body positivity

The importance of radical self-care

At the start of May this year, I attended the Bodykind Festival in Totnes, a two-day event dedicated to the revolutionary act of showing kindness to our own bodies in order to change the world.

Something that struck me throughout a day of talks, workshops and panels was the sheer number of people discussing how much work they have put into treating their bodies kindly. After endless years of dieting and self-loathing, doing so does not necessarily come naturally to many.

But the people at the event were setting out on a mission to develop a positive relationship with, and be kinder to, their bodies. While such a shift may undoubtedly change an individual’s life for the better, it also has wider societal implications too because self-care is not all about bath bombs and pedicures. In fact, it includes a whole range of activities and practices, which, importantly, look different for everyone.

Sadly, self-care has to date been co-opted by commercial organisations as yet another way to sell us stuff. The promotion of self-care often focuses on appearance-related products and services, such as face masks and pedicures. But in order to go deeper than that and actually take care of our bodies effectively, regardless of how they look and how we feel about them, something more is required.

In my work, I prefer to use the term ‘radical self-care’, which usually involves practices that cannot be purchased in a shop or day spa. Instead the focus is on making daily life more manageable and enjoyable, which entails taking decisions to support yourself in the best possible way.

Small changes can be made across all areas of life to make things easier. The sum of these small shifts can lead to an altogether less stressful life as well as the capacity to better support others. We have all heard the clichéd advice to put on your own oxygen mask before you assist others, but it really is essential.


Aligning with your own needs

It is also important that self-care does not become just something else you can fail at – as with dieting or any of the other myriad things we ‘should’ do. Step one of radical self-care is about being gentle with yourself. There will be days where you are unable to take care of yourself as well as you would like, and reminding yourself that this is okay too is vital.

When I start to become self-critical, I like to ask myself whether I would talk to my children or a close friend in that way. The answer is always ‘absolutely not’ and it helps me to shift my inner talk to become more positive and compassionate.

Another issue I have with the mainstream self-care industry is that it requires a certain amount of privilege in order to engage in it. Beauty products, treatments and outings are costly, which means that those who are often most in need of self-care are excluded.

While it is still a privilege to have the time and energy to engage in radical self-care, it is much more accessible. Taking just a couple of minutes out of your day to breathe or move your body in a way that feels good can work wonders.

Other radical self-care activities I engage in regularly include ensuring I eat regular meals that my body actually wants rather than skipping them or eating something I dislike because it is quick; lighting a candle and drinking a cup of tea alone; and taking time to read or journal before bed or first thing in the morning.

But much more radical than any of these is the fact I check-in with myself regularly to ensure that what I am doing feels aligned with my needs.


Changing yourself – and the world

In the past, I have found people-pleasing all too easy a pastime – and definitely to my own detriment. Setting clear boundaries around what I do and do not want to do, as well as removing myself from toxic relationships, have helped me make huge improvements to my quality of life. If I do not spend my time doing things against my will just to avoid upsetting others, I find I conserve so much more energy, which enables me to do the things that actually bring me joy.

Of course, as a mum it is not always possible to focus on my own needs. But I am open and honest with my children when I require a quiet morning at home or when I cannot play with them because I have to make sure I have eaten something (to avoid my hangry tendencies).

To some, this may sound selfish, but not only is it important to take care of myself in order to be the best parent I can, it is also about modelling radical self-care to my children too. At the ages of three and seven, they are already aware of the importance of listening to their bodies and setting boundaries around what does and does not feel good to them. I hope this awareness will stand them in good stead to help them avoid the pitfalls of things, such as diet culture, that I unwittingly fell into.

So can radical self-care change the world? I mentioned at the beginning that this approach has wider societal implications, and they have become glaringly obvious during my own endeavours in this area. Just as I am able to be a better parent when I show myself compassion, I also have a huge amount of extra energy to plough into my activism and coaching practice. The energy I would have spent on hating my body, or perhaps feeling exhausted by a lack of boundaries, can instead be spent productively on working for actual social change.

For many – myself included – it is one hell of a journey to get to a place where we have positive or even neutral feelings about our bodies. But it is worth every single struggle to arrive at a space where we can contribute to something bigger than ourselves – and feel nurtured in the process.

How Intuitive Eating can help us reconnect to our bodies

So you have made the decision that there is more to life than dieting. But the mixed messages emanating from today’s diet culture are likely to have left you in a quandary over which foods you should actually eat.

