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.)