People living in bigger bodies are at the forefront of Body Liberation because they live in a system and a culture that has negated their worth and even treated them as a mortal enemy for decades. However, people in smaller bodies are harmed by Diet Culture too, in at least a couple of ways.
Because Diet Culture and its indoctrinated health professionals tell us that thinness is synonymous with health, people who are living in smaller bodies are often assumed to be the epitome of health when they are far from it. A person living in a small body can get away with consistently making nutritionally poor food choices and never moving their body at all because health professionals assume, simply upon looking at them, that they must make nutritious food choices and exercise regularly. I know people in very small bodies that everyone – including their doctors – assume to be “very healthy” simply because of their weight that are raging alcoholics, illicit drug users and two-pack-per-day smokers. These behaviors go unchecked and unchallenged because, since their bodies are small, there’s obviously nothing to worry about, right?
Another way that some people – particularly women -- in smaller bodies suffer in Diet Culture is because of how their body’s naturally comply with Diet Culture’s beauty norms. Don’t get me wrong, people in smaller bodies benefit from this compliance as well – this is called “thin privilege” and will be the subject of its own, in another post. But, the way in which a woman in a smaller body might suffer from their compliance with Diet Culture’s beauty norms is that they are expected to enjoy and absorb all of the attention they get from men even from a very young age. Because their bodies are so much like the female bodies we see objectified in everything from Disney movies to pornography, the general assumption is that these bodies are objects meant to be admired and consumed. We do not have to acknowledge that there is anything else worthy or important about this person. They won the genetic beauty lottery and thus, that is their major worth in this world. And people living inside this beauty standard are raised to believe that when they are objectified, they should be flattered; they should see this objectification as validation for their worth as a human being. Because this whole scenario is seen as “enviable” and what any woman would/should want, it often goes unnoticed or unquestioned. Girls grow up to believe that they should be flattered by every advance that comes their way or guard themselves fiercely so they will not be taken advantage of and usually end up doing an endless dance between these two ways of being.
Diet Culture harms everyone. Children. Girls. Boys. Adults. Men. Women. Of all races and ethnicities. Of all abilities. People in smaller bodies. People in bigger bodies. Every. One. The antidote to Diet Culture -- and ALL of the disorder that it creates -- is Body Liberation. Body Liberation is for Every. Body.
If you read my last blog post and still faithfully follow Diet Culture, you may have been left with the question: If Dieting for weight loss is “not, ultimately, ‘healthy’ in any way, at all” why do I FEEL so healthy and good when my weight has gone down? This is fair. Most people can justify holding on to the restricting and binging lifestyle that Diet Culture demands because when they “lose the weight” they do FEEL better. Luckily, this question is very easy to answer.
Because of Diet Culture, you are wrongly associating your lower weight with a healthier feeling. In actuality, your healthier feeling can easily be attributed to the exercise, sleep, water and nutritious food choices you likely had to make to lower your weight. If you think this is “6 in one/ half a dozen the other” you are incorrect. Focusing on the weight loss rather than the behavior changes is detrimental to your long-term health in a number of ways.
First, believing that you “feel healthier” just because you are thinner, perpetuates the Diet Culture lie that health and thinness are synonymous. They are not. Decades of research demonstrate that thinness, in itself, does not equate to health in any body. If you want to read that research for yourself, I strongly encourage you to read Health At Every Size by by Dr. Linda Bacon.
Second, you will eventually come to a plateau in your weight loss – a place where your body will refuse to give up any more of its mass because it is desperately trying to keep you alive. If you have focused on weight loss throughout your journey and believe the weight loss itself to be “the thing” that is making you healthy, this will be devastating. You will have a difficult time accepting the fact that your body simply refuses to be any smaller. This will lead to a decline in your mental and emotional health. This COULD (and frequently does) lead you to engage in disordered eating (if you weren’t already) and to developing an actual diagnosable eating disorder.