For years, you have been told to avoid entire food groups, not to eat after 6pm, or to fast for two days a week. It is impossible to remember a time when your supermarket trolley was not piled high with zero-calorie noodles, meal-replacement bars or cottage cheese.

But what do you really want to eat? What makes your body feel good? By this, I do not mean what makes your body slim. Or what satisfies your hunger with the minimum possible amount of calories.

No, what I am asking about is what food would you like to eat right here and right now if there were no limits. If no foods were designated as either good or bad, what would you choose?

Writing this, I find myself fancying a wild mushroom and parmesan risotto with crunchy garlic bread, a crisp side salad and, seeing as the weather is now feeling suitably autumnal, a delicious plum crumble with custard to follow. Be patient though as there is a point to all of this – it is about exploring the antithesis of dieting.

You may remember a time as a child that involved eating when you were hungry and stopping when you were full. While you may not have been in charge of the food that was available at that point, you may have had a strong understanding of what your body enjoyed – and at times, certain foods may have seemed more appealing than others.

If you are anything like the millions of dieters around the world, it is likely you will have become disconnected from this profoundly important way of nourishing your body. It may have been a result of encouragement from others to finish everything on your plate when you were a child or to have a drink to fill you up when you felt hungry. But whatever the source, such suggestions inevitably lead us to question our body’s instinctive knowledge.

As a result, many in the anti-diet movement are now support a return to eating mindfully or what Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch call ‘intuitive eating’.

The key principles of intuitive eating are to honour your body’s hunger and fullness, being sure to eat foods that bring you enjoyment while at the same time leaving the negative messages behind. Intuitive eaters might consider whether their bodies are in need of something salty or sweet, crunchy or soft, warm or cold, spicy or mild.

Of course, it is not always possible to eat exactly what we want as there are often time, financial or other constraints. But by returning to this way of eating, you do feel an immense sense of freedom from dieting.

Permission to eat

One of the concerns that people often raise about this approach is the safety of giving ourselves permission to eat whatever we fancy. “Wouldn’t we just live on pizza or ice cream?” they ask.

Founders of the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement, Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramore discuss just this subject in their book ‘Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight’. They say: “The idea that you can stop watching your calories and eat what you want, when you want, is so contrary to current ideas that it evokes tremendous fear.”

But one of their studies confirmed that: “Once participants realized they could eat whatever they wanted and were supported in choosing foods they fancied, and in letting food serve many roles, food stopped holding as much power over them.”

Think about it: If you truly knew that you would be able to eat more of a particular food whenever you felt like it, without guilt or judgment, would you still spend so much time thinking about whether to eat it or not?

But it is worth noting that many people experience what anti-diet registered dietician and certified intuitive eating counsellor Christy Harrison calls the “honeymoon phase”. At this stage, they often feel “out of control” or as though they “can’t get enough” of food.

Moreover, exploring their new-found, unconditional permission to eat can last for months or years, particularly for those who have been dieting for a long time. It may feel like a pendulum swinging between eating a great deal and restricting your input again, but this situation will settle down in time, as I have experienced myself.

With regard to the issue of physical health, I do not tend to discuss it much in my work as I believe every body is worthy of respect, regardless of their state of health. But a recent HAES study showed clearly that after two years, those who lived by HAES principles, which include intuitive eating and movement, were markedly healthier, both mentally and physically, than those who continued to diet.

The report stated: “The HAES group sustained improvements in blood pressure, total cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein), and depression, among many other health parameters. The typical-diet group, on the other hand, showed initial improvements in all of those parameters (and weight loss), but returned to their starting point within a year. The HAES group improved their self-esteem and reported feeling much better about themselves at the program’s end, whilst the dieters’ self-esteem plummeted.”

Due to its considerable benefits, intuitive eating is unsurprisingly becoming better known as the body- and fat-positive communities spread the word. I really hope it is only a matter of time before more people begin to question the compounded misery that dieting brings, which includes everything from food restriction to binging and the inevitable process of weight cycling (gaining and losing the same weight many times).

The fact that someone felt the need to coin the phrase ‘intuitive eating’ makes it clear just how disconnected many of us have become from our own bodies. But only when we stop relying on diet companies and the media to tell us what to eat and start listening to our own bodies instead will we truly experience life beyond dieting.

