by Brian J. Souza, Ph.D.
My journey to appreciating and committing to size diversity and models of wellness (such as the Health at Every Size® [HAES] principles) began in 2001 when I earned my undergraduate degree in exercise science and began my career as a personal trainer. In the years that I was employed as a personal trainer, I would say that the primary goal of the majority of the fitness center patrons, especially younger and female patrons, was to lose weight and/or affect appearance. Many of those appearance (i.e., weight loss) goals were fueled by the familiar myths and stories perpetuated by the media, the weight loss industry, short-term anecdotes, and selected dissemination of science.
As most of the readers of this blog will know, nearly 100% of people I came across that hoped to lose weight experienced one of three outcomes: (1) he or she failed to lose the amount of weight set as a goal, (2) he or she did not lose any weight (perhaps even gained weight with added muscle), or (3) lost a trivial amount of weight and then gained back some, all, or more weight. As most readers will also know, there is no shortage of (mis)information suggesting that the expectation of weight loss from exercise is reasonable. Anyone who has hoped or expected to lose weight with exercise and did not (which is probably most people!) has likely experienced the myriad consequences including perceived failure, frustration, reduced motivation, blame, and shame (from self and perhaps others), among other harms.
I also experienced the consequences of the weight-normative paradigm of health, which suggests, among other fairytales, that weight loss is accomplished through sustained food restriction and exercise. First, as a trainer, I felt like a failure. I thought the people I gave advice to should be losing weight and felt like I had let several people down. Part of my identity (my occupational self) felt fraudulent. All my schooling had told me that losing weight was a quite simple formula: calories out > calories in = weight loss. So simple! The second, more serious consequence was that I also shifted some of the blame to individual patrons. Thoughts that ran through my head were “_____ must not be doing anything outside the training sessions,” or “what does _____ expect with only two exercise sessions a week?” I understand now that I needed more critical awareness regarding the social, psychological, economic, political, and social justice aspects of exercise, nutrition, weight, and health. I believe that information should be required in the curriculum of all Kinesiology/Exercise Science undergraduate programs, in addition to a general education “diversity” requirement.
After some years, but before I found approaches like the HAES principles, I started to question whether or not striving for weight loss was helpful. I was overwhelmed and dissatisfied by the negativity that so often accompanied the weight loss approach exercise. Many people, myself included, derive great physical and psychological satisfaction from being physically active. Indeed, the HAES principles implore individuals to find enjoyable forms (and levels) of bodily movement. I wanted to help people build a love of movement that I came to believe can only be achieved when the experiential motive is divorced from the weight loss motive (see here, for example). As I mentioned, I did not have much training in the psychology of physical activity, particularly the psychology of motivation. I could explain physiological concepts to people very well, but figuring out why people would struggle to be active when most everyone knew being active was “good” for you puzzled me. This led to my decision to go back to graduate school to study exercise and sport psychology with a focus specifically toward physical activity and exercise (i.e., non-sport contexts).
It was not until my second year of doctoral studies that I took a course called Women, Weight, and Body Image. The course content included literature that supported and explained exactly what I had been thinking about health and weight. Much of this literature is found on the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) website and blog and is an excellent resource for other fitness professionals. I felt validated for past “failures,” angry, deceived, and motivated to create change. I am sure many readers experienced the same flood of thoughts and emotions when they had their “a-ha” moment; when everything that had been building inside you finally comes together and makes clear and total sense. It is a life-altering experience.
Another life-altering event that occurred during graduate school was the birth of my daughter. I already accepted and appreciated the HAES approach to health and saw that approach as the future of health and wellness, but her birth strengthened my commitment. I feel lucky that I am prepared to do my best to help her navigate messages she will receive about her intersecting identities, but there is a problem. As others have written, when one sees the amazing work that people committed to all forms of diversity do, getting involved can feel overwhelming. I often fall into feeling like nothing I can do will “measure up,” be good enough, or make a true difference. Publicly re-pledging my commitment to the HAES principles is one thing I can do in an effort to inspire others (hopefully many other men) to do the same, and to let every reader know that I will continue to work for you. When I do this, I am reaffirming my commitment not only to readers, the general public, and my students, coworkers, and colleagues, but also to my daughter.
In this spirit of commitment, I promise to do my best:
- To help you understand that it is ridiculous to pathologize a person’s body weight. I will let you know that no person’s body is a disease. Some people have thinner bodies while others have fatter bodies. All bodies can flourish with the right support.
- To challenge you by asking why all the TV characters, toys, advertisements/models, etc. all look the same (e.g., white, thin, perfect teeth…) and ask that you appreciate people of all sizes, colors, backgrounds, ages, etc. I will let you know there is beauty everywhere and in everyone.
- To help you understand your own privileges, why some people are more privileged than others, and if you are inclined, help you find ways to empower others. I will let you know that disadvantage is rarely the result of poor character and/or moral failure.
- To make it clear that respect for all individuals, regardless of her or his identities, is appropriate and valued. I will let you know that everyone deserves love, compassion, and care.
- To allow you to eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full, and ask how the foods you eat make you feel. I will let you know that food is wonderful and should be explored not avoided.
- To encourage you to move your body in fun ways, to explore sports, to explore nature, and to enjoy your body in motion. I will let you know your body was made to move in the way that you want it to, not the way others tell you it should be moved.
- To make it clear that weight does not define you or anyone else, thin or fat.
To achieve all of the above by modeling the HAES principles and loving myself and my body. I will let you know that body dissatisfaction is something that few people know (until now) has been difficult for me. Finding the HAES approach to wellness has helped free me.
My hope is that other people will make similar promises to their loved ones. Even if you’ve been working as an advocate for years, reaffirm to yourself that you, your work, and the wellbeing of others is worth the seemingly never-ending uphill effort. I, myself, have not always subscribed to the HAES approach to health and wellbeing. I once contributed to weight stigma. I was (am?) also harmed by weight stigma. It took open-mindedness, opportunity, and readiness in order to challenge and change the assumptions and biases about weight that I was socialized to believe. It also took a great deal of self-care, love, and sensitivity. We are all directly or indirectly affected by weight stigma. Understanding how people, myself included, are harmed by weight stigma, even when one is not fat, was a galvanizing moment for me, and can be for many others, too. In particular, I hope to see more men acknowledge their privilege and power, and become weight-inclusive allies by joining ASDAH and committing to the HAES principles. Liberation can start with realizing how you or a loved one is affected, making a commitment/promise for change to yourself or others, and enjoying the places you go from there.
Brian Souza is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Food and Nutrition at Framingham State University. He teaches courses in personal and community health, introductory nutrition, fitness and personal training, and behavioral aspects of health and wellness. His research interests broadly relate to social and psychological aspects of physical activity as well as weight-neutral health and wellness promotion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.