Why Body Positivity Needs Your Help

BoPo heartI’m thrilled at how the body positive movement has really taken off and gone mainstream in the past year. I remember when it was little more than what seemed like a fringe movement only a few short years ago. I’m not even sure I remember anyone using the words “body positive.”

After suppressing my weight on diets for so long, my body naturally gained weight when I stopped dieting and started to eat normally (yep, it can happen).  I was dismayed at the change but I knew I couldn’t go back to dieting, so I decided to immerse myself in this body positivity stuff I’d been seeing a bit of on the internet. After poking around the web for a while I found some wonderful body-acceptance bloggers and advocates to light the way for me. Because literally no one else I knew in real life knew about this stuff, I felt like I had discovered a true body-acceptance treasure trove to which I and a handful of others had the secret key. Which sounds kind of awesome on the level of “Goonies” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, but in reality, when learning how to finally accept and like your body after many years of culturally installed body dissatisfaction, it’s not really a place you want to be alone.

That was in 2010. Flash-forward six years and it now seems like the words “body positive” are on everyone’s lips. While the spread of a body positive movement has, in my opinion, been a good thing, its lack of a codified definition has left it open to misinterpretation and hijacking by less benevolent forces (like what happened to “lifestyle changes”).

“Body positivity” is a pretty general, undefined term, and therefore it’s open to anyone’s interpretation. It can mean something different to everyone. For me, body positivity is about accepting the bodies we have right now, no matter how well they approximate the cultural beauty standards and ideals. It’s about having respect for our bodies and what they do for us, not just about how they look to others or in the mirror. For me, it is also about rejecting a diet-and-weight-loss culture that tells us we need to change our appearance in order to feel good about ourselves and become socially acceptable.

I’ve noticed recently that my definition isn’t necessarily everyone else’s. I’ve read a few “body positive” blogs in which the bloggers talk about their efforts toward weight loss for health purposes. That disappoints me; if it’s truly about health, we know that a person does not actually have to lose weight in order to make positive changes toward good health. Eating well, exercising, managing stress, getting social and emotional support are all things a person can do without requiring the number on the scale to change. And knowing what I know about just how unhealthful and futile dieting is both physically and mentally, I simply cannot equate the pursuit of weight loss with body positivity.

I’ve also seen people draw a line in the sand with body positivity and weight. Like, “It’s okay to feel good about your body up to a certain point. But some people are too big and need to lose weight.” No, this is absolutely not body-positive. This imaginary line in the sand is why I believe in fat positivity. It should go without saying that fat positivity is included in body positivity, but considering that the word “fat” is still largely wielded as an insult, and fat bodies are almost never accepted and celebrated as other body shapes and sizes are – well, it’s going to take a lot of extra effort on behalf of fat activists and advocates to normalize fat bodies. Part of that effort includes saying, unapologetically, that we are fat positive.

This movement needs to be inclusive and accepting of all weights even if it is not necessarily the best or “healthiest” weight for that person at that moment (example: people with illness that cause unintentional weight loss or gain). This is why the banning of very-thin models in France or ads of very-thin women in England is not the answer; this still puts a value on certain body sizes (and if they can ban thin bodies, they won’t hesitate to ban fat bodies at some point either). It doesn’t solve the problem of inclusivity; it only makes the problem of exclusivity worse. The real problem is that women have long suffered from being valued for what our bodies look like; body positivity needs to be about putting that particular valuation aside and embracing the other great things about our bodies and what they do for us, how they enable us to take part in the world.

All of these problems are merely problems of definition, or lack of. The thing that really gets my blood boiling is when industries that profit off of our body insecurities start using the language of body positivity to sell products that aren’t very body positive at all. Dove, I’m looking at you and your cellulite reducing cream. Weight Watchers, I see you trying to get “beyond the scale” with some #bopo language, but I bet you didn’t remove any of the scales from your meetings, did you? Products that propose to change your body are simply not body positive, because they insist that the body at its starting point is flawed and requires changing.

