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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Fat Bodies Are Not Fixer Uppers

Body diversity, yo.

Dear People Who Want to Shrink Fat Bodies:

I think all bodies are awesome – thin, fat, disabled, buff, hourglass, angular, apples, pears, carrots, celery (what, thin people can’t have food body-descriptors?). To my mind, there is no body out there that is not simply wonderful. So it dismays me that there are people who do think that there is a hierarchy of goodness when it comes to bods – with fat bodies on the bottom. They are so distressed by fat bodies that they’ve committed, either personally or professionally, to help make us thinner. To those folks: I know you think you’re doing good, but you’re not, and so…we gotta talk.

I understand that for the most part, you are acting out of the goodness of your heart (even if you are making money from this endeavor). You see how fat people suffer at the hands of a cruel world who has decided that having at least one (but often many more) oppressed segment of society is beneficial in so many ways, especially the money-making way, and you don’t want us to suffer anymore. So you think the best way to end that suffering is to end our fatness. You’ve heard about how fat is killing us all (even though it really isn’t) and you want to save us from death (even though we all die. No matter what.). Because you know (just as we once all knew the world was flat) that it’s just a matter of changing our diets, getting off the couch a bit more, right? Even though if that were truly the case, there would probably hardly be any fat people, since that sounds pretty simple, and lots of us already do it.

You don’t understand that maybe some bodies are just naturally fat, or eventually become fat, that the bell curve of bodies tends naturally toward diversity of size and shape and ability (because from an evolution standpoint, that’s a totally helpful thing) and therefore you simply don’t understand why all us fatties are just choosing to be needlessly fat. Perhaps we are just like willful children who need your thinner, wiser guidance. (Also, you might make some money! A LOT of money!)

But here’s the deal – I know almost no fat person who hasn’t tried to turn herself or himself into a thin(ner) person at least once in their lives (fat people who have never dieted aren’t quite unicorns…but they are exceedingly rare in my personal, non-scientific, anecdotal experience). We’ve tried the sensible diets (supposedly Weight Watchers and healthy lifestyle changes) and when those didn’t work (or worked to turn us into crazy people), other diets were tried – some of them more and more extreme as time went by (you go, breatharians!). In reality, if just plain sensible nutrition and exercise (which isn’t all that difficult) worked consistently and reliably to turn fat people into thin people, there wouldn’t be any fad diets at all. But there are. Lots of them. So yeah, we’ve tried them all…and most of us are still fat.

But for the love of all that is kale-infused, if you’re going to make fat people your charity project, at least do the research. (better yet, get a different project). You will find out that most intentional weight loss efforts – like 95% – fail after more than 5 years (and usually by year 3). It is not due to lack of willpower, and the science shows this reliably. In a country that sent people to the moon (conspiracy theorists, stop right there) and invented the iPhone, and where people regularly don’t take vacation, you’re trying to say that we’re simply not trying hard enough? Hogwash. I’m not buying it. People try hard at things all the time, even fat people. If long-weight loss could be maintained by more than a tiny fraction of people, we would have maintained it by now. So you’re not going to make our lives better by making us thin, because there is no real way to make the majority of us thin for the long-term.

How could you help? Lay off the fat phobia, first of all. Consider that there are a lot of ways for people to be happy and get healthy without focusing on weight. Anyone can benefit from eating better – and I don’t mean more restrictively – or being more active, but unless someone has asked for your help, please don’t launch in on a reform mission. No one wants to feel like they need to be fixed, especially by someone who has never walked a mile in their shoes.

Please stop assuming you can tell how or what someone eats just by looking at them. You can’t. And you can’t tell their health status either. Good doctors don’t diagnose by looking at someone by five seconds and making assumptions. You shouldn’t either.

You can advocate to end the stigma and rampant discrimination that fat people face (or any people. No one should ever have to suffer from any kind of discrimination). You can decide to do nothing at all and just leave fat people alone – that in itself will be huge. If you do nothing other than to refuse to speak judgmentally about body shapes and sizes (and that includes thin bodies) you help to shut weight stigma down.

To all our thin and “normal” weight allies – thank you. I love you so much, because you have nothing personally to gain (other than living in a harmonious world full of happiness and rainbows, I guess). To all those who truly don’t give a shit one way or the other whether someone is fat or not – thank you to you, too. You at least aren’t making things worse.

And to those who still want to shrink fat bodies– I hope you find another hobby someday. Because this one isn’t working for us.

Dietitians Unplugged podcast – episode 6 available now!

Episode 6 is called “Clean Eating or Toxic Ideas?” and we had so much fun talking about this subject.

Listen on Libsyn or iTunes. Give us a review on iTunes if you like us — this helps to spread the non-diet love to more people. Check out our Facebook page for our latest episode and news and more weight neutral, HAES® friendly podcasts!

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