A Few Thoughts On Diet Shaming

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014 | Posted under Health + Fitness, Personal Essays

Do you ever feel that the opposition to the diet industry and the promotion of body acceptance might instead shame people who are actively trying to lose weight because they are not happy with their bodies?

It’s a loaded question, I know, but I have been reading a lot of articles and overhearing (and sometimes participating) in conversations about fat acceptance, body acceptance, the idolatry of the fashion industry, and the dangers of the diet industry preying on insecurities while giving false hope and unrealistic guidelines. I’ve been thinking about these issues in the context of where I stand both as someone who wants to become a registered dietitian and also someone who is overweight.

To be honest, sometimes I feel badly that I want to lose weight. I have read some very powerful articles about body acceptance and the dangers of fat shaming, and I understand what they are trying to say. But at the same time, I also understand the ubiquitous messaging that if you are overweight, you should try to lose some weight. Not necessarily be a skinny-minny, but fitter, healthier, stronger, whatever-er.

Maybe I have a different perspective because I have never tied my self-worth to my weight. It might seem strange, but I’ve never seen myself as a bad, unlovable person because I’m fat. Maybe it’s because I’m married, have always had friends and never been bullied. The only people who ever talked to me about losing weight were my parents. They were both overweight when they were growing up, and so wanted to save me from the pain and misery of trying to eventually lose weight by slowing down my progressive weight gain. And it has been progressive. I’m much heavier than I was in college, and I was heavier in college than I was in high school. But even though they talked to me about my weight (a lot) I never felt like much of what they said was true. I wasn’t teased or bullied for being heavy. I didn’t have trouble with relationships. I did what I wanted to do and wore wanted I wanted to wear and felt pretty good.

Until I decided I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, couldn’t wear what I wanted to wear and in general actually didn’t feel that good. That’s when I decided I wanted to do something about it.

And that’s where things get sticky. Because once you decide you want to lose weight, you are admitting — out loud — that there is something about yourself that you’re not happy with. The problem is that not everyone feels this way. Everyone has a different story about why their body looks the way that it does. Some people want to try to change those reasons, and some people accept things for what they are. I don’t think most people want to be heavy, but I also know that losing weight is harder than it looks and sometimes it’s easier to focus on other health factors, like getting more exercise and eating healthier regardless of the number reflected on the scale or the tag.

When people have differing opinions about something, there can be conflict. Looks of disgust abound whenever a weight loss commercial or advertisement is spotted, even when there are plenty of people who legitimately want to lose weight. Arguments start about whether or not people should even be encouraged to lose weight. Heated debates emerge between ardent followers of “intuitive eating” and those who calorie counting and those who cut out various food groups that they believe give them trouble (I’m talking to you, Paleos).

All of this is incredibly sensitive because at the same time, you have people who are quite perfectly happy with the way they look, their lifestyle, their eating habits, and will you please just leave them the fuck alone?

I get it. I’ve been there. I have tried other people’s ways of doing things, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean what they are doing is bad. It doesn’t mean what you are doing is bad. What I’m looking for in people is where that motivation is coming from.

I don’t find external motivation to be helpful as a foundation. It can be very helpful when it comes to following through on particular goals, such as having “appointments” with a friend to workout or paying gym membership or Weight Watchers or what have you. Stuff like that can really push you to keep going when the going get tough and it does get tough. But the real motivation behind change has to be internal. It has to come from you and only you and it has to be done on your terms, and not because someone else is guilt-tripping you that you eat gluten, or eat bacon, or do cardio, or do Crossfit, or only have time to run after your toddler.

If someone wants to be thinner, stronger or healthier, I think that’s amazing. Power to the people. And most tactics that people take can work. I’ve seen it. I know vegans who are healthy and Paleos who are healthy and Crossfitters and runners and people who eat cupcakes, and on and on. The word “diet” simply means the food that you eat, and as long as your diet provides the macro-nutrients that your body needs to thrive, what more could you ask for? People should feel free to modify their diet and their lifestyle to meet their own needs. If they aren’t your needs, don’t follow their modifications. It’s okay to do something different if it doesn’t work. Because if it doesn’t work, why on God’s green earth would you do it?

This is why I have a problem with fat shaming and diet shaming. Fat shaming is external motivation, and it doesn’t work. Guilt over past mistakes and stress over future ones can completely shred a person’s spirit. It serves no purpose. Diet shaming is also a problem. If someone decides to explore a new lifestyle plan because they think it might help them achieve their goals, we need to be supportive. Whether that’s joining Weight Watchers or a Crossfit box or a running club, we need to embrace people on their journey and not talk smack about a very difficult change they’re about to undertake. Deciding that what you’re doing isn’t working is the easy step. Doing something about it can be hell, and they don’t need any more difficulties in their life.

