As the two different but related notions of Body Positivity and Body Liberation gain traction in our culture, people living in bigger bodies are feeling more empowered and emboldened to speak out than ever before. Along with this empowerment, I have noticed that those folks who are still actively attempting to lose weight have begun to feel singled out and attacked. As a self-proclaimed “Body Liberation Trainer,” with a Health Fitness Specialist degree, a national certification in personal training, a 200-hr yoga instructor credential, and certification as a lay facilitator in Intuitive Eating, I feel the need to set the record straight about WHO Body Positivity and Body Liberation is FOR.
If I had encountered the notion of Body Liberation during my third and final major weight loss period in my adult life, I would have been very frustrated and disheartened. After all, I was losing a lot of weight. I was extremely “fit.” I was the epitome of what the vast majority of doctors and fitness specialists call “health.” I know this in a clinical sense because I was also in the middle of completing my health fitness specialist degree for which I was engaging in fitness testing regularly. My VO2 Max was off the charts for someone my age. The number of push-ups and sit-ups I could do in 1 minute were consistently in the “Excellent” or “Athletic” range. I even tested above average in strength and flexibility. I was literally doing everything I had ever been told I had to do in order to “be healthy.” And, physically, I really was. At that time in my life, I would’ve told you that I felt wonderful. I felt strong and confident and fit – like my body could do anything I wanted it to. And, if I had heard people talking (yelling, even) about how all bodies have value and how it’s okay to be fat, I would’ve felt betrayed and deeply bothered by that sentiment. After all, I was doing everything – literally, EVERYTHING – I could do NOT to have a fat body. My life revolved around doing all the things I had to do to not have a fat body. To hear that I was wasting my time or that I was obsessively chasing after something I shouldn’t be would have been maddening.
I have weight cycled three times in my adult life. Weight cycling is when a person loses a relatively large amount of weight only to gain all of that weight back with interest. The first time I lost a lot of weight through restrictive dieting and excessive exercise, I was a junior in college. I lost 50 pounds. At my bottom-most weight, one of my friends at the time pulled me aside and asked me if I was terminally ill. They were worried about how thin I had become. Not because I was SO thin, in general, but because I was SO thin for ME, for MY BODY. My parents visited me at school and took me out to eat once during that time as well. They broached the subject of my recent weight loss and rightly guessed that I had developed an eating disorder. I scoffed. “I’m just eating healthy and exercising consistently,” I assured them. And that was true. By all of the “health” standards around me, that’s exactly what I was doing. And it “worked” until it didn’t. Then after my first child, I lost 35 pounds. It was harder this time. The weight didn’t come off quite as quickly. I had to eat less than before, which didn’t seem possible. I had to exercise more than before, which didn’t seem possible. It “worked” and then it didn’t. The final time, I lost 27 pounds. This time, I had to become completely obsessed. Every waking moment, I was thinking about food and my body. Even when I would’ve told you I wasn’t, I was subconsciously thinking about food and my body. And when the weight started to come back on this final time, I lost my mind. I had worked as hard as I possibly could. I was continuing to work as hard as I possibly could. My body didn’t want to stay thin. My body would no longer respond to the partial starvation I had put it through. I had to go with full starvation. My body would no longer respond to the consistently excessive exercise I put it through. I had to workout harder. I had to move even more. I had to become terrified of food. I had to become repulsed by sitting still and resting. I had to hate my body even more. And, because, thank goodness, I have also worked very hard to build a great deal of self awareness throughout my life, at some point I realized I was truly off the deep end and needed help.
The therapist I was seeing at this time gently suggested that I see “someone who specializes in body image and food issues.” And because I was so deep in my disorder, I could not hear what she was saying through her only-slightly coded words. I genuinely, with all my heart, believed she was sending me to a weight-loss specialist. I thought I would see this new counselor for “weight loss.” My goal was still to achieve long-term weight loss. I thought once this therapist “fixed” me, I would be able to effortlessly keep off all of the weight I had lost. What I got was far different from what I expected. Slowly, over about two months, my new therapist (who, as it turned out, specialized in Eating Disorders and NOT weight loss) helped me realize that it wasn’t sustained weight loss that I needed, it was healing. She diagnosed me with Atypical Anorexia and Orthorexia. Atypical Anorexia is a common disorder among chronic dieters – ALL of the mental symptoms of Anorexia without the one physical symptom of being clinically “underweight.” Orthorexia is not an official eating disorder listed in the DSM yet but it is the word mental health professionals, proficient in treating eating disorders, use to refer to a debilitating obsession with the healthiness of one’s food.
Diet Culture causes eating disorders. Chronic restriction of calories often leads to eating disorders. Dieting for weight loss often leads to eating disorders. Eating disorders are not – in ANY sense of the word or by ANY sane standards -- “healthy.”
