29 Things We Learned About Body Acceptance In Our 20s

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
We’re all about body positivity — but the movement comes with bit of a catch. It can sometimes feel like there’s a pressure associated with the whole thing: You must love your body right this very second, no matter what. That’s definitely better than feeling pressure to look a certain way in a bikini, but it’s still pressure. And the truth is, it might be nearly as unrealistic. After all, accepting and loving our bodies is a process. While it would be nice if we could quickly go from avoiding the mirror to unconditionally loving our reflection, for a lot of us, that change doesn’t happen overnight.

That said, it can and does happen, and your 20s can be a sweet spot for a shift in thinking about body image. While the decade has its challenges (say, getting used to a grueling full-time job and dealing with your family’s constant questions about when you’re going to get married), it can also be a time for us women to really get in touch with ourselves and learn to find fulfillment and confidence from elements of life that have nothing to do with the way we look.

We set out to find stories from women who slowly but surely learned (or are still learning) to accept their bodies in their 20s. Some struggled because of societal pressure, eating disorders, low confidence, anxiety, or even sexual abuse. But each woman proves that, even when body acceptance doesn’t seem like an attainable goal, it is — and it’s perfectly natural for it to be just as much about the journey as it is about the destination.

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1 of 29
“Once upon a time, I got to my ‘goal weight,’ but only for a while. And it was a fight, day in and day out, to stay there. I look back on pictures during that time, and I looked gaunt and unhealthy. Now, I'm only seven pounds heavier, but I feel better, and feel like I look better. There was no epiphany for me; I just slowly began to realize that life's best moments will sometimes include pizza, or cupcakes, or cocktails, and not allowing myself those indulgences was not really allowing myself to live. So, enjoy the treats in moderation, and let your body find its natural balance. Life is better with cake!”— Jacquelyn, 32
2 of 29
“I have gone through periods when I struggled with my self-image, and other phases when I felt great in my own skin. But when I was 27, I made a conscious decision that has made things better: I was going to CMJ — and I looked at my clothes and decided I wasn't going to wear anything that didn't make me feel good. Though I've been told my personal style is a perfectly packaged episode of What Not To Wear, I've made a lifestyle out of band T-shirts and pants that look beguilingly nice for having elastic waist bands. This — both comfort and being genuinely excited to see my clothes in the morning — has made a huge impact on my body image.” — Katie, 30
3 of 29
“Beauty truly radiates from the inside out; if you are happy with who you are and where you are, that good, beautiful energy shines out and affects everyone around you. I have spent so much of my social life worrying about how my body looks, and worrying that I wasn’t thin enough, or fit enough. One day, recently, when I was on vacation surrounded by a group of blissful friends and food, I finally realized that those worrisome thoughts and apprehensions had a socially negative affect. Happiness and beauty radiate in a smile, which means being comfortable and at ease with your body, not being critical or in a sour mood. I will be forever working toward body acceptance, but this was a defining moment for me when I was finally able to admit that beauty is not physical. It comes from within.” — Elizabeth, 25
4 of 29
"When I was a teenager, I was dancing five to 10 hours a week. I didn't have a perfect ‘dancer's body,’ but I was pretty confident with what I had. As I got older, especially in my late 20s, my metabolism slowed down and my thyroid started misbehaving. That, combined with the fact that I was lucky to get two hours a week of exercise, meant a lot of weight gain. Clothes I'd had forever stopped fitting. My entire awareness of my body changed. But I started rock climbing and doing yoga regularly, and I realized that even though I wasn't losing any weight, I was getting strong. My body could do amazing things if I'd let it. I still struggle with body issues a lot, and I still want to cry every time I give away a dress I bought when I weighed less, but I have to keep reminding myself that I'm doing things with my body that I'd never been able to do before."
