Can a Person Be Considered Body Positive If They Want To Lose Weight?

“Can a person be considered body positive if they want to lose weight?”

This is a question I see a lot lately in the body positive and fat acceptance communities, in light of body positivity going mainstream, corporations who profit off body dissatisfaction co-opting the body positive message, and people who declare they are #bodypositivebut.

As with many questions, the answer depends on who you ask. And if you want to know what other people think, please ask them and/or read their articles, or read this pretty comprehensive summary of the movement from Buzzfeed. I’m gonna answer from my own perspective, while acknowledging that my opinion is not the only one out there.

And my opinion has many shades. I think differently than I did a year ago, and may think differently about it next year too. These are my thoughts at this particular moment in time. My thoughts here relate to individuals, not to for-profit entities.

For me, body positivity is a toolbox, not an identity.

When I was a new mother I attended La Leche League meetings for support with my son’s breastfeeding issues, and for fellowship. At the beginning of each meeting, the leader would say “you’ll hear a lot of different perspectives here today, and we encourage you to take a salad bar approach; take what you can use and leave the rest.”

I began to grok the gravity and necessity of the “salad bar approach” when my son was around 8 months old and had trouble falling asleep with his old routine, and we had to try a new one.  In my son’s early months, I identified as a “crunchy mom,” and practiced a lot of what that entailed: breastfeeding, cosleeping, cloth diapering, babywearing, etc.

But when my son was 8 months old, he was having trouble falling asleep, and was miserable and exhausted. At that point, I realized that while I had certain ideals and theories about parenting, they weren’t actually serving anyone if they weren’t working for my family in that moment. I could keep powering through using the methods and theories I “believed” in, so as not to incur the wrath of the judgment of other moms who felt the same….but at the end of the day, the people on the internet didn’t need to live with my decisions. My son did. I did. My husband did. So I chose to open my mind a bit and try something else.

And I realized that I wasn’t actually worried about the judgment of other moms, as much as I worried about what this meant for my identity as a “crunchy mom.” I was just projecting that fear onto the other moms when I feared their judgment.

I notice a similar fear in myself as I explore the question of “can a person be considered body positive if they want to lose weight?” So I remind myself that viewing “body positive” as an identity doesn’t serve me any more than viewing “crunchy mom” as an identity. Just as I need to figure out which parenting tools work for my son (whether or not they all come from the “crunchy” toolbox), I similarly need to figure out which self-care tools work for me (whether or not they all come from the “body positive” toolbox).

So the question remains…..can you accept your body and still want to change it?

And it’s a complicated question. I can think of many examples when you can accept your current situation, but would still be happy with a change:

  • You could be content in your job, but still want to work towards a promotion
  • You could be happy with your home, but still want to make improvements or upgrades to better accommodate your household’s needs or add luxuries
  • You could be grateful for what your car does for you, and still enjoy a nicer one
  • You could be happy with your knowledge base but still aspire to learn a new skill
  • You could be proud of your marathon time and still work towards a faster one
  • You could be proud of your deadlift, and still work towards a heavier one
  • You could be happy with your financial situation, but still want to work to earn more money or save more money

In my opinion, working towards improvements in certain areas does not inherently mean you are unhappy with what you have.

However, I ask myself, and I encourage anyone else who is struggling with the body positive / weight loss conundrum…..why do we see weight loss as an improvement?

Is it because we think life will be easier and we will like ourselves more?

Is it because we think we will be healthier?

Is it because we think it might give us relief from a medical condition or chronic pain?

It might be for any of these reasons, or for other reasons entirely. Whatever your reasons are, jot them down and park them for a moment while we talk about something else….the likelihood of long term weight change.

Even if we want to change our bodies (whether or not we accept them as they are in the meantime)….there just isn’t much evidence that any weight loss method is promising over the long term (5 years or more). Personally, I think it’s okay to want to change…..but for me, it is also important that I be realistic about the degree to which I control the outcome, so that I don’t conflate the outcome with my self-worth. In the case of weight change, that degree seems to be very small for most people over the long term. If I wanted to change my hair color, I could dye it pretty easily (assuming I have the money and/or skill). Weight change, on the other hand, is far less within our control.

