by Deb Burgard, PhD
Many people who are intrigued with the Health at Every Size® approach find the notion of “weight neutrality” the hardest aspect to accept. “Loving your body” is not too controversial, unless your body is not a “correct” body. If your body is a non-conforming body, then there is real debate about how much you should “love” it, especially if that means rejecting the assignment to try to lose weight.
People who are trying to love their bodies need to be curious, not ashamed, about the desire to lose weight. It is not a surprise to find ourselves fantasizing about weight loss. All the triggers for wanting to lose weight that have always been there are still there polluting our environment. We are told to lose weight to make sure no one will reject us. To comply with our doctor’s orders. To fit into plane seats. To be able to get a sense of control. To become a “whole new person!” To buy the social approval that we are at least “trying.” To participate in the workplace dieting along with everybody else. And as of this fall in some states, maybe even to be able to qualify for health insurance.
“Love Your Body Day” represents a movement to challenge all the messages that our bodies are not good enough. But even organizations that support “self esteem” and “body acceptance” seem to get confused about the part about pursuing weight loss. For example, the National Eating Disorders Organization (NEDA) has partnered with the “Stop Obesity Alliance” (an organization trying to frame fatness as a disease in order to create markets for “weight loss” drugs and surgery) to sponsor events to reframe the pursuit of weight loss as “not about appearance but rather about health.” These actions have been the cause of confusion and concern among NEDA members, who are wondering how the very same practices that are diagnosed as eating disorder behavior at one weight are being prescribed to people at a higher weight.
So what does “loving your body” mean? And is it ever compatible with pursuing weight loss?
Loving your body means you don’t blame it for the cruelty of other people. Loving your body means you appreciate that wherever you were before you were born and wherever you go after you die, the chance to live your human life depends on this body. Loving your body means you try to care for it as best you can. Loving your body means you respond to its signals for sleep, water, food, stimulation, pain, movement, pleasure, as best you can. Loving your body means you negotiate for what you need from people whose agendas may not be in your best interest – that you are willing to make some fuss to be sure you are safe, cared for, listened to, etc.
Loving your body does not mean you are always “confident,” whatever that is. It does not mean you think every part of your body is pretty.
Do all the actual people you love have to be pretty? No. Do you even have to like all the aspects of the people you love? No. Loving is not shallow. The people you love, and the body you love, are not perfect, and you can have mixed feelings about them and still love them. It’s about the relationship, not the visuals. It is about the effort, commitment, nurturing, appreciation you bring.
One way to answer the question of whether it could ever be loving to try to lose weight is to imagine someone who supposedly loves you telling you to lose weight. Does it feel loving? Could it? Would you ever tell someone you love to pursue weight loss?
I actually would not tell anyone to pursue weight loss, whether I loved them or not. We have plenty of evidence that the practices associated with pursuing weight loss make people sick. For almost everyone, weight “loss” is really weight cycling. For some of the “maintainers,” maintenance is really an eating disorder. I know people who have ended up at a lower weight as a side effect of other changes that have been important to them, and they are doing just fine. But I don’t know people who have lost weight by organizing their lives around it who are really at peace with food and their bodies. They are not fine.
But that does not mean I would never encourage someone I loved – of any size – to feel entitled to treat herself well, to care about the practices that make her feel better in her body. Those practices are worth doing regardless of weight outcomes, and I think they are more likely to become sustained efforts when people find intrinsic reasons for doing them, rather than associating them with the pursuit of weight loss.
It also does not mean I would never speak up to someone I loved – of any size – about practices I might believe are harming her. “Loving your body” does not mean ignoring disordered eating, addictive and compulsive acts, self-harm, or neglect. But none of that is necessarily linked to a particular weight. And the great news is that many many people recover from these kinds of struggles when they get enough support.
The Health At Every Size model criticizes promoting weight loss as an iatrogenic cause of ill health across the weight spectrum. So it is clearly not consistent with the HAESSM model to link it to the promise of weight loss. But weight stigma is quite real, and most people rightly want less weight stigma in their lives, which they expect to diminish with weight loss. They are also being told by every conceivable source that they will be healthier if they weigh less, whether there is evidence for that promise or not. So people wonder, “Am I practicing the HAES approach if I am trying to lose weight?” Or maybe they even wonder, “Am I practicing the HAES approach if I am glad if I lose weight?”
I would answer these two questions differently. In the first situation, the overt goal of “trying to lose weight” conflicts with the focus on what you find sustainable on a day-to-day basis. We help people look at what practices make sense in their individual lives with their individual preferences and limitations, and then ask them to trust their bodies to reveal the weight that their genetics dictate as the result of those practices. This focus on the truth of what is possible for you to choose, on a long-term basis, is the exact opposite of organizing your life around the temporary attainment of a specific number on the scale, come hell or high water. In this respect, the HAES model demands an ambitious degree of trust that your body really is in charge of regulating your weight, while you are in charge of regulating your acts of self-care, to whatever degree is possible and sustainable in your individual life. The HAES model is weight neutral: not for or against weight loss, but rather for a focus on the practices that support your well-being.
For the second question, the answer is more complicated. It is hard to imagine someone who would not be relieved to face less weight stigma, less stereotyping, less medical profiling, or fewer experiences of not fitting, not belonging, not being considered in the design and size of the physical world. It is hard to imagine someone who would not be relieved to have more social power. All of these things are valuable changes that could make an individual’s life a little better even if the broad conditions of weight stigma did not change.
But it is also true that a part of us identifies with our fatness – regardless of how much that “fatness” exists in the real world. Contrary to the diet industry rhetoric, that part never goes away – because it is connected to universal human feelings of vulnerability. If you give yourself more value when you are thinner, it backfires, because that is exactly the same experience for your “fat self” as weight stigma was in the bigger world. It’s like the internal version of being less valued in the world for being fat. So being glad about weight loss is tricky. It is sometimes hard to be glad about an easier life without granting more value to your thinner body.
Perhaps one reason it is hard to be glad about having an easier life without granting more value to your thinner body is that from the beginning, we are trained to see our bodies as the reason that we are treated well or poorly by other people, rather than holding the other people responsible for their actions. It takes the awareness of weight stereotyping, stigma, discrimination, and of thin privilege, to begin challenging our body blame. If we experience weight loss, it is seductive to give our bodies credit now for the friendlier reception we get; but it is really not about our bodies at all. It is about stigma and privilege. Stigma and privilege are not fair; they are not earned. Moreover, we all have so much experience with weight cycling, we rightly feel wary about gaining thinness privilege when we could lose it so easily. Better to solve the problem of weight stigma by fighting weight stigma than leaving the stigmatized group.
So it behooves us to be careful not to reproduce the external conditions of weight stigma in our internal life. It also behooves us to remember that as long as we are trying to solve the problem of the way people treat each other by changing our bodies, we fail to address the actual problem of the way people treat each other. This is another way that the HAES model is different from approaches that only focus on individual choices. Individual choices are certainly part of it, but it is only the focus on changing weight stigma and all the environmental, economic, cultural, and social problems that affect our well-being that will make it possible for each person to achieve their potential and purpose.
So can you love your body and still want to lose weight? You tell me.