I am a feminist. I have been taught, by peers and teachers alike, to love my body, and not to internalize the kind of female body-hatred we see perpetuated in our media, our culture, and amongst ourselves. I don’t just get it, conceptually, and I don’t just preach it. I live it. I sincerely love my body, and feel an immense amount of gratitude for the way it has carried me through my life so far. And I love food, in the purest, most affectionate manner possible.
However. (And you knew there was a however coming.) My adolescence and early young adulthood were marked by a small series of big heartbreaks: a death in the family, a personal violation, some broken relationships that were really difficult to deal with, and a number of big geographical moves that left me feeling consecutively more and more isolated from any kind of support system. I dealt with this – and this is a hard fact, morally neutral, neither positive nor negative – by eating a lot of comfort food, and going pretty much fetal at the first sign of trouble. I don’t judge myself for this: I was going through the hardest period of my life, and it was legitimately difficult, and food made me feel better. I want to make a dangerous assertion here: there is nothing wrong with eating food for emotional sustenance. You do what you need to do to protect, comfort, and nurture yourself, and that is what eating emotionally is. I’m grateful I had the food necessary to do that for myself.
However. (Again.) There comes a point in emotional growth when you are out of the woods and need to start learning to walk without a crutch. And I’ve been out of those woods for a while. And I am here, with this body that has so generously carried me through heartbreak, sorrow, and grief, and I want to do right by that body. I am not claiming that fat is inherently unhealthy, but I know that with my increase in weight, I personally have been less healthy. Also, I know that while there are many things I would like to do (run, dance, compete in physical competition, etc.) that are uncomfortable for me at my current weight, but I cannot think of a single thing I like or would like to do that I cannot do at a lesser weight.
I don’t think anyone else should lose weight; I think it’s important that I say that, because their bodies are for them to decide about. I believe that part of our agency as women who own free bodies is the freedom to make these decisions for our own well-being based on what our bodies, our wise, unceasingly faithful bodies, tell us to do for ourselves. And I have felt for a while now that my body is telling me to get rid of some of the weight I am carrying around.
It scares me to “diet” and “exercise” because I don’t think crash dieting is healthy, and I resist the culture that uses these tools – that ought to be just the moderated enjoyment of beautiful, healthy, emotionally gratifying food, and the joyous moving and strengthening of our bodies – to subject ourselves to guilt, fear, and negative cycles of self-criticism and self-hatred. So I’ve been asking myself: is there a way I can do this without drowning in negativity, without telling myself horrible things about the way I am now?
I think I’ve come up with a few rules that make this work for me. If you’re in a similar place – loving your body, seeing ways you want to treat it better or differently, but desperately wanting to avoid the pitfalls of self-hatred and guilt cycles – maybe these will resonate with you, too.
1. Celebrate everything your body can do, and everything you love about your body, now. I know that I have to dedicate myself not just to celebrating the journey toward a body that can do more, but that I have to appreciate, respect, and adore my body as it is now, for all it already can do, for all it will enable me to do through transformation.
2. Never treat food like an enemy. I’m lucky in a lot of ways because cooking is one of my great passions, so if I arm myself with more nutritional information, I know that eating healthfully does not have to be an exercise in dry, tasteless, disgusting food. I