Body Positive Australia recently illustrated this point perfectly when they took Weight Watchers to task after WW put some naked larger women in its magazine and declared they would end fat-shaming:

“Don’t try and manipulate body positivity, mindful eating and other ideas that HAVE NOTHING to do with weight, or weight loss. At the very least – please get real because the veiled attempts at pretending you give a shit are really tiresome. Your advertising directly preys on people’s insecurities and promotes the idea that you’ll be happier and more confident by losing weight. You use fear of fat, and shame, to perpetuate the idea that we’re not enough as we are, we must change & that if we’re smaller, we’re better, more valuable, more worthy. Yours is a shame-based business that is built on the idea that smaller is preferred, and that controlling your food makes for a better person. It keeps the narrative alive that self-worth is contingent on weight, shape and compliant eating behaviour. Whilst we’re keeping the focus on weight, we’re not really addressing the REAL reasons we’re not living the life we want, and deserve.”

Becoming truly body positive is going to require vigilance as the diet industry continues to defend its turf against the potential self-satisfaction of millions of people and therefore the loss of profit for its shitty products that don’t work. Likewise, many people who are personally invested in and benefit from the status quo of cultural beauty ideals will want to continue to enforce these ideals, only letting a chosen few into the club under the guise of “body positivity” in order to continue to keep it exclusive and their power intact. Don’t be fooled, none of this is really body positivity. Being truly inclusive, compassionate, celebratory and accepting of all body shapes, sizes, colors and abilities is what body positivity really needs to be about.

Want to Work With Me?

Are you over dieting but don’t know how to handle eating normally? Are you over living a life of restriction and binge eating? I can help. I’m now taking clients for drama-free eating coaching sessions. Click here for more information.

Latest Dietitians Unplugged Episode!

Aaron and I talk with Andrew Whalen of The Body Image Therapy Center about eating disorders in men. Give us a listen!

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Anatomy of a Bad Body Week

body
This day was the beginning of my bad body week. No idea why – looks harmless now!

I’m committed to a non-diet life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have bad body days that turn into bad body weeks.

I’d been enjoying my time in Vivienne McMaster’s Be Your Own Beloved class. I was enjoying the challenge of taking a lot of selfies, even if they weren’t what I would have considered “flattering” or “attractive.” I felt I was really getting the hang of this compassion-for-myself business!

Then one day I took several photos for the prompt that day – we are encouraged to take many, many photos – and for some reason…it just set me off. The outfit I was wearing – something I thought looked super cute in the morning – was all wrong. My inner critic came leaping out of hibernation with all sorts of insults for my body, my face, my hair, my very soul, and for reasons I’ll get to, I was ripe for the picking.

I felt down for the rest of the day. I woke up the next morning with residual bad body feelings. I was also going through a period of fatigue (a theme of my life that I’ve learned to respect with rest). I felt like there was no one I could talk to about these feelings, because even if someone else knows the pain of bad body days, it’s hard to understand how other people have them. “You look great!” someone might console. I don’t know why, but that’s just not helpful at all; I know my bad body day is not rational and that others are not seeing what I see. A compliment at that moment just feels dismissive of all the dark feelings. I shared my thoughts with my partner and he was supportive and loving as always, but it’s still hard not to feel alone in these times.

But here’s what I knew, after so many years of experience: bad body days aren’t forever. And for me, they aren’t really about my body. At the same time, I also developed acid reflux and stomach distension that are classic symptoms of stress for me. So I started to think…what am I really bothered about? And I didn’t have to dig far to know that I’ve been a little stressed out with starting my business and dealing with the less fun administrative tasks. I’ve long known that I feel stress somatically, that even as my mind remains calm, my body sends me a multitude of distress signals. My body becomes, then, an easy target when the mental distress finally mounts.

What do I do when I finally realize I’m in the middle of a bad-body jag? It becomes all about self care. For me, that means getting lots of sleep and doing things like reading something fun and relaxing, eating familiar foods, and mindless TV watching or game-playing on my phone. And last week, it also included binge-listening to Julie Duffy Dillon’s fabulous podcast, Love, Food (specifically episodes 25, 26 and 28). Hearing that I wasn’t actually alone in these uncharitable thoughts about my body, that there were others dealing with these thoughts every single day, all over the place, was comforting.

In a culture that actively promotes body hate for profit – especially for women – and as someone who was a victim of this culture for 40 years before realizing it was total bullshit, it is unrealistic to think I’m going to feel great about my body every day. Frankly, I don’t even think it’s necessary to feel fantastic about the way our bodies look every day – that’s something that takes up a lot of mental space I no longer have room for. Feeling good IN my body is much more important to me, and that’s what I strive for now.

Soon enough, my bad body week ended. This week I’m back to being just fine with my body. I didn’t need to go on a diet to cure my bad feelings; I just had to sit with them for a while and be good to myself.

