Is Weight Loss Body Positive?

BoPo heartI’ve been waiting a while to write this post. Like, months. Because it’s a complex issue, and it deserved some thought. (Also, I figured I’d probably piss a few people off with my take on this, and I really needed some time to galvanize myself)

I think this question breaks further down into three questions:

  1. Is it body positive to want to lose weight?
  2. Is actively trying to lose weight a body positive act?
  3. If I happen to lose weight, am I no longer being body positive?

Let’s start with the first one:

1. Is it body positive to want to lose weight?

We live in a culture that reviles fat bodies, heavily endorses one type of beauty (thin, white), and insists that if you just work hard enough you can change whatever body you’re in and suddenly fit into the impossibly stringent beauty standards that have been set up for women (and now increasingly, men).  With all this pressure bearing down on us, I see it as completely natural to still wish for thinness in order to fit into the mainstream so we can get all that love that society sends out for those who’ve made it.

So no, I don’t think it’s necessarily unbody positive to still have this desire for societal acceptance. We are geared to want to belong, which is why we humans have, for the most part, gelled into tribes and communities and civilizations. We’re also geared, in general, to strive, to move forward, to achieve (though this is not true for everyone nor should it have to be). And often we want all sorts of things that we might never get, even when that desire isn’t rational or achievable.

The problem with body positivity and weight loss is not the wanting, which stems from a society that tries to vilify or erase all sorts of bodies. The problem is with the actual attempting of weight loss. Which leads me to…

2. Is actively trying to lose weight a body positive act?

This is where it gets complicated.

Diet and weight loss culture is not body positive because it is rooted in the belief that fat bodies, bodies that do not conform to the very narrow beauty standards (thin, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered), are wrong, unattractive and/or unhealthy. Diet and weight loss culture simply does not respect the broad diversity of body weights and sizes that exist.

In addition to these nefarious underpinnings, dieting to lose weight simply isn’t sustainable, based on all the best available data (and for this data, you should read Traci Mann’s Secrets from the Eating Lab in which she reviewed all the most rigorous weight loss studies and discovered that…long-term weight loss doesn’t work). And when we say “diets don’t work,” what we mean is that they work for a little bit at first, and then, usually within three to five years, some, all or even more of the weight is regained for most people. Failure on this level is simply not a lack of motivation or willpower, and the diet industry is unable to show that long-term weight loss is achievable for more than a tiny fraction of people.

Weight loss for health is wholly unnecessary. Studies show that our health habits (balanced diet, fitness, not smoking, not drinking excessively, etc.) make more of an impact on our health and longevity than weight ever could. We can begin to work toward fitness and eating well at any weight. Weight loss may be associated with health improvements, but there are three problems with concluding that weight loss is the solution to health problems: 1. Studies that show this association rarely take into account the health habits that typically change when someone tries to lose weight, so we really don’t know if it is the weight loss itself OR the change in health habits that are affecting health. 2. We’ve seen from other studies that health improvements can be accomplished through change in health habits in the absence of weight loss (eg. Eating a more nutrient dense diet, exercising more, etc.), and 3. Since weight loss is typically short term, any improvements made to health based on weight loss alone may end up being short term as well.

Body positivity is founded on the belief that all bodies are good bodies and that a person’s value is not based on her/his body. Weight loss culture is founded on the belief that all bodies are better smaller. So no, participating in diet and weight loss culture is not, in my opinion, a body positive act.

Please know that I never blame or judge those who participate in diet and weight loss culture. They are victims of a society that profits from their insecurities. Keeping women busy with smallness keeps us from fully participating in society and therefore unable to change the rules to actually empower women; it also means we will buy whatever is offered to help us fit into this rejecting society, including weight loss “solutions.” Dieters are, by design, pawns of a $60 billion diet industry. But all of this is why an anti-fat-body culture is not body positive.

Allowing diet culture messages to highjack body positivity renders it just more of the same, and we are left with a culture that continues to insist that some bodies are good bodies, while others aren’t.

3. If I happen to lose weight, am I no longer being body positive?

Changes in body weight and/or size can occur for many reasons. Often a person’s body will change as they age. Sometimes bodies lose or gain weight with illness. Sometimes body size or weight changes can occur with improvements in diet, eating more intuitively, or increase in exercise. Change in diet or activity level is not a guarantee of weight loss, however weight loss may occur. Weight loss as a result of self-care is not inherently unbody-positive. It is simply something that happened while you were looking after yourself.

It’s important to remember that this loss may be temporary, or it may be permanent, but a focus on weight loss will eventually undermine attempts at sustainable self-care as we attempt to coax the body into a shape or weight that may not be natural for it. That is why Health at Every Size® is weight-neutral.

Focusing on caring for oneself in the best way possible while also learning to accept the inherent shape and size of your body is body positive. However, how the body responds weight-wise is better treated as a side-effect of self-care, not the focus.

These are, needless to say, my own opinions. I don’t own body positivity, I merely promote it. Also, it’s not a club where you can have your membership revoked if, heavens forbid, you do something unbody positive. It’s a movement that is trying to change the status quo of body hatred.