Transformational Coaching: Finding the answers within

There is a lot of confusion out there as to what transformational coaching is and what a coach actually does. While undergoing my training, for instance, some people thought I was working towards being a sports instructor (although anyone who knows me well will know that sport is really not my forte), while other others believed I was qualifying to be an agony aunt.

But seeing as life coaching only really started as a profession in the 1980s as a follow-on from sports and business coaching, this situation is perhaps unsurprising – despite the fact that since then, it has grown into a multi-million pound industry, with around 100,000 life coaches working worldwide.

That it is an unregulated profession also means there are lots of variations on how people practise. But, according to the Animas Centre for Coaching, which is where I undertook my training, the core aim is to enable “a person, group or team to move from where they are to where they want to be, through a process of exploration and action”.

Transformational coaching helps people to identify “where they are now, what the real challenges are that need to be faced, and what mental hurdles need to be overcome. Finally, it creates clear-sighted decisions, specific plans, and committed action. All of this is achieved through a process of focused questioning, objective feedback, and powerful techniques.”

But just to be clear about it, coaching is not counselling nor is it mentoring, therapy or consultancy. It is predominantly focused on the future and can, but is not necessarily always, goal-oriented, for example, helping an individual to achieve a promotion or increase their self-esteem.

Another important thing to note about this approach is that it is non-advisory – clients are helped to find their own answers that lie within, supported in a safe, non-judgmental space by their coach.

How it works

Some coaches specialise in particular fields like executive, youth or group coaching and sometimes focus on specific niche areas such as working with mothers who are keen to rediscover themselves after having children or people who want to change careers or transition from one life stage to the next. For others, it is the way they deliver their sessions that is unique – for example, one of my trainers does so in a VW camper van, while another coach I know takes his clients for walks in nature. In other words, there will always be someone somewhere to suit your needs.

Luckily if face-to-face meetings are not possible, many coaches also offer sessions over the telephone or via Skype. A block of six to 10 sessions is usually recommended as this period allows enough time for progress to be made. These sessions may take place weekly, fortnightly or even monthly, depending on what clients want to achieve or the timeframe in which they would like to achieve it.

During the session, clients will be asked to discuss the issue they would like to tackle and a process of exploration gets underway. A simple but highly effective tool here is reflecting back to people what it is they have said using their own words. This gives them time to process what they have said and often leads to deeper levels of realisation.

In my own experience, coaching can be an almost meditative process in which you are deeply connected to yourself in a way that simply is not usual in everyday life. Things frequently emerge that you were not expecting or had not thought previously thought about.

After such sessions, I am often blown away by the sheer amount of internal knowledge I have and the answers that lie within. Knowing that these ‘lightbulb moments’ are based on my own work is incredibly empowering and provides me with agency over the action I choose moving forward.

Each new session also offers the opportunity to check on the progress that has been made towards your chosen goal – or not as the case may be. Sometimes the goal may actually change several times during the course of the journey, but this flexibility to adapt to new realisations or experiences makes the coaching process exceptionally agile.

The right chemistry

To anyone curious to give it a try, I would say “go for it!” but always ensure you do some research beforehand to find the right coach for you. Most will offer a free ‘chemistry call’, in which you provide an overview of what you would like to focus on and the coach explains how they work.

As such, I would recommend speaking to a couple of people in order to get a feel for what they offer and what particular style might suit you. Some coaches may not possess any qualifications and, although they may be good at what they do, they might combine their practice with other areas such as mentoring, consultancy or whatever.

While this is not a problem in and of itself if it works for you, it is important for both parties to be clear about expectations in order to build the necessary rapport to enable the true magic of transformational coaching to work.

As to how I first got into coaching myself, I came across it when a fellow home-educating mum was looking for clients to practice on. At that stage, I had little idea myself what coaching was or what we would be doing, but I decided to give it a go and try something new anyway.

Little did I know that the experience would be a life-changing one – both as a client and as someone embarking on the journey of becoming a coach herself. I initially started small, talking to my coach about a new business I was in the middle of setting up. For various reasons, I was experiencing blocks. But within a single session, we had a breakthrough and I was able to come up with a plan for the way forward.

Seeing how effective coaching could be, I was intrigued to use the technique on other areas of my life, including family relationships, my own self-worth and an ongoing battle with disordered eating and body image. It was in this last area where change took place in more ways than I could have imagined – and I have never looked back since.