By the way, the photo that undid me is the one that accompanies this post. I look at it now and think there’s nothing wrong with this person in this photo. Some people in our photo group even liked it. In the end, it was all about what I really needed (self-care, compassion), and had nothing to do with how I looked.

Big News: Dare To Not Diet is in Business!

I’m excited to announce that I’m taking clients for drama-free-eating coaching! It’s been by dream to help others find peace with eating, food and their bodies, and after so many of you have reached out to say that you want this kind of support, I’m finally able to do it. To find out more, click here.

Latest Dietitians Unplugged Episode!

Aaron and I talk with Andrew Whalen of The Body Image Therapy Center about eating disorders in men. Give us a listen!

Libsyn
iTunes
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But What if I Get Fat?

Big_Fat_Red_CatI think a question people contemplating giving up dieting might ask is, “But what if I get fat?” I think it’s a good question and it doesn’t really get talked about enough in the intuitive eating world, in my opinion.

I first heard about HAES® while sitting in my introductory nutrition class in college, given by the woman herself, Dr. Linda Bacon, size acceptance activist and author of the book Health at Every Size®. She really turned my head with her talk of not-dieting and fat acceptance. It took a few months before I was fully able to digest (pun intended) all that she was saying. When I did finally take it all in and decide to give up dieting myself, I didn’t think about whether I would get fat again. I was so hungry and tired of dieting while continuing to be dissatisfied with my body that I just couldn’t bear to do it anymore. Naively, I thought I had taken care of my “fat” problem years ago when I first began dieting and then, against all odds, maintained a lower weight for 8 years before my dieting got really crazy.

Had I asked myself that question at the time – but what if I get fat? – I’m not sure what the answer would have been. I was definitely not in a fat acceptance headspace for myself at that moment. For others? Sure! For me…uh….no. All I knew is that my dieting and the quality of life it gave me was not sustainable or enjoyable and almost anything would be better, including whatever consequences of not-dieting might be.

And so yes, after a number of years of not-dieting, I did get fat again. It seemed inconceivable that just eating in a slightly more relaxed way – the way I ate throughout most of my 20s! – would cause my weight to suddenly and dramatically go up, and yet up it went. Every year was another 10 pounds gained until I arrived at my original pre-any-diet weight last year. My body now maintains that weight – at least for now – without me thinking much about it.

Why on earth, one might ask, would anyone give up dieting if they are “successfully” maintaining a lower body weight? Good question. Well, that person might feel the way I did – that dieting had taken over their lives and they are no longer fully themselves. Or they might be sick of fighting constant food cravings. Or being hungry all the time. Or fearing food. Or someone might have an eating disorder that is threatening their lives. Everyone is different and I respect any and all reasons to give up dieting – or to keep it up if that’s what feels right.

But for those wanting to say goodbye to dieting, what can you expect if you give up dieting? If you were originally a heavier person and you’ve been maintaining a lower weight than your natural body weight…yes, you might gain weight once you start to eat more intuitively. If you’ve been suppressing your natural hunger cues for a long time, you’ve sent your body a message: there is not enough food available in your environment. Your body responds by becoming very efficient at storing energy – i.e., hanging onto fat. This is also why dieting often yields fast weight loss results initially, but then slow down and eventually stop (and then reverse) the longer the diet continues. It’s just your body trying to save your life in a perceived famine.

If you’re one of those folks who gains weight, you’ll likely have some self-acceptance homework to do. I’ve talked recently about how this isn’t easy, but totally worth it. While you might have heard a lot of kudos for your weight loss – the ubiquitous “You look great, did you lose weight?” – unfortunately, the way society currently operates, you won’t hear the opposite: “Omigod, you look amazing, did you gain weight??” On one hand, this kind of sucks! On the other, you realize quickly that relying on the opinions of others for your self-esteem is a no-win game.

Sometimes the only critic you have to contend with is the person looking back at you in the mirror. That can be even harder to deal with than facing the opinions of others. For me, learning to accept my body started with first being able to see the beauty of other fat bodies. I poured over fat fashion blogs in awe – these women look fantastic, why did I see fat as ugly for so long?? I stopped seeing weight as a measure of my self-worth. I also decided to focus on what my body could do for me rather than what it looked like. I am lucky to be able to walk long distances, use a hula hoop, swim, lift weights, ride a bike and dance in my living room, so I focused on celebrating that instead of what shape my body was. I focused on my behaviors – eating healthfully (and enjoyably) and engaging in movement I loved. Working at appreciating my body was a worthy endeavor that eventually paid off – I’m much more at peace now with myself than I ever was on a diet.