Jill, 32
5 of 29
“I’ve had anxiety for most of my life, and when I was young, I would obsess over seemingly small things that would end up making me a nervous wreck. When I was a teenager, these obsessive tendencies focused heavily on my body. I did not develop at the same pace as the girls around me, and for the first time, I felt like my body didn’t have as much to offer. For me, acceptance didn’t come from going to the gym or getting a boyfriend. Instead, it came from ‘treating myself’ to a look at how beautiful I could be. In my early 20s, whenever I was feeling bad about my image, I’d shower, put on my favorite outfit, maybe some makeup, and look in the mirror, as if to say to myself, See? You really do look great. This helped a lot, and so did learning that my body was not the only thing about me that could be attractive.”— Jana, 34
6 of 29
“I started doing this thing when I went into body negativity in my mind. I would repeat to myself over and over: I refuse to hate my body. I refuse to hate my body. I refuse to hate my body. After a month or so of doing that, it really started to transform my relationship to my body, because I kept becoming curious about WHY I think it's so normal to hate my body. When I simply disbarred myself from hating my body, I had to choose an alternative. When it was no longer an option to go into body hatred, I really started to become more open to changing my relationship to both my body and the way I speak about my body in general.”— Jamie, 30
7 of 29
“My relationship with my body changes on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes I wake up and I feel very comfortable in my skin. Other days, I wish I could be living inside a body that was thinner and whiter and smoother. When you live inside a bigger body, especially one that is brown, you’re constantly aware of how it occupies space and how much space it’s taking up. I have to remind myself that it’s okay to take up more space. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable with a lot of ‘body positivity’ culture, because I didn’t choose the body I live in, and I don’t feel like it’s necessary for my well-being to ‘love’ my body always. I’m certainly at peace with my body, which means I’m not making any exerted efforts to change or modify it in ways that will make me feel more comfortable navigating the world.”— Tasbeeh, 24
8 of 29
“As cliché and simple as it sounds, it really took until recently to understand and accept what my body is ‘supposed to’ look like. My cellulite and big, beautiful, birthing hips are a part of me, no matter what I do. I’m not supposed to get rid of my shape. Once I reached some acceptance with that, I could finally start focusing on how I feel, instead of just how I look. Now I focus on what foods make me feel energized, what physical activities make me feel strong, and what clothing makes me feel comfortable inside and out.”— Katie, 29
9 of 29
“I was sexually abused in high school, so for a long time my body was just a container I lived in and ignored. As a result, I gained a lot of weight. Once I passed 25, I started to feel physically uncomfortable, and realized I was avoiding people because of my discomfort. At that point, I started the long road toward recovery, physically and mentally. While I still struggle with full acceptance, I finally understand that my body needs to be treated with love and respect, and I think that is something you have to comprehend in order to accept your body.”— Renée, 29
10 of 29
“I learned that I should WEAR THE GODDAMN HEELS. Why did I spend an entire decade thinking I ‘shouldn't’ be taller than guys? Who invented that? It's basically as absurd as thinking pink is a ‘girl color.’ One day, I just bought some heels, went to a wedding with a date three inches shorter than me, and nobody. cared. Behold: adulthood.” — Amelia, 30
11 of 29
“Your body knows what it's doing, and all you have to do is listen to it. I have food allergies and intolerances, so I used to get frustrated at myself for not being able to control my appetite or cravings. But once I started letting myself eat what I wanted, when I wanted (even if that meant breakfast for dinner, or acai bowls in the dead of winter), my whole perspective on food and my body changed.” — Michaela, 23
12 of 29
“A major turning point for accepting my body was serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer, which was one of the most exhausting and exhilarating experiences of my life. Every challenge posed a new opportunity for self-reflection, including how I perceived my body. It's hard not to feel beautiful when a classroom full of first-graders tells you — completely unprovoked — that you are, over and over again. Six-year-olds aren't tainted by the media's definition of beauty the same way a 22-year-old is. I chose to trust my students more than movies and magazines.”— Christine, 27
13 of 29