This weight plateau could also (and frequently does) lead you to simply give up – give up all of those healthy behaviors that were making you feel so great. “Giving up” will lead to binging and choosing all of those foods that you were restricting yourself from while you were dieting for weight loss. “Giving up” will lead you to stop exercising, stop getting enough sleep, stop drinking so much water. And what’s next? You won’t feel so great anymore. And you’ll tell yourself it’s because you gained weight – but if you could see that this entire journey had absolutely nothing to do with weight and EVERYTHING to do with the behavior you engage in, there would be no need to “give up,” there would be no frustration with your body when it decides to keep you alive by maintaining a weight that makes sense for YOUR unique body.
Third, IF your goal is better health, it is healthy behaviors that are going to give you that better health, NOT weight loss. Sometimes engaging in healthy behaviors and weight loss go hand in hand and sometimes they do not. Engaging in healthy behaviors – regardless of what happens to your weight – will give you better health.
One more time for the people in the back: ENGAGING IN HEALTHY BEHAVIORS – REGARDLESS OF WHAT HAPPENS TO YOUR WEIGHT – WILL GIVE YOU BETTER HEALTH.
Know what that means? You can be healthy no matter what your size. You can choose healthy behaviors no matter what your body looks like. Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. And if you can accept this truth and let your journey to better health be about the BEHAVIORS you are engaging in RATHER than your weight, you are 100% more likely to engage in those healthy behaviors for the rest of your life and not just when you can white-knuckle yourself down to the size that Diet Culture tells you is acceptable.
Why, you ask? Why is it easier to engage in these healthy behaviors for the rest of your life rather than dieting for weight loss for the rest of your life? If you accurately attribute your good feelings to your healthy behaviors, you are more likely to WANT to engage in these behaviors. You do not see engaging in these behaviors as a chore or a job or something you HAVE to do in order to be accepted or loved by society. You are doing these things because they feel good, right now, in the moment, in YOUR body. This creates a sense of autonomy, self-respect, and self-love which leads to excellent mental and emotional health. Correctly attributing the healthy behaviors you are engaging in as the source of your “healthy feelings” means that you are learning to respect your body, trust it, and know how it responds to different stimuli and behaviors. THIS is one of the major steps to Body Liberation. Body Liberation is a much more comfortable place to live in for the rest of our lives than the home of body-shame and self-hatred that life-long dieting for weight loss builds for us.
Finally, I just want to challenge the notion that dieting for weight loss makes you “feel good.” Listen, I’ve been there – I know what you mean when you say that – first hand. And if you really mean it – if you TRULY “feel good” in your body, the answer I’ve given above for why that is, fits. But, because I’ve been there, I will also say, sometimes that “good” feeling comes from a place of emotional and mental disorder. Sometimes that “good” feeling is the alleviation of the body-shame and self-hatred, imposed upon you by Diet Culture. Sometimes that “good” feeling comes from the actual punishment you put yourself through – the excessive exercising, the extreme restriction, the muscling your way past a craving or a desire to eat a food that Diet Culture has told you, you are not “allowed” to eat. Sometimes that “good” feeling comes from going to bed starving and waking up starving and obsessively zombie-ing your way through every day only thinking about food and the size of your body because FINALLY you are living in the exact space that Diet Culture has told you that you will live if you want to be a good girl or a worthy, lovable human being. IF these are the ways in which your weight loss is making you “feel good,” it is time to question your own definition of “good” and “healthy.”
Dieting for weight loss, while it CAN lead to feeling good – again, for the reasons I’ve outlined above – can also lead people to feeling lousy. Restricting food intake and excessively exercising when one’s body is not properly fueled can lead to fatigue, irritability, restless sleep, unexplained rage, panic, anxiety, depression and overall, LESS health. These are not “good” feelings. In my personal experience I can tell you that most periods of the truly healthy feelings brought on by the healthy behaviors one engages in to lose weight will be followed by THIS period of a rapid decline in mental, emotional and social health. And, again, this happens because we are focused on the scale rather than the behaviors that are making us feel good. We want to see that number go down so badly, we restrict our eating and increase our minutes and hours of exercise. We know – because Diet Culture has beaten it into us – that weight loss is about calories in and calories out. We take in less calories. We burn more. But our bodies are not machines so eventually, that extraordinarily simplistic equation is no longer working. Our bodies are organic systems designed to keep us alive. Fewer calories in and more calories out means that the system has to reset itself in a number of ways to make sure we stay alive. This leads to all the not so great feeling mentioned earlier.