If you have a legitimate cause for concern, such as eating on 500 calories a day or exercising 6 hours a day, then please, feel free to rescue your friend from a tragic mistake. But otherwise, let’s support each other’s decisions to be healthy and happy. Both are equally important, no matter what shape they take. (And yes, the pun was intentional.)


Comments on this post

  1. Alanna says:

    This is definitely, at least partly, directly aimed at me after our conversation on twitter the other night.

    I think we share similar opinions quite adamantly. I think you took my tweets in the wrong context, felt attacked and couldn’t see what I was actually expressing. I am a strong supporter of doing whatever works for you, I support my friends when they make healthy choices no matter what their end goal is-I want them to be happy.

    However, my comments were two-fold, and here’s what you missed: the comment actually followed an intense conversation with a personal friend who has struggled with eating disorders, body dysmorphia and over-exercise. The friend in question actually tweeted that she had 3 invitations to join the diet “challenge” app by acquaintances because they saw that she was always dieting. I think that is scary, it was scary for her, it would be scary for me since the invitation would automatically insinuate that an outside source is saying “you’re not good enough” to me, despite my past years of self-acceptance and striving for my own health and fitness goals. My issue with these apps and the constant advertising is faaaaaaaar separate from my belief of being true to ones self and doing what is best for you. I work in advertising, I actually work on the metrics and the science behind what will sell to what age group. I did my masters thesis on using marketing and targeting age groups on the Internet. It’s not a crack pot belief that these companies use women’s self-loathing to turn them on themselves, and THAT is what I take great issue with.

    I tweeted concern for my friend, and you responded many times (and quite aggressively to be honest) as though my distaste for this type of preying was some sort of personal attack on your personal reasons for wanting to lose weight. I think what you’re doing is great if you’re happy with it. I really don’t think using that app or challenging your friends is inherently bad if you and your friends are doing it in a healthy and happy way. I think the fact that the app exists and is probably making A LOT of money off the advertising it is generating is the problem.

    There’s a fine line between facilitating a person’s goal achievements and bubbling an internal battle to look, eat and act a certain way. At the core, Weight Watchers is good-especially for someone who may not have experience in the nutrition or food industry, it teaches portion control and enjoying all types of foods-important for everyone of every size. I have a problem with how they target their audiences, I also have a problem with the obsession with food it creates on people who may be mentally susceptible to manipulation. At the core, this app is great! It helps people track their progress and creates a friendly game with friends to keep everyone on track, it’s not much different than the fitbit that is on my wrist this very moment, or the app my gym has that reminds me it is workout time.

    I am also obese! I am also a powerlifter, swimmer, hiker and eat from every food group. I work out regularly and yes I definitely hope to lose inches! I also don’t tie my self-worth to my size. I am happily married, own a house dog and have a highly successful career after doing my masters in post-secondary as well. I have never been bullied, in fact I think we live a very similar life. You can not deny that the way things are advertised are done to try and make people like us second guess our self-esteem.

    You also questioned if I felt that you were “fat shaming” by wishing to become a RD. I think that EVERYONE no matter what size, fitness level or anything of the sorts should see an RD at least once to learn about the value of all food to us. Our society (and a lot of “specialists!) give us WAY too much mis-information. For the average consumer, it is impossible to understand what is actually good for us and what isn’t. I don’t think as an RD you’re going to prowl for people who either self-hate or are teetering on the edge of self-hate. I think being an RD is an EXTREMELY important job and I 100% commend you for it, because it is so so so hard to decipher the information we are fed every day.

    I hope you understand that at the core we actually agree and are very similar-minded in how we approach whole body fitness and health (and weight loss!) Some great information and recipes for people who eat everything is in the book The New Rules for Lifting for Women, while it’s information you probably already know about the body it may be good to recommend to your clients or friends who come to you for help.

    I genuinely wish you good luck in achieving your goals, and I hope I clarified my position sufficiently. 140 characters just isn’t enough for something I care so deeply about.

    1. San says:

      I think you made a really good point about language, Allison. The word “diet” in the English language has a negative connotation… but if we use it by it’s bare definition “your nutrition”, things change. A-ha!

      In German, we have to words for diet: Diät (which means you’re following a strict eating plan to lose weight) and “Ernährung” (which is just the food that you eat).
      A temporary weightloss diet usually never works in terms of long-term weight maintenance. It’s really about a lifestyle change and figuring out what ‘s right for YOUR own body and in this point I completely agree: let’s support each other’s decisions to be healthy and happy… regardless of the number on the scale.

      1. Stephany says:

        I love this so much. Sometimes, I feel like I’m going to be judged when I mention I want to lose weight and I’m not happy with how my body looks. And yes, I *am* someone who ties her self-worth to her size and I know I have my own emotional demons to work through (Jillian would have a field day with me, haha), but I think it’s perfectly fine to want to change something about yourself. I think it’s normal and good and we all want to grow in some way. How is losing weight any different?

        Again, great post.

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