“Over the last four years, I've worked as a birth doula, helping other women do the difficult and transformative physical work of birth and mothering, which has changed my perspective more than I can say. Over time, it dawned on me that feeling good about your body — and more than feeling good about it, trusting it — is in and of itself a powerful act in the world. More and more, I feel like being body-positive (and not just in that sappy, deodorant-commercial way) is a radical act of feminism that is in direct defiance of the widespread cultural messages that attempt to limit and control women's bodies. These are the things we begin to internalize as little girls: You're too fat, you're too thin, you must eat this or not eat that, your hips are too small or too big. It sounds very ‘70s-hippie-woo-woo, but making the conscious decision to unlearn the damaging messages I've gotten about my body since childhood has truly been freeing for me.”— Carrie, 30
14 of 29
“Admitting I had an eating disorder was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Admitting I needed help was even harder. After years of unhealthy and dangerous habits, I began therapy at 21 years old. I'm 24 now, and while I don't have everything figured out, I now know what is healthy for me, in terms of eating and exercising and being in control of my thoughts about my body. I think that was my most valuable lesson. What is healthy for one person may not be healthy for me. I watch what I eat, but I don't restrict myself, and I exercise because it makes me happy, not because I need to look 'fit' or 'thin.' Also, realizing that I'm hot regardless of anyone else's opinion helped...because obvi!”— Molly, 24
15 of 29
“During high school and college, I was super active, which kept me in some of the best shape of my life, but I was still always comparing myself to my friends who wore size-two jeans — and wishing I could be like them. I've now come to my senses and realized that is never going to happen because I have an ass. Moving to New York was a turning point for me in terms of starting to accept my curves. I saw thousands of women, of all different body types, who exuded confidence, and I wanted to look like them. It helped show me that you don’t need to be a size two to feel and look confident every day. Don't get me wrong; I wish parts of my body were more toned or that I could still fit into that one pair of jeans. But now, when I work out, it's because I love the feeling of my body becoming stronger and healthier.”— Carolyn, 25
16 of 29
“My transition from mid-20s to late-20s taught me a lot about my body. Just being honest about how my body was reacting differently to lifestyle changes, like not sleeping well or staying out late, was a defining moment for me. I don’t feel like my body is defined by a dress size; it is more defined by whether I’m meeting my goal of leading a healthy lifestyle.”— Neeharika, 31
17 of 29
“I had three children before I turned 30, in less than three years, so during the latter part of my 20s, my body belonged to three beautiful baby boys. It forced me to accept that I had to work hard to stay fit and that exercising still might not mean my tummy would be flat. Instead, it meant I would keep challenging myself with new fitness goals and work to appreciate my body in every stage of its life; whether it was a breast reduction at 19, a breakup in my early 20s, or a third pregnancy at 29, I know that they were all a beautiful version of me.”— Tanya, 35
18 of 29
“I don't think there was one defining moment that made me ‘love my body’ because I think loving your body is really accepting your body. You accept that it is the only body you get, so you two have to work together and deal with each other. I used to think I could change my body; like, I could exercise myself into oblivion, and then I'd look like Lea Michele, or someone equally toned but still curvy. And while working out is great, it was never going to make me have an hourglass shape or make my weird bubble butt go away. I had to accept myself first and love myself second.”— Kendra, 26
19 of 29
“One of the defining body-acceptance moments for me in my 20s was having a child. The process of growing another human, how our body grows/stretches/pulls/hurts/aches, is something that is so indescribable. At almost 35 and two kids later, I can look back and see that childbirth really taught me to value my body. Every wrinkle or stretch mark brought me my son and daughter. Sure, I still have things I'd like to work on, but at the end of the day, I'm damn proud of my body and all that it has given to me. I've recently started running and doing yoga, and I am so excited to be getting back on the dance floor next month, after an almost eight-year hiatus this time around. Love yourself, love how you move, and appreciate everything your body does for you!” — Heather, 34
20 of 29
“When I was in my 20s, I had a hard time accepting my body because I thought I had to look like all the other girls who were naturally skinny and wore a smaller size than I did. I am not large by any means, but I was a collegiate athlete, and going from seasons of working out hard, to seasons sitting out due to injury, my body changed a lot. After college, I tried diets, diet pills, different fashion trends, etc., but I never thought about why I wanted to look/feel a certain way. Needless to say, it was unhealthy and not self-supportive. As I hit my late 20s, I wanted to get healthy, but I decided not to put restrictions or loaded expectations on myself. And I cut myself some slack when it didn't go well. I learned to love myself first; then, the body love came after that, as well as a supportive boyfriend who loves me for me. I learned you only have one body, so there is no reason to hate it. Show it some love — that is the healthiest, sexiest thing you can do.”— Christine, 30