In the end, there are many worse things than gaining weight and getting fat. For me, life on a diet was worse. I know this because I was willing to give it up without even thinking about the possible consequences. Eventually I was able to trust in the wisdom of my body to take me and my weight where it needed to go. Then I just needed to take my mind there with it.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Ditching Dieting

L: Hungry.......R: Happy.
L: Hungry…….R: Happy.

There are many good things that can happen when you ditch dieting and embrace Health at Every Size® and intuitive eating. You will start to feel more relaxed around food. You will have more time to do cool things once you no longer obsess about food 24/7. You will no longer endure intense hunger for hours at a time, distracting yourself with “food” that is akin to gravel. Your body will find its way to the weight that is right for it without your constant vigilance. You might find your palate opening up to new foods you previously avoided. You will likely enjoy the feeling of being kind to yourself instead of punishing yourself with food.

But I’m not gonna lie: there are some things that you might miss about dieting. At least at first.

The diet-life thing that you may find the hardest to give up is The Fantasy of Being Thin (FOBT) which I first read about on Kate Harding’s wonderful fat-acceptance blog, Shapely Prose. As dieters, we pin our hopes for happiness and acceptance (others’ and self) on our future thin selves, the selves that will finally feel confident enough to wear a two-piece bathing suit at the beach (or even just in the fitting room); the selves that will rock skinny jeans without the desire to also wear a butt-and-gut-covering tunic. As Ms. Harding explains so accurately, it’s not just the idea of thinness we are giving up, it is the hope of becoming a whole different person that we fear losing. If we give up the FOBT, we face accepting something we have spent possibly years rejecting: our bodies—and our very selves—as they are now.

I can tell you that this self-acceptance business is no easy task. After quitting dieting, my body changed constantly for four years. Just as I was set to accept my body-as-it-is-now, it changed. And then changed again! Even if your body doesn’t change an inch, it will still be hard to say goodbye to Fantasy Self after having invested in it for so long. Learning to fight all the negative body-image messages we are exposed to each day and play a new mental recording takes time and practice and it’s not going to be easy. Of course, just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing or not possible. And just because you love your body one day doesn’t mean you won’t backslide and lament it the next. But the reality is, when I was thin and supposedly living the dream, I had just as many and more of those self-hating days. It didn’t matter how much weight I lost, my body was never going to be right. I finally figured that if I was going to feel like that, I might as well not be hungry doing it.

On the plus side, once I started accepting myself and my body as they were, wonderful things started to happen. I became my real self again. People are much more relaxed around me now, and I around them. No one rejected me (and even if they had, ew. Who needs that person around?). I smile more and people smile back. I took charge of my career. These are not things that happened when I was struggling in a body that wasn’t me, trying to be a person I wasn’t. Even if they had happened, I wouldn’t have had the energy or time to notice.

The other thing I missed after dumping the diet was my intense obsession with food. Feeling well-fed is wonderful and stress-free – I no longer spend all day worrying about what I am going to eat next, pining after foods I feel I shouldn’t eat (because now there are no foods I shouldn’t eat), and then overeating on those foods when I get the chance. But imagine my surprise when one day I realized that I might not even be a “foodie,” that I might be someone who merely enjoys many foods, but generally has many other interests besides food. Some days I even get annoyed that I am hungry and need to feed myself, so little is my interest in eating at the moment that I am busy with something else. And I can tell you, that is a little disconcerting!

Early on, I based my decision to become a dietitian on the fact that I was “obsessed” with food. Learning that in fact I was not food-obsessed, and merely starving, required me to find other reasons to continue on with the profession of dietetics (turns out there are much-needed voices in the non-diet arena, and I ran with that). I still get hungry – after all, that’s my cue to eat – and I still really enjoy many foods, but that’s about the extent of it. Sometimes I miss thinking of myself as a foodie, but just a little.

Consider this post my full-disclosure: breaking up with dieting can be daunting. Really, though, I could only think of these two things that represented the immediate downside of ditching the diet life. I listed a whole bunch of things, and not even everything, that I think are wonderful about not dieting, tipping the scale, for me, forever in that direction.