I sacrificed my mental health for my physical health. Most of us entrenched in Diet Culture, restrictive eating and excessive exercise end up doing this at some point or another. THIS is the nature of that particular beast. And, thanks to research-scientists like Linda Bacon as well as registered dieticians like Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, there is a great deal of science and research behind this fact.
Our culture is fatphobic down to its very core. We have been told since birth from almost every source around us – school, doctors, parents, friends, media – that being fat is unequivocally “unhealthy.” We are terrified of being fat. Fat is, in many ways, one of the very worst things you can be in our culture. Diet Culture tells us that being fat means you are lazy, stupid, careless, a drain on our society and moments away from death. No one in THIS culture WANTS to be fat. So, if you are currently losing weight or have recently lost weight, you are absolutely doing exactly what you “should” be doing by our culture’s standards. And, OF COURSE, there is nothing wrong with this! Intentionally losing weight is just about the most normal and natural activity any American can engage in. Listen in on any conversation, in any setting, in which a group of friends, family or colleagues are talking. Almost everyone is engaged, at some level, in intentionally losing weight. The conversation – especially if there is food present – will almost inevitably turn to this subject.
The potentially intoxicating result of winning the weight loss game is the seemingly endless validation that comes from the world around us. Those of us actively engaged in attempting to lose weight think that our lives will be all better once we do. And, in at least one way, they are! People come out of the woodwork to tell us how great we look. Friends and family members express their admiration and relief that we are “finally healthy.” We get attention from strangers because of our attractiveness. We are treated as though we are somehow more competent or more valuable at our jobs. Medical and health professionals approve of us on a level we had only ever dreamed of before. Our bodies are suddenly treated as though they are worthy and valuable. We also get to feel this completely normal sense of superiority over people who are still struggling with their weight. This sense of superiority is a very important aspect of Diet Culture. We don’t feel it because we are mean or horrible people. It’s just a normal/ natural way to feel when you have been told your entire life that there are “winners” and there are “losers” in this game and because of your shrinking (or shrunken) body, you have won.
All of this is to say that people who lose weight in our culture receive PLENTY of validation for their weight loss almost every single place they go.
Enter “Body Liberation” and “Body Positivity.” This will be the one tiny area of our culture that you will not receive validation for losing weight. And that is probably a bitter pill to swallow. As I said, had I encountered Body Liberation Activists, Fat Activists or Body Positive Professionals during the time of my life when I was entrenched in weight loss as a “lifestyle,” I would have been disgusted, disheartened, saddened, disturbed. It would’ve been very hard for me to reconcile my lifestyle with the tenets of these movements. But that’s because, in that moment in my life, these movements were not what I needed, wanted or was looking for.
Let me gently suggest that Body Liberation and Body Positivity isn’t for everyone all the time. That is, it is the one teeny tiny area of our culture where those of us who suffer from diagnosed (or diagnosable) eating disorders and dysfunctional relationships with food, exercise and our bodies are free to find genuine healing. Please – please please please please please – let those of us who need this teeny tiny area of our culture have it without worrying that is some slight against people who seek weight loss.
Nobody is mad at you for losing weight or wanting to lose weight. No one.
What you have heard the Body Positive and Body Liberation sphere say, perhaps, is that 95% of weight loss attempts eventually fail and lead to the gaining of MORE weight. If you read what I write regularly (bless you – who are you?!?), you will note that I try to be very careful in saying that it is restrictive dieting for weight loss and excessive exercise that fails people. Because I am a “health” professional, I can also say that engaging in intuitive eating and joyful movement (the opposite of restrictive dieting and excessive exercise) can also lead to weight loss FOR SOME PEOPLE – and leads to overall better health for ALL people. Listen, no one can tell how healthy or unhealthy a body is by looking at it. And I can’t tell how healthy or unhealthy your weight loss is just by knowing you’ve lost weight. Maybe you “lost the weight” in a way that is sustainable and that will not lead to further weight gain or an eating disorder and maybe you didn’t. The only person who knows this, or who will eventually figure this out, is you. Trained professionals can help you decipher your relationship with food, exercise and body image but, ultimately, you are the only one who knows how much or how little goes into your belly every day and how many minutes or hours you spend punishing or happily moving your body every day. In fact, you could tell me – or any other health professional – exactly what you are eating and doing every day and we could still have no idea how “healthy” or “unhealthy” that behavior is because what is happening in your mind is the key to that question. And, sometimes, what is happening in our minds around food and exercise is not even clear to us until after the fact. As I said earlier, if you asked me how I was “feeling” during the last big bout I had with my eating disorder, I would’ve told you, “amazing! I feel great!” There were secrets I wasn’t telling even myself. There were ways I was “feeling” I refused to own until they started to have a profound impact on my daily life. So let me say it again: It is impossible for anyone to know – by looking at you -- whether your weight loss is the long-lasting sustainable and “healthy” kind or the collateral damage of Diet Culture that usually leads to disordered eating and eating disorders.
