How to Handle the Paradox of Self-acceptance and Self-improvement

Just as toxic positivity in the workplace is a problem, so are movements such as body positivity. No message about positivity overrides evidence that obesity is a major health problem. Choose optimistic realism over toxic positivity. Learn evidence-based strategies for minimizing self-control failures. Reconcile the paradox of embracing self-acceptance and self-improvement.

In the United States, body positivity is a dominant social movement. Here’s what I cherish about body positivity. I am for self-love, self-compassion, and an appreciation of individual differences. Your body, similar to the content of your mind, is unlike the other 7.9 billion inhabitants of Earth. For me, I have matching moles on my left and right forearms, the second and third toes of my feet are bigger than my first toes. And as my three daughters enjoy mocking, for some reason there is hair on only 50% of the top of my feet. This is me. If I end up in a car accident you will know that’s it me from the strange configuration of toes.

Todd's foot

A few of the many body positive slogans gaining traction:

• No wrong way to have a body.
• Your body is not wrong. Society is.
• Stop trying to fix your body. It was never broken.

Where body positivity meets concern is when physical health is precarious. As of 2016, an estimated 36.9% of Americans are obese. No coincidence that the state with the highest obesity rate, Mississippi (40.8%), also has the distinction of the lowest life expectancy rate (74.5 years). Obesity is associated with an increase in cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, diabetes, osteoarthritis, strokes, and sleep disorders. And if you care about racial diversity, know that the prevalence and consequences of obesity are greater in Black and Hispanic men and women, especially when paired with inadequate economic resources to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. And neighborhoods with supermarkets stocking healthier foods happen to be more common in predominantly White neighborhoods. With this body of science, no, I am not positively inclined toward obesity. Besides smoking, it is one of the most preventable causes of death and injury.

Consider an alternative message by the Academy Award winning actress Octavia Spencer,

Be happy in your own skin. If you are unhealthy, start by making small changes to become healthier. You are unique, beautiful, and worthy.

Now that’s a body positive + health promotion message that dovetails with science. We can engage in self-love without disingenuous statements that obesity is merely a cosmetic issue.

More importantly, we can do something about it. By no means do I have sufficient space to detail what we know about combatting obesity, or reducing racial and economic disparities in accessing healthier food (and services from physical therapists, fitness instructors, dieticians). Let me offer one strategy under our control (click here for previous lessons on how to be wealthier, healthier, and with better relationships by attending to defaults and advanced decisions).

The Power of Temptation Bundling

How do you motivate people to engage in healthier behavior? Eat more vegetables? Drink more water? Stretch the body after long stretches of sitting or standing ? Do painful cardiovascular training? Which brings us to the intervention work led by Dr. Katy Milkman. She wondered if you people could be motivated to engage in “shoulds” such as go to the gym if the activity is paired with something personally desirable. For instance, you only get to spend time in a bubble bath, using the fire pit, watching televised sports, or listening to the next episode of a true crime podcast if you workout. Pairing an indulgent, pleasant activity with engagement in a healthy, effortful behavior is what she calls temptation bundling.

Her team initially tested this idea with faculty and staff at a university, where everyone had access to a workplace gym. Upon gathering information on novels they found personally tempting to read, the researchers loaded them all onto a smartphone. They would get access to these novels on the smartphones to when entering the gym for a workout. Participants were told that this was a strategy to amplify their exercise motivation. When craving the resolution of a true crime drama, there was only one way to get the next installment – go to the gym, grab the device from a locker, and listen during the workout.

Temptation bundling worked. In the first seven weeks of the intervention, 51% of participants visited the gym at least once per week compared to 42% in the control group (who merely received a message that exercising improves health and a $25 gift card to a bookstore). There was an interesting additional effect – people who really enjoyed the first workout during the initial intake (while collecting information on demographics, body mass index, etc.) experienced stronger benefits from temptation bundling. If you liked working out at the starting line, you hit the gym more frequently. Clearly, there is something valuable about using temptations to boost willpower. Also we cannot underestimate the mood enhancement effects of exercise.

Returning to the health benefits of being physically fit, it’s worth pointing out that temptation bundling didn’t just increase people’s presence in the gym. Over the 10-week study, people lost more weight and reduced their body fat percentage and waist size.

Function is the Key – Not Feelings

There are no simple solutions for reducing obesity in society. What we shouldn’t do is pretend obesity is positive. There’s too much data to suggest it’s a risk factor for disease, compromised daily functioning, and death.  One of the best ways of treating the self with love and compassion is to honor the bodily vessel. Invest in self-care.

Let’s honor that there are healthy bodies that arrive at different shapes and sizes. But how you feel is far less important than being able to function well at whatever activity is important. Being able to climb up five flights of stairs when late to a meeting, and the elevator is broken. Holding a friend’s child in your arms, rocking them to sleep. Accidentally slipping on a patch of ice while walking outside and being able to recover quickly. Living as long as you can to give more hugs, experience more gratitude, and learn more about yourself, other people, and the world. Body functionality is what’s important. And if you feel good about every mole and wrinkle along the way, consider that a bonus.


Are you eating sufficient green vegetables?  Keeping up with a daily writing ritual? Staying in touch with family and old friends? It’s hard to stay motivated to do it all. Dissect pleasures and see if there is something you can commit to depriving yourself of unless you engage in an important healthy behavior. Use cravings as fuel. It is much easier than depending on pure willpower. How will you resolve the paradox of self-compassion with a commitment to healthy self-improvement?

Know someone interested in physical health?
Share these Provoked ideas with them!

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is Professor of Psychology and leads The Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University. His latest book, available for pre-order, is The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively.