Well, we made it! It's February and most of the intense dieting madness has passed, until bikini season that is, and I find myself reflecting on some difficult conversations that I have had recently. Why is it that we feel it is our responsibility to control the shape and size of our body? When did you learn that it wasn't ok to let your body move, grow, be and change in the ways it does naturally? When did you learn that you had to keep it a certain way or alter it and why?
I was under 10 when I first learned that it was part of my duty as female to look a certain way, and to be clear just in case someone out there hasn't had this experience, that certain way is thin and beautiful (which we can argue are really interchangeable). Through osmosis I learned that gaining weight was bad, going out into public without make-up was also bad (but not too much cause that was trashy), wearing clothes that showed too much skin was sluty, wearing clothes that didn't show any was prudish, you couldn't wear a two-piece bathing suit unless you were skinny (cause hello, fat is gross and offensive for others to have to look at) and I'm sure I could fill this page with all the 'rules' I was taught as a little person about what is acceptable behaviour and what is not when it comes to bodies.
But who determines this? Who makes these rules? Sure as hell isn't anyone that wants young girls to grow up to be liberated and confident women, at least from my experience, as I didn't grow up to be one, I had to later reclaim it for myself. All these businesses that gain from us hating our bodies the way they naturally are. We aren't born with these ideas. We don't run around at 2 years old thinking we need to suck in our bellies, not eat when we're hungry or put paint on our face to make our eyes pop. NO! We are TAUGHT that pieces of us are problems and broken so that we go out and buy the 'solutions' and the 'fixes'.
Growing up I watched almost all of my elders go on and off diets, constantly shaming and punishing themselves for never being able to maintain, always blaming themselves, never the diet. Internalizing the failure to meet standards as evidence of their own inherent unworthiness, never realizing they were set-up to fail, even after years of wearing the evidence of this in their very own flesh (gaining back all the weight they lost plus more after every weight-loss victory).
95% of diets don't work. That's right, you heard me correctly. "No study – exercise, diet, or surgery – has ever demonstrated long term maintenance of weight loss for any but a small minority" (Mann et al., 2007, Miller et al., 1997). I absolutely love the book Body Respect by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor which goes into great detail about this and highlights the many studies and data collected on this topic, and this Ted Talk by neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt is a great 12-minute Coles Notes version!
Weight is not an accurate measure of health. For the love of God can we please stop assuming that people in larger bodies are unhealthy! Someone can be in a very thin body and eat take-out for most meals, not exercise regularly and drink very little water and if we judge them by the standards we have created for "what health looks like", we would give them a pass based on their appearance. Then, take someone in a larger body that eats nutrient rich meals regularly, exercises 3-4 times a week and drinks ample water, based on looking at their body size we would say they are unhealthy which would be absolutely not true. BMI (which was never meant to be a measure of health but rather a way to categorize data in research as developed by a statistician) and weight as a measure of health not only prevents individuals from getting proper medical care but it also feeds the biases which contribute to discrimination and stigma that individuals in larger bodies experience and feel too often to keep track.
If we truly are concerned about our fellow humans health then we need to stop stigmatizing and shaming bodies. As Linda Bacon says, "Hounding people to lose weight is not just ineffective, it's damaging. People make better self-care choices when they start from body appreciation, not from a drive to change their body... They lead to repeated cycles of weight loss and regain, to food and body preoccupation, self-hatred, eating disorders, weight discrimination, and poor health. Few of us are at peace with our bodies, whether because we’re fat or because we fear becoming fat. Every time you make fat the problem, these are side effects, however unintended they may be." Weight-stigma is real and it is harmful. All bodies are deserving of respect, love and kindness, regardless of size. As Marilyn Wann says, "The only thing that anyone can diagnose, with any certainty, by looking at a fat person, is their own level of stereotype and prejudice toward fat people."
The fear of being fat (fat phobia) in our society today is a palpable one and it is created by the rhetoric around 'obesity', 'health', and 'beauty' which results in not only the stigmatization of fat bodies (as mentioned above) but it is instant fuel to the fire of body dissatisfaction, low self-worth, negative body image, and disordered eating and Eating Disorders (which has the highest mortality rate out of all mental illnesses). As long as we are telling people that some bodies are good and some are bad we are perpetuating the stereotypes that contribute to mental and emotional struggle and illness. This language and perception of 'fat being bad' are constantly going to be feeding into the conversation that plants seeds of disordered eating and Eating Disorder behaviours and will continue to raise children up to feel not good enough, less than and unworthy of their needs and desires. Fat phobia continues to rob people of their lives, happiness and the freedom to openly be and express all of themselves in this world and dieting culture perpetuates this fear.
Externally directed care over our bodies to me feels like working ON our body, as opposed to WITH, yuk! It requires us to give away our power to an "expert" and to often ignore, override and belittle our bodies metabolic needs and innate wisdom while viewing our own lived experience as wrong because it doesn't 'fit' with what we're told, further entrenching our minds in the belief that something is wrong with us. Dieting does exactly this. Promoting weight-loss and "plans" take us further and further away from a kind and caring relationship with ourselves and our body. These plans make us feel that we can't trust our body, that we're not good enough as we are, that we don't deserve happiness unless we look/behave a certain way, and when they ulitmately fail we blame ourselves. Instead of thinking that we know better, we need to trust that our bodies know what they are doing and work with them to support our wellbeing instead of trying to control it. Bodies experience wellness and illness, so many factors affect our health, including feeling guilt, shame and fear over what we eat; putting all the responsibility for health on diet and exercise is a severe miscalculation and robs us of so much pleasure in life. Warring with ourselves only creates suffering.
Our bodies are bodies, they make us human, that's all. They don't make us any better or worse depending on their size, at the end of the day we are still human, worthy of dignity, respect and love. When we promote weight-loss and dieting this is not the message we are sending, but the opposite. These aren't "for peoples well being" because they don't make them well, they make them smaller, for a moment, maybe. That's it. I don't know about you but my loved ones body size is going to be the least memorable thing about them when they're gone so let's let the preoccupation go and start truly living. No one is free until we're all free.
Wild at Heart,