That said, there are some red flags that MIGHT tell you whether the weight loss you have achieved is sustainable or not. Losing a lot of weight very quickly, for example, is usually not sustainable. Losing weight eating foods that you won’t be able to eat for the rest of your life is usually not sustainable. Losing weight NOT eating foods that you won’t be able to avoid eating for the rest of your life is usually not sustainable. Losing weight by taking drugs that cause damage to other areas of your health is usually not sustainable. Losing weight by obsessively tracking every calorie you eat AND waking up at 4am to workout for two hours before you go to work is not generally sustainable.
When I say that these methods of losing weight are not “sustainable,” what I’m referring to is the research that tells us two things. First, 95% of dieters who lose weight by restricting calories end up gaining more weight than they originally lost within 5 years. Second, those 5% who lose weight by restricting calories and who keep their weight off after 5 years end up chronically engaging in behaviors that, ultimately, could be diagnosed as disordered eating or eating disorders.
This brings me back to those of us who have found ourselves diagnosed. Those of us who have been caught up in the back-and-forth/ up-and-down body hatred and self-loathing in our “fat” phase then total adoration and validation from the world around us when we have allowed the eating disorder to consume our lives again. We know the pain of being “fat” in this world inundated with Diet Culture. We know the false pride and fear-inducing state of being “skinny” in this world inundated with Diet Culture. All WE want is to be left alone to re-learn how to eat in a way that isn’t clinically sick. All WE want is to be left alone to re-learn how to move in a way that doesn’t feel punishing or self-hating. All WE want is to be left alone to re-learn how to be/ accept/ maybe even “love” our bodies the way we did when we were babies and small children who didn’t feel required by our culture to constantly obsess about what our bodies look like. All WE want is to be left alone to discover what authentic “health” is for our unique bodies and our unique lives.
Even though I have recently heard a fellow fitness professional claim that Fat Activists “want everyone to be fat,” I have yet to encounter – personally or via media – a Fat Activist who believes that every person should actively seek weight gain. What Fat Activists want is for people in fat bodies to be treated with dignity, respect and equality. That’s not the same as saying all people should be fat. It’s not even close.
Body Positivity, similarly, is NOT about all people loving their bodies all of the time. Body Positivity is learning about, accepting and respecting the notion of Body Diversity – that all bodies are inherently unique in a myriad number of ways and size is one of those ways. I call my fitness and yoga studio a “body positive” studio because all bodies are welcome; because I believe that all bodies are valuable and worthy; because I believe that all bodies should have access to fitness and yoga. Body Positivity is inherently Fat Positive in that “all bodies” includes fat bodies. And, I will say again, just because fat bodies are respected does not mean that thin bodies are not. It’s just that thin bodies are respected and valued EVERYWHERE in our culture. When we designate a space “Body Positive,” we are making it clear that thin (young and able) bodies are not the ONLY respectable or valuable bodies that exist in this world.
Body Liberation, for me, is the process of learning to live by our own unique, internal needs rather than the external pressure and requirements of Diet Culture. I would urge anyone who is interested in a deeper understanding of Body Liberation to seek the work of Sonya Renee Taylor, Jes Baker, Dawn Serra, and Emily Nagoski – all phenomenal thinkers and writers doing radical and paradigm-shifting work in the area of “Body Liberation.”
No one (I’ve ever read or heard speak) working in Body Positivity or Body Liberation is attempting to directly attack people who are actively attempting to lose weight. Actively attempting to lose weight does not make you a bad feminist or a sheep of Diet Culture. What Body Positivity and Body Liberation is attempting to offer is the space for people to figure out what their unique bodies want – and need -- outside of the dysfunctional framework of Diet Culture. Many of us are deeply in need of the healing that we can find in this space.
If you are actively attempting to lose weight or you have recently lost a great deal of weight, it’s entirely possible that you are not currently in need of the space that Body Liberation and Body Positivity offer the rest of us. This doesn’t mean that these movements aren’t “for” you. It just means they might not be the most useful concepts for you at this point in your life. And that is completely okay. This does not mean they are not valid concepts for those of us who need them. This does not mean that there is anything AT ALL wrong with the way you are choosing to do your life at this moment. Because, it is YOUR life, it is YOUR body and YOU are the only one who should get to CHOOSE what is best for it.
If you have recently lost weight or are currently engaged in intentionally losing weight, it is my genuine hope that you feel amazing in body, mind and spirit. I hope you continue to feel amazing in body, mind and spirit. For me, PERSONALLY, it has taken Body Liberation – which includes Intuitive Eating, re-learning Joyful Movement, and healing from my eating disorder -- to begin to feel amazing in my body, mind AND spirit. And those of us working professionally in these areas are here for those people who currently find themselves in need of the healing space that Body Liberation offers.
is an NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer; an ACE-Certified Group Fitness Instructor; a certified Yoga Teacher; a Certified Intuitive Eating Professional; and a degree-holding Health, Fitness Specialist. She lives in Frankfort, Michigan and owns Every. Body. Fitness and Yoga Studio.