Learning to accept, respect, nourish and move your body will lead to feeling great and to potentially better health. Dieting for weight loss will not. Body Liberation Training can give you the tools you need to learn to accept, respect, nourish and move your body in ways that make sense for you. If you want to “feel great” for the long run and not just while you can white knuckle your weight down to what Diet Culture has told you is acceptable, STOP dieting for weight loss and seek Body Liberation instead.
As the concept of Body Liberation gains traction in popular culture, the notion that dieting for weight loss is unnecessary and unhealthy is becoming more and more accepted as truth. But, what does that mean for people who still “want” to lose weight and actively diet in order to lose weight? Certainly, we should not be replacing body shaming or fat shaming with diet shaming. The entire point of Body Liberation is that every person is free to choose for themselves what is best for their unique body. So, shaming people for wanting to lose weight would work against the ultimate goals of Body Liberation.
First, it’s important to understand that those of us involved in Body Liberation are not necessarily saying that everyone should immediately stop dieting for weight loss and if you don’t do so, you are bad. The primary objective of Body Liberation is to get people to wake up to and understand the effect of Diet Culture on our lives. Diet Culture has got it into everyone’s heads that we MUST always be seeking to make our bodies smaller. Diet Culture has told us that this is the ONLY way anyone can be healthy. Both of these are lies. Both of these lies are beaten into us by a Diet Industry that is very successfully selling 72 billion dollars in product every year in the United States alone. My first goal as a Body Liberation Trainer is not to tell someone they MUST stop dieting for weight loss IMMEDIATELY but to help them understand that they have been brainwashed by Diet Culture to believe dieting for weight loss is the only way they achieve significance as “healthy” human beings in this world. You do not HAVE TO choose weight loss. You can CHOOSE a healthier, more sustainable path for your life.
Second, there is absolutely no sense in beating anyone up for continuing to want to lose weight. The messages of Diet Culture are so deeply ingrained in all of us that they feel like “common sense” or just the basic laws of nature. Diet Culture has told all of us our entire lives that in order to be lovable, worthy, or respected we should be dieting for weight loss. Who the hell doesn’t want to be lovable, worthy and respected? We all do, of course! No one pursues weight loss because they want to be less healthy, less popular, less accepted by society, less successful or less respected by their peers. Within Diet Culture, the intense urge to lose weight is 100% understandable and normal.
Once we understand that dieting for weight loss or NOT dieting for weight loss is a CHOICE that has actually been sold to us as a necessity our whole lives, we can go ahead and start to decide whether we want to make that choice or not. This leads many seekers of Body Liberation to these eventual questions: 1) is it “wrong” to continue to diet for weight loss? And 2) is it possible to achieve Body Liberation AND diet for weight loss at the same time? Answering these two questions brings me to my third point about dieting for weight loss and its relationship to body liberation: Dieting for weight loss is NOT an act of “HEALTH,” it is more properly understood as a form of Body Modification.
Body Modification is piercing one’s ears, nose, or any other body part. Body Modification is getting a tattoo or tattoos all over one’s body. Body Modification is dying one’s hair blonde, pink, green or any other color. Body Modification is plastic surgery. Anything you do to your body that is not a natural part of your body --that does not happen naturally without you making it happen -- is Body Modification. Weight loss is Body Modification.
I believe it is extraordinarily helpful to think of weight loss this way for many reasons but the primary reason is that it separates weight loss from morality. It’s possible that certain individuals disapprove of certain types of body modification. You may not think it’s cool when other people get tattoos or piercings. Maybe you look down on people who have plastic surgery. BUT, as a general rule these types of body modification are acceptable enough in our society that they are widespread and, for the most part, people are left alone to pursue them if they wish. As a society, we do not judge body modification as being morally bankrupt OR morally superior. Dieting for weight loss does not make you a morally inferior person. Dieting for weight loss does not make you a morally superior person. It’s neutral. It’s a choice. Some people may disagree with your choice and others may support your choice but it’s still your choice.
