I’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:
- Is it body positive to want to lose weight?
- Is actively trying to lose weight a body positive act?
- 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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