21 of 29
“At 34, it's taken me awhile to come to terms with my body and truly feel like I fit in my skin. Being disabled, it was all about not looking at myself through the lens of other people, especially growing up. Only when I began to see myself inside first could I appreciate who I was. It will be a lifelong journey, of course, but one I'm so glad I've started.” — Melissa, 34
22 of 29
“In my 20s, I realized that I'd been hating my body for most of my life: starving it, gorging it, covering it with makeup and wearing clothes that didn't fit. Then, I made a vow to not wear things I couldn't move in, and to never make myself go hungry again. Part of it was being around people who loved me and having that rub off. Part of it was excelling in my career as a writer, which has nothing to do with looks.” — Michaela, 23
23 of 29
“For me, it is not about completely accepting or not accepting my body at any given moment. I am constantly having a conversation with my body, about my body, because my body is always in flux. Things are always changing, both internally and externally, and I am always going to have to negotiate my feelings and emotions about those changes. I also try to stay solution-oriented in terms of creating the body I want. I only allow myself to be frustrated with whatever it is that's bothering me until I have a solution and understand how to solve my problem. For me, I know that I don't have control over a great many things in my life, but I can control what I put into my body. I do 95% of my grocery shopping at farmer’s markets or local co-ops. I find that what is important to me isn't the cost of my food or getting a quick food fix, but it is the integrity of the food I put into my body that matters. By doing this, I am significantly more mindful and aware of how much food I'm consuming, what the ingredients are, how to utilize ingredients, how my body reacts to foods, etc. I also spend more time meal-planning, eating more meals at home, and making healthy choices.” — Kate, 25
24 of 29
“I was always stick-thin without effort, until I gained 90 pounds from a psychiatric medication. At a certain point, I just snapped, and thought to myself, I can't keep living like this. So I joined a women's gym in my area, and the support was immense. I lost 70 pounds and completely transformed. Since then, I have gained muscle and am getting athletic. But truth be told, I still over-analyze my thighs here, stomach there, even though people tell me I look great. I hope this changes someday, though, and soon!” — Neesa, 30
25 of 29
“I learned that no one else really sees the tiny flaws that I stare at in the mirror every single day and think that everyone else can clearly see, too. I learned that those perfect, airbrushed bodies I see every day on the internet aren't real, and that everyone has flaws. And the more confident I am with my body (even if I'm not really, and am just pretending), the more sexy others find me, and...the sexier and more confident I feel myself.” — Anna, 26
26 of 29
“I really had a hard time in that phase of my life where my friends, peers, and I were going through all of the same life stages together (graduating, moving to the city, first job, first meaningful relationship, first real heartbreak, first promotion, etc.) not to compare myself to others and to constantly nitpick at what I perceived as my own flaws. And I'm not saying that I don't still do it sometimes, but at some point near the end of my 20s, I had a mindset shift where I understood my body differently and appreciated it based on its ability to drive me through a long, peaceful, mind-clearing run, or take me on an adventure, or stay fueled through long days/nights of work at a demanding job. That’s how I see it now, as opposed to seeing it as something I needed to catalog as looking a certain way in comparison to other people.” — Neha, 34
27 of 29
“Instead of being concerned with what it looks like, be grateful for the miracles that your body is capable of. Initially as a way to lose (a very vain) 10 lbs in my early 20s, I took up distance running, and marathon training gave me a really important change of perspective on everything body-related. Instead of caring so much about how it looked, I learned instead to be appreciative, grateful, and proud of what my body could do.” — Britnee, 29
28 of 29
“I learned that I don't need to accept anyone else's opinion about what my body looks like and should look like. I'll eat and look as I please. As long as I am alive and healthy, that is ALL that matters! Don't like what you see? There is another side of the street you can look at. I had this self-reflection while in college, one day at the end of my freshman year, when I could no longer fit into my regular pair of jeans (eventually, I fit back into them somehow). But I realized my body has and will continue to change, and I can't keep expecting to live up to unrealistic expectations, and I won't!” — Pamela, 23
29 of 29
“At age 25, I decided to jump back into dance classes after roughly a seven-year break. It was so important for me to know that I may not have had the same flexibility or build that I did in my teens, but I could still do it. It was a really empowering moment for me.” — Heather, 34

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