I did meet the woman who owns the body positive trademark (and she is pro-HAES®), so if you want her take on it, her website is here. She didn’t trademark it for financial purposes, but to protect it from the diet world co-opting this term for profit, as we see happening now.

Recommended further reading: This is a great article by Virgie Tovar that further explains why body positive spaces need to be free of weight loss talk.

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19 thoughts on “Is Weight Loss Body Positive?

  1. Michelle Yandle January 30, 2017 / 11:32 am

    You haven’t pissed me off at all, but I am starting to get frustrated with all the conflicting messages out there that people are hearing. I work with a non-diet approach to health with my clients but more and more people are being led to feel guilt about their actions. The Diet industry has made us feel guilty about not dieting, being overweight and eating certain foods which is shameful. But now people are being made to feel guilty if they do want to go on a diet. Again, I’m not an advocate for dieting but if someone wants to experiment and give it a go, that’s their choice and they should never feel guilty for doing so. Soon enough they will learn for themselves that it doesn’t work, and when we learn these things on our own, it makes it all the more empowering. I know you probably wouldn’t agree but I see it every day, and experienced it myself this act of making people feel guilty no matter what they do.

    • GlenysO January 30, 2017 / 1:26 pm

      The conflicting messages are from different sources, though. The diet industry tells people to feel guilty about eating so that it can profit off of people’s insecurities. Body positivity is not for profit, not an industry, and I believe we need to be honest with people in the efficacy of weight loss attempts and how dieting is actually potentially harmful from a physiological and emotional standpoint. If, after being informed, people still want to go on a diet, that is really 100% their choice, no guilt required (not sure why they’d feel guilty about that). I don’t believe, however, that dieting is a body positive act, in the same way I don’t believe smoking is a healthful act. If we start to say one thing is the other, then it all loses meaning and we end up getting no further along.

  2. mmapes2 January 30, 2017 / 12:42 pm

    In answering question 2 you said, “Diet and weight loss culture simply does respect the broad diversity of body weights and sizes that exist.” I think a “not” got left out maybe?

    Thanks for always posting awesome articles!

    • GlenysO January 30, 2017 / 1:16 pm

      Ha, it sure did get left out! Thanks for catching – edited now.

      • mmapes2 January 30, 2017 / 1:26 pm

        Cool =) Thanks for all that you do! <3

  3. Leigh January 30, 2017 / 3:43 pm

    Don’t you think that there might be a way to actively try to lose weight without participating in diet and weight loss culture? I have been thinking about this a lot too. What if one were to do some of the things we do for health, such as get more exercise and eat more vegetables, but with a motivation of weight loss and not just health? What if one didn’t set a “goal weight” but just thought “I’m going to try this new habit and see if it helps me lose weight”? I know it’s a slippery slope so I don’t know if this would work for most people with a history of dieting. I just feel like there must be some sort of reasonable middle ground between typical diet culture and “don’t even try”. I think there is a huge difference between “going on a diet” to lose weight vs. building a habit that you don’t mind and intend to keep for life or as long as you can. But I still wrestle with a lot of questions about this. I appreciate your post!

    • GlenysO January 30, 2017 / 8:34 pm

      But if it’s about building habits for health, why have a weight loss goal at all? The minute the weight starts to come back (and almost always, it does, unless enormous effort is applied in most cases), the new habit is either chucked (“why bother if it’s not going to keep me thin”) or turned into a new obsession with weight loss maintenance. In fact, you describe exactly how I started out with diets. “This is just to eat better, and hopefully I’ll lose some weight.” It worked. Then my obsession with manipulating my weight grew and grew, eventually to the point that I was spending my entire life keeping my weight down. So, no, I personally don’t feel weight goals are ever useful.

      • FitFatRun February 19, 2017 / 3:47 pm

        This HS been my experience too.

  4. billfabrey January 30, 2017 / 4:21 pm

    I think that this is the most gifted essay on the topic I have read so far. I do agree with some who feel stigmatized in some size-acceptance quarters for trying yet another diet. It’s their body, and they get to do what they want with it. Yes, I do worry that they will become further oppressed by buying into the diet culture. Yes, I do worry about their health as they weight-cycle once more. Yes, I get peeved if they discuss their current diet within my range of hearing. But I will not sit in judgement of their actions as long as they don’t try to preach the diet gospel to everyone else.

    • GlenysO January 30, 2017 / 4:28 pm

      Thanks Bill. Yes, I agree. People should feel free to do what they want with their bodies and they owe no one anything. At the same time, movements need meaning in order to change the culture and move forward. I also loved how Virgie’s article really summed up why we need Body Positive places to be free of weight loss talk. We are taking refuge from a world where the norm is diet talk.

  5. Jean February 2, 2017 / 1:45 pm

    Really love this explanation especially the first point about remaining ambivalent about dieting/weight loss while embarking on the HAES/IE journey.
    Thanks for a wonderfully written piece I can share with my clients, friends, and family.

