by Connie Sobczak, Co-Founder & Executive Director of The Body Positive. Originally published hereConnie will be leading a workshop for Alliance members on Thursday, February 23rd, 2017 (info here).

“Let me tell you, this generation coming up—unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic—I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace, you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.”
—President Barak Obama, Farewell Speech, January 10, 2017

And this is why I will never ever stop my work with The Body Positive! Twenty years of being in the lives of passionate, powerful, unbelievably caring young people is what allows me to still have hope for the world at this moment in our planet’s history.

I also know, however, that countless young ones are suffering in a way that blocks them from living fully in their power—power they will need to take over this world and save it for future generations. They are distracted by their physical form; they have been told, especially those who identify as female, that the size of their thighs, butts, breasts, and bellies is more important than the words that come out of their mouths, or the actions they take to better the world. In far too many, life force is barely recognizable, and they spend too many precious moments apologizing for their very existence.

This is not to say that the young people of the world are not doing great things already. They are everything President Obama described them as, in this very moment. But the hidden story that I’ve witnessed in my two decades of working with the issues of body image and eating problems is one of a diminished existence for teens and young adults because of their fragmented relationships with their bodies.

Their suffering prevents them from reaching their potential and achieving their dreams.

In school, children are taught to worry about their body size in the name of “obesity prevention.” (Research shows that obesity prevention techniques are linked to an increase in eating-disordered behaviors.[1]) Body-based bullying is rampant, and leads to low self-esteem, shame, eating disorders[2], and, as we learned in the case of Brandy Vela, death by suicide.[3] At home, many are told by their families, in both overt and subtle ways, that their bodies are a source of disappointment. Parents fear their own bodies and pass this legacy on to their offspring.

Instead of helping young ones create sustainable, joyful practices that lead to physical and emotional health in bodies of all sizes, adults are sharing the messages that the body is something that must be controlled, that appetite in all forms is something to fear. These damaging messages are reinforced by the beauty industrial complex, the weight loss industry, the media, and others who profit from the body hatred of vulnerable individuals. Young people are left unaware of the power, wisdom, passion, and great joy that can be experienced when one is connected to the body in a loving way. Having a distorted relationship with the physical self results in a loss of power. It is killing the souls of these “unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic” youth. It is distracting their minds and keeping them focused on unimportant matters.

In the voices of former leaders talking about life before becoming involved with The Body Positive:

“I would wonder, ‘Is it my skin that isn’t beautiful, what the children on the playground always said looked like dirt?’ or ‘Is it my hair, or the fact that my thighs always touch when I walk?’”

“Compulsively thinking about my body gave me way less energy to put into the things that I loved and needed to do. And school was definitely one of those things.”

“When I was speaking in public I would be thinking, ‘Oh God, do I have cellulite on my thighs?’ Or when I was at a meeting I would be thinking, ‘Is my stomach hanging over my pants?’”

I went to bed last night thinking of President Obama’s speech, and how his comments towards the end about having hope in the next generation tie in with The Body Positive’s work. I imagined our president sitting in a meeting with world leaders and worrying about the size of his thighs, or wondering if his hair was too gray, or if his stomach was hanging over his pants, his attention pulled away from the critical issues at hand. Of course, we laugh at this image because he is a powerful man.

But these are the exact thoughts that hinder the development of the girl who could become the most brilliant leader ever to exist on this planet. Yes, she may continually be told that she is smart and can do anything she wants with her life, but the reality of her situation is that her suffering over her body, and the self-destructive obsession it creates, keep her from stepping into her full potential. She may get into a top university in the country, but sitting in class, her mind is focused on what she just ate and how many miles she’ll need to run to burn off the calories, instead of on what her professor is saying. She may even go to her school’s health center to seek help for her eating and body image concerns, yet be told that she has to leave school (because no one there really knows how to deal with her problem). She may never get back to her education. Her future, once bright and promising, begins to look different.

This is the untold story that must be heard if we truly are to support the youth of our country so they can be the keepers of the future.

Fortunately, we have good news…

For twenty years, The Body Positive has been helping teens and young adults break free from the suffocating messages that keep so many in a perpetual struggle with their bodies. What we see is that when they reconnect with their uniquely beautiful and innately wise bodies, they step into their lives with incredible power and passion. And they take this power, no longer hindered by the debilitating obsession with image, and use it to stand up and act for the causes they care about.

Our research at Stanford University has shown that it really doesn’t take much to change a life. It is this simple: student leaders use The Body Positive’s curriculum in safe group settings to share practical tools and inspiration that offer hope and healing to their peers. Read more about our Stanford study.

After The Body Positive, the voices of our leaders change:

“This is how I want to feel about my life. This is how I want to take on the world. And it was more than just beauty or health for me, it was this confidence, this strength that I found within myself, that I just want to spread!”

“Finding this community, and finding out that there is so much more to life than your appearance and your weight, it’s just completely world changing.”

“It wasn’t until I declared myself beautiful with The Body Positive that I realized that I am, and always have been, beautiful.”

My passion is, and will forever be, watching the light that emerges when the amazing young people in our world recognize and embrace their magnificent, authentic selves.

If you want to bring freedom to the students in your life, tell them about our Be Body Positive Leadership Summit happening this year on August 4-6. Education professionals are also encouraged to attend.

You, too, can help to unleash the power and potential of our nation’s youth!