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.