It is important to reiterate here that Diet Culture has told you your entire life that dieting for weight loss is NOT a CHOICE but rather a prerequisite to achieve your full humanity. THIS is why Body Liberation activists can come off as judgmental or shaming of people who pursue dieting for weight loss. It is IMPERATIVE that we understand we have this choice. Most people – women especially – will continue to tell themselves that they are “choosing” to diet for weight loss when, in reality, their subconscious (or even conscious) voice is telling them that finally getting to that “perfect weight” will make them healthy, loveable, worthy and morally superior. As long as this voice still controls your behavior, Body Liberation is not possible.
So, is it “wrong” to continue to diet for weight loss? No, I wouldn’t say it is “wrong.” I would say, all of the available research shows that dieting for weight loss leads to a restricting and binging cycle that ultimately leads to a higher weight from where you originally started and worse health outcomes overall. I would say that all of the available research shows that dieting for weight loss often leads to disordered eating and eating disorders and wreaks havoc on other aspects of your mental health as well. I would say that all of the available research shows that dieting for weight loss has negative effects on your social, emotional and mental health overall. I would say that weight cycling (or yo-yo dieting) has been associated with heart disease and heart attacks. I would say that dieting for weight loss is ultimately, as detrimental to your overall health as habitually smoking or sitting all day long every day (both of which are major health concerns) I would say that continuing to diet for weight loss is not, ultimately, “healthy” in any way, at all.
Dieting for weight loss is not wrong but it is NOT a health choice. Dieting for weight loss is a form of body modification.
If you know – and truly believe and understand – that dieting for weight loss is a form of body modification that carries health risks and that dieting for weight loss does not make you a better or more worthy human being and STILL choose it then I would say it is POSSIBLE to achieve Body Liberation AND still diet for weight loss. I would say the most likely place you are going to see this behavior is among athletes who need to meet a certain weight class – wrestlers, fighters, body builders – in order to compete in their sport. You may also see this behavior in endurance or speed athletes who want to shave time off of their events. I suppose we could also see this behavior in celebrities who push themselves to portray a certain image in the media (I’m thinking of Beyonce’s admission of extreme dieting in Homecoming). In each of these cases, the body modification of dieting for weight loss is not about being a “healthier” or more “worthy” individual – it’s about competing, it’s about showing up in your chosen field as the “best” you can be, AS DEFINED by that field’s own traditions and expectations.
I seriously doubt that an individual who is not a serious athlete or otherwise (like Beyonce) has a body that is at the center of one’s work or vocation, can engage in dieting for weight loss AND achieve Body Liberation at the same time. I can’t imagine a scenario in which any “regular” person who has truly achieved Body Liberation would WANT to diet for weight loss. I can’t imagine a scenario in which any “regular” person who is dieting for weight loss is not doing so because they somehow still believe that Diet Culture lie that finally achieving that perfect weight will make them happier, healthier, more successful and more worthy of love and attention. In fact, even among those athletes and celebrities who engage in the body modification of dieting for weight loss, there is a great deal of mental and emotional dysfunction around food and body image. So, even though I’m willing to concede that it might be POSSIBLE for someone to engage in the body modification of dieting for weight loss and still be working within the framework of Body Liberation for the reasons outlined above, I know – because of the research – that this behavior is still fraught – for anyone who engages in it – with disordered and detrimental thinking.
Still, it is useful to the eventual goal of Body Liberation to begin to understand dieting for weight loss as a form of body modification. This allows you to separate this behavior from its supposed morality and helps you understand it as a choice rather than a requirement. Accepting that dieting for weight loss is a form of body modification and not a health choice also helps you to unlearn all of the lies Diet Culture has taught you about the connection between dieting for weight loss and health. Dieting for weight loss is not a behavior that leads to better health outcomes. If, after learning this and truly believing it, you continue to pursue weight loss itself as an ultimate goal, it’s time to start taking a harder look at the emotional and mental issues that are driving you in this unhealthy direction – not because it makes you “bad” or “wrong” but because you deserve Body Liberation, you deserve freedom.
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.