‘Tis the season…for weight loss ads, triggering diet talk, and body shaming. Fatphobia – a term that refers to prejudicial beliefs about people in larger bodies – is rampant in our society. And this is one of the toughest times of the year for anyone trying to free themselves from its harmful effects.
Fatphobia comes in many forms - such as using the word fat as an insult, praising weight loss even when it is the result of illness, and demonizing certain food groups as “bad” or “sinful.” It underlies comments about needing to compensate for holiday indulgences, or create a “new you” for the new year. Adding to these tried-and-true classics, this year we are also dealing with stigmatizing messages about pandemic-related weight gain (the body’s natural response to prolonged stress).
We hear it from friends, family, coworkers. We see it on television, in movies, on social media. We even get it from doctors and medical professionals. We are all “swimming in the water” of diet culture, which has its origins in racism, misogyny, and corporate greed.
The pursuit of weight loss has long been an effective tool for diet and beauty companies to rake in the cash while keeping those they target feeling bad enough about themselves that they 1) continue spending money on “self-improvement” products, and 2) have little resources left over to devote to non-appearance-related ambitions.
Can We Just Stop and Think About That?
We are being asked to devote our precious time, energy, and money to a goal that is temporary at best and harmful to our physical and mental wellbeing at worst. Companies – many run by wealthy white men – are profiting off our insecurities, many of which they themselves manufactured.
Cellulite, for example, was not even considered a “problem” until 1933, when French spas latched onto it as an opportunity to sell “treatments” to women (who, not coincidentally, were accumulating power and independence at the time). The Body Mass Index (BMI) was never intended to be used as a measure of health, nor is it an effective measure of health, yet it is widely used to stigmatize people of size.
We Need A New Perspective
If this makes you mad, good. Anger is an appropriate and healthy response to oppression, and an essential part of liberating yourself from its grasp. That said, it’s not an easy journey. Anger alone is not enough to change the voices in our heads insisting that being thin is of crucial importance and weight loss is the solution to all our problems.
We’ve been taught to believe that fat is unhealthy, undesirable, a sign of laziness and a moral failing. We have been conditioned to worship one very specific type of body – thin, white, young, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied – despite the fact that the average American woman is between a size 16 and 18.
Perhaps most damaging of all, we’ve been taught that weight loss is both attainable and sustainable, that we can control the size and shape of our bodies if we only have enough self-control. Yet research has shown that the vast majority of diets fail and that the weight cycling (or “yo-yo dieting”) that usually results not only tends to drive up people’s weight over time, it is actually associated with a greater risk of heart disease than simply maintaining a heavier weight.
Grieving The Loss of the "Perfect" Body
Many of my clients tell me (and I can empathize) that weight loss DOES in fact solve problems. During periods of weight loss, they say they feel more confident, go out more, take more pictures, and spend less time and energy worrying about how they look or what to wear.
And I want all those things for my clients! More than anything, I want them to feel good about themselves, to use their time and energy living and enjoying their lives. I want them to be spontaneous and engaged in the present moment rather than tortured by a meal they ate or a workout they missed. I want them to be free to do what makes them happy, rather than obsessed (and frustrated) by what might make them thin.
But here’s the thing. Because we know that weight loss is very rarely permanent, and in fact often leads to weight gain, it is dangerous to rely on it as a solution to low self-esteem. That would only set us up for a lifetime of struggle, in which even when we achieve our goal we are wracked by anxiety about how to maintain it. And when we “slip” (as nearly all of us inevitably do, thanks to our bodies’ inherent wisdom and survival instinct), we end up feeling even worse than before.
Moreover, the pursuit of weight loss can drastically reduce the scope of our ambition, our freedom, our ability to live and enjoy life. Restricting food and exercising religiously are like full-time jobs. They often require us to stick to a rigid routine, which limits us in a myriad of ways. It can keep us from going out to restaurants (“what if there’s nothing on the menu that my food rules will allow me to have?”), or enjoying vacations (“what if I won’t be able to fit in all my workouts?”). It can lead to avoidance of gatherings or events where food is part of the fun. It can prevent us from going out all together because the anxiety and fear surrounding food, weight, and body can just get to be too much.
It is natural to feel grief when you consider giving up the pursuit of weight loss – and the dream of attaining “the perfect body” (which often veils deeper emotional needs for acceptance, respect, love, and belonging). It is important to honor that grief, to make space for it and sit with it, to talk or write about it. We need to understand why we are giving it up, and what we are choosing instead. Only then can we take the next steps and begin to nurture more lasting and reliable sources of confidence and self-worth.
Getting On the Right Path to Health
The road to recovery is full of twists and turns. It takes courage, resolve, and determination, and it’s one I don’t recommend traveling alone. If you’re struggling with disordered eating, poor body image, or just want to improve your relationship with food, exercise and your body, get in touch with us today. We can connect you to a supportive therapist dedicated to helping you find freedom from diet culture.