  6. Tiffany Clark February 6, 2017 / 7:32 am

    I am brand new to this school of thought. I’ve been a victim of the weightloss industry for the better part of my 36 yrs on earth. I want to let go of this mentality. I do. It is bondage that I am in. I am very scared of letting go though. Your post scared me some. It made me feel hopeless in a way because your saying essentially that is pretty close to impossible to maintain fat loss. Am I correct? The thing is I am extremely uncomfortable with 100 extra pounds of weight on my frame. My back hurts, my body just hurts. I would like to sustain fat loss in a positive way. I’ve had so many babies and health problems and I just want to be comfortable in my own skin. At this point I can be okay not being “skinny”. I just want to get some of the fat off to be more comfortable. My bones hurt … the fat is heavy (i’ve lifted it up) it is hard to carry around extra fat all day. So. I don’t want to be obsessed with a number on a scale… I am tired of trying plans… but i remember how good and light it felt to carry around less fat and I want that feeling again. In a healthy way.

    • GlenysO February 6, 2017 / 8:46 am

      Thanks for commenting! Many people know your pain…they feel uncomfortable in the body they’re in – maybe physically, maybe mentally, or both – and they’ve been on the diet rollercoaster for a long time, which has likely moved their set point up higher than what it would be had they never dieted. The problem is – if, after so many years of dieting, permanent fat loss/weight loss still hasn’t occurred for you, why would it work now? And yes, the studies do confirm that most weight loss is temporary for most people, and in fact diets are likely making people larger in the long-run.

      One thing we do know is that you can improve your physical conditioning with activity or movement, regardless of whether weight is lost. We can build strength, flexibility and stamina through physical conditioning. Many fat people do this, and there are non-diet forums where they discuss exercise without the goal of weight loss (Fit Fatties is an excellent one, they also have a Facebook group). I recommend my friend Bethany’s blog in which she documents her rejection of diet culture and embracing movement that she loves.

      Best of luck!

      • Tiffany Clark February 9, 2017 / 11:24 am

        Thanks for your input! at this point I’ve made some progress in my mind. Having bipolar disorder has caused me to not be able to stick to things for very long but i am getting help now and the changes I am making are that I am weight lifting and i am starting to feel better and stronger… i stand taller and move around better. I stopped all diet plans but am just eating the foods I personally deem healthy which are mostly whole foods but am allowing myself whatever i choose whenever i want and i prefer natural food items most often. I hope to maintain this lifestyle and have fatloss… my goal is just to feel better and take care of myself. whatever happens as a side affect happens. after I wrote you here i found this blog post which resonated with me. seemed like a balanced approach. you may or may not agree on her article. it wasn’t negative. it was kind of the best of both worlds so to speak… (link removed for promoting unsubstantiated claims about body changes & exercise)

  7. inohnothing February 7, 2017 / 6:15 pm

    This is so hard for me–to love myself at any size and not feel like a failure for losing 114 lbs on Weight Watchers almost 13 years ago and gaining 50 lbs back over 3 years about 3 times now. And it was mostly from emotional eating. I really believe WW helped me develop an eating disorder and, from talking to many of my friends, male and female, they are pretty much eating disordered, too. I did binge and emotionally overeat to be at my before weight of 250 lbs, but I consistently gained weight over the years. Yet I struggled with walking up flights of stairs and across campus. I even remember almost starving myself during the day and eating too much at night. Maybe I was always eating disordered; I don’t know anymore. Yet my loved ones said it got much worse when I was on WW, especially when I was fighting to meet their expected goal weight which was 2 lbs lower than my goal weight. I lost 20 extra lbs as my “Screw you” to the WW system, which I gained back after a hip/IT band injury from compulsive exercising. Anyway, this is probably oversharing, but this is a lifelong battle and the real issue probably is more like in the movie Supersize Me and other documentaries–low income neighborhoods get more fastfood restaurants and less good produce in their grocery stores. Only the wealthy can really afford to shop at Whole Foods. Sorry to ramble so much. 🙂

    • GlenysO February 8, 2017 / 11:21 am

      Sorry to hear of your weight loss woes – you are not alone. I hope you’ll come to join us in the Facebook group I mentioned if you need support in a non-diet, body acceptance way. It’s a great group.

      • inohnothing February 9, 2017 / 6:51 pm

        Thank you!

  8. playinwiththeplayers March 1, 2017 / 11:22 am

    I very much appreciate this post. I have had decades of trouble with body image, food, eating disorders and disordered eating. I wrote a post about it called The Body Positive on my blog because it was a profound change in my thinking when I just came across this term on Jan 1 of this year. I was DREADING the return to my full-time job of over-exercising and restricted eating lifestyle and the self loathing and shame that accompanied any enjoyment of food. OH GOD it is so good to be DONE with that mentality. I have gained quite a bit of weight over the last eight weeks, but, that is to be expected with my metabolism trying to get to a set point. It has been discouraging to rub up against those friends who still think I am the other person — the one obsessed. Anyway, I am free of the prison on my former life. Please keep up your fabulous work. We need you. Trust me.

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