Compare it to the situations proposed above:

 

  • If I want a promotion, I could stack the deck somewhat with my work habits and performance. However, the outcome may also be affected by the company’s budget, and whoever else is competing for that promotion, and what that person is doing. The outcome may also be affected by my relationship with the person making the decision, and any implicit bias that person has. So, it’s not completely within my control.
  • As far as making improvements or upgrades to my home….this may be entirely within my  control if I had either the financial resources and/or time and skills to do it myself. Since I have neither, they may have to wait for me to save money, inherit money, win money, or have some other change to my financial situation.
  • Same situation with getting a better car.
  • As far as improving my knowledge base, I know I could do this when putting in the effort. Much more within my control!
  • If I wanted to improve my marathon time, I could train for it and improve my odds of a better time. And I would know that the outcome can still be affected by my body. If I were to get injured, or suffer from overtraining or illness or a bad night’s sleep, that require me to recover and therefore the outcome is not entirely within my control.
  • Ditto for improving the deadlift. After getting sidelined due to injury, I realize very acutely that wanting a 300 lb deadlift is fine, but getting it was not entirely within my control.
  • Improving my financial situation is partly a matter of work, partly of saving, partly of smart budgeting. The options available to me in each of those areas are affected by my skills, knowledge, time, needs for childcare, expenses, and any emergencies that may come up.

Anyway, many people seem to think (hope?) that having good reasons to want to lose weight makes long term sustained weight loss more likely than the evidence shows. And sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

So, for myself, I do feel it’s okay to WANT to lose weight. But it’s just smart to be realistic about expected outcomes, and to look for more promising alternatives to weight loss as a means of addressing the issues I hope weight loss will solve.

So, if we think life will be easier if we lose weight, because people will treat us better and places will be more accessible to us and clothing will fit us and doctors will actually treat us for the issues we came in for, etc, etc…..I think it is important to bring awareness to our fatphobic culture and do what we can to change it.  It is important to support companies who make clothes that fit us. It is important to speak up with our doctors, or find new ones if they won’t treat the issues we go in for. It is important to point out fat shaming and microaggressions. It is important to ask for accommodations when needed. In my opinion, we can do all these things whether we are happy with our weight or not.

If we want to lose weight because we think it will make us healthier…..well, we may be right, but if there is little evidence that it can successfully be done, that may be a moot point. So, for me, when I want to be healthier, I focus on behaviors I can control instead of outcomes. For me, that looks like regular movement while respecting physical limits, improving the quantity and quality of my rest, becoming more aware of distracted eating, emotional processing through writing and therapy, treating medical conditions that I have with compassion and without judgment, and more. I can control all of those things. What I can’t control is where my bodyweight decides to settle in as a result. (And,there is evidence that in many cases, weight is not the death sentence the media makes it out to be.)

If we want to lose weight because we think it might give us relief from chronic aches and pains….well, again, we may be right, but the evidence that it can successfully be done long term just isn’t out there (yet?). I am personally struggling with this one right now. Some people may be able to successfully manage or eliminate aches and pains with physical therapy, stretching, strengthening, heat, anti-inflammatories, or other options regularly made available to thin people when they have chronic pain. But when I needed to take a break from deadlifts due to injury, I quickly noticed an increase in back pain, which seemed to increase the longer I had to stay away from the barbell…..regardless of of physical therapy and rest. I realized that in my current situation, my weight did seem to have an effect on my pain levels and everyday function.

That said, I know from experience that dieting has only ever lead to worse health for me in the long run. Now that the barbell is back in my life, my pain levels are much improved even after just a week. But what if I had been more permanently limited in my lifting? Would I still say that I would not want to lose weight because of my identity as a body positive person? Would that help me? Would it help anyone?  What would I do with that desire if I was realistic about the fact that I have ultimately very little control over the outcome?

These are some of the questions I have lately with regards to chronic aches and pains. I don’t have answers. I’m just sharing the questions.

So, in summary…I think the answer to the question of whether a person can be body positive if they want to lose weight is “yes, however…”For myself, I question the usefulness of using Body Positive as an identity in the first place. I also question why weight loss is seen as an improvement. I also think that being realistic about evidence and outcomes can help a person not conflate their self-worth with their weight  outcome (be it gain, no change, or loss). I also think that in many (most?) cases, people  will find more life-enriching improvements to their health and happiness by looking away from the scale, and not towards it.

Again, these are my thoughts at this particular moment in time, and they relate to individuals, not to for-profit entities. If you would like to learn more about the perspectives of others, I encourage you to read what they have to say. I encourage you to take a toolbox approach to my opinion: take what you can use, and leave the rest.

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