, and instead, focus on things you like about yourself. The journey to self love is a long and difficult one, but with practice, we can all rewire our brains for self-confidence, and yes, body positivity.