I know a lot of my readers are 20 somethings. I also know that a lot of my readers are in their 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s. And while I write a lot about premenopausal women’s health, I also want to write a lot more (as I learn more!) about menopausal and postmenopausal women’s health because that’s so so important too. I’m going to be writing about dealing with body changes in your 20s, but I think this applies to any life stage. I know there are a lot of body changes as women go through menopause as well.
The thing that makes accepting and even tolerating body changes really hard is societal messaging that says, “If your body gets bigger, something is wrong.” Somebody could be suffering from depression or trauma or a devastating loss, but if they look thinner…people will comment on how great they look. As a culture, we applaud weight loss. But the moment we notice somebody’s body has gotten bigger and not smaller, or we notice our own body has gotten bigger and not smaller…we assume something is wrong. That there must be something to fix.
Bodies aren’t meant to stay that same. That would be weird. As we move through different life stages, our hormones shift, our body’s need for varying levels of body fat changes and so our body shape and size changes. I’m not sure if there is any research behind this…but in my own practice I find a lot of my client’s eating disorders or disordered eating habits or body image issues started in their late teens and early twenties. I think this life stage is really hard for a lot of women. In high school and college I wanted everyone to like me. I was really unsure of who I was and above all else, I desired acceptance and praise. I wanted to be good at things and the last thing I wanted was to be forgotten or average. I had no idea what my values were….at that point I valued frat parties, forever 21 and cheap vodka. I had no idea who I was so my value and worth was heavily contingent on the crowd I ran with, who liked me and what I looked like compared to other girls. Leaving college and entering into living on my own and navigating adult life was hard too. It was uncertain and messy and included a lot of starting over. New city, new job, new friendships, new everything. I didn’t know how to pay a bill or shop for a week’s worth of groceries when I graduated college.
I think all the uncertainly and instability in your early 20s makes you really vulnerable to negative thoughts around your body. As a 20 something I was highly impressionable, naive and insecure. Outwardly, I may have appeared confident, but I was anything but on the inside. My way of feeling confident was through micromanaging my body size, being successful in school, eating healthy and being a fast runner. It was all external. And what all these external validators make for is really shaky ground. Since a lot of my value and worth was contingent on my body size, when that changed so did my value and worth.
In order to keep your body size the same throughout your late teens and twenties (and your life) it usually takes a lot of hard work, stress and rules. I realize not for everyone. For a small percentage of the population, their natural body size is small and doesn’t change much during these years. But that is a VERY VERY small percentage. That is not the norm. What many women experience are body changes. Often your hormones are a little more all over the place in your teenage years and your period might be also. Not for all women of course, but for many. As you enter into your twenties your hormones begin to settle in more (if you’re taking care of yourself with good nutrition, appropriate exercise, enough sleep and self care to manage stress) and your period likely becomes more regular.
We also experience body fat distribution in our 20s. We’re settling into our adult bodies and are no long pubertal teenagers. I remember when I was in my early 20s I hated body fat. Now that I’m nearing the end of my twenties, I can’t think of anything more womanly than body fat. But in a culture that sees fat as bad, it can be really hard to tolerate and accept more body fat. Fat isn’t valued in the culture that we live in, so I don’t think I’ll ever look at the fat on my stomach and go, “I love this!” But I do think I can tolerate and accept my body fat and move on with my life so I can focus on living out my values. The picture I illustrate for clients that they find helpful is having them imagine a child cuddled up on a mothers lap. Then I ask them to describe the mom they are envisioning. Never have I had a client describe the mom as a woman with little to no body fat, toned triceps and a flat, taught stomach. No, they describe a mom who is fleshy, healthy and has body fat.
Tolerating body changes during your early 20s (and your mid and late 20s) is hard enough, let alone accepting all these body changes. It can feel out of control and can trigger unhealthy behaviors in order to “fix” what is changing. But remember, your job is to care for your body. Your body’s job is to manage it’s size. Your body is the master at managing it’s size and shape. Your mind is not. If I knew at 24 what I know now and was in the same headspace, my early 20s would have involved a lot less thoughts around food and exercise and maintaining a weight that was too low for my body to menstruate and a weight that was destined to change.
Some things that I think are helpful when it comes being a caregiver for your body so you can tolerate, and perhaps come to accept your changing body and natural body size.
Stop body checking.
This is much easier said then done. Just because you want to stop body checking and plan to, doesn’t mean you won’t ever body check again. But having the intention to stop body checking can make you aware of when you are doing it. So when you do find yourself body checking, you can notice that and then choose to not do that. Choose to turn your head away from the window you’re walking by. Choose to not look in the mirror when you get out of the shower. And choose to set up your mat in the middle of the yoga room so you’re not practicing in front of the mirror. It makes me so sad when I see women at the gym or in the locker room body checking. Sad because it’s so normal and sad because I feel her pain.
Throw out old clothes that don’t fit.
Holding onto old clothes that you hope to fit into one day does nothing for your mental, emotional or physical health. Unless you’re pregnant, donate old clothes that do not fit right now. I remember holding onto this one pair of shorts I wore in college in my early twenties and then I would try them on to see if they were less tight and every time I tried to squeeze myself into these shorts I felt like complete crap. Stop doing that to yourself. Buying clothes that fit can do wonders for your body image and how you feel in your body.
Write out positive affirmations.
You have to rewire all the brain pathways that are drowning in diet culture. Positive affirmations are short phrases you can memorize and say to yourself when your healthy, wise voice is weak and being shouted over by your unhealthy voice. The key is repetition. Literally, repeat repeat repeat. These can especially be helpful when it comes to decreasing anxiety. When it comes to tolerating body changes, anxiety is your bff. When you feel anxiety coming on, press into it and learn to understand the anxiety. Working through it, not avoiding it, is how we make uncomfortable changes in our lives. Some come up with 5-10 positive affirmations to start and write them on stickies to post in noticeable places or on the lockscreen of your phone. These affirmations provide you with go-to healthy, wise thoughts when your brain is filled with crap.
Do movement that connects instead of dissociates you from your body.
Finding movement that connects you to your body will be different for everyone. Running helps connect me to my body. Yoga really helps me connect to my body. And Barre3 and pilates also help me connect to my body. Some days though, I know running isn’t going to help me connect to my body and what would feel best is yoga. You have to figure out you. But I will say, mindless cardio on machines at the gym pretty much never helped me connect to my body. And multiple HIIT workouts a week never did either. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a more intense form of movement here and there…I still do, but I had to take a break from it for a long time to connect back to my body. I don’t do intense forms of exercise (think not being able to talk in full sentences) that often now, because I learned that when I do, I start to think about changing my body more than caring for my body. It’s also important to note that if you feel like you have an exercise obsession, taking a complete break from ALL movement is key to your recovery.
Get off the scale.
I think learning to see a number on the scale as completely neutral and holding no value can be really helpful down the road in your journey towards food and body peace. But learning to tolerate the distress of seeing that number should probably be worked through with someone skilled in that area…like a therapist or dietitian. But in the beginning, getting off the scale I think is so important. If your day goes from good to bad by a few numbers on a scale, that’s a problem. You wouldn’t stay friends with someone who made you feel like crap, so stop staying in a relationship with the scale when it makes you feel like crap. You don’t have to keep bullying yourself.
Explore what you are actually feeling when you say “I feel fat” or “I feel gross”.
Fat and gross are adjectives, not feelings. When we say we feel fat we aren’t feeling fat, but we are feeing other things that we can’t identify so we say we feel fat. So do some exploring. What do you feel? Maybe you feel frustrated or fearful. Maybe you feel anxious and unworthy. Maybe you feel tired or insecure. What are you really feeling?
If you continue to struggle even though you’ve been trying on your own for a while, I’d encourage you to do a few things. You can check out my online course on cultivating healthy body image and see if that resonates with you – I include many tools for you to process through your own body image struggles and develop healthy ways to care for yourself. Or I’d encourage you to work with a dietitian and/or therapist skilled in this area. That could be us at Real Life Women’s Health or one of many incredible RD and therapist colleagues of mine that I am happy to refer you to. Above all, know that you can get support and you deserve support so that you don’t have to deal with this junk for the rest of your 20s or 30s and years to come. Your life has value and purpose that has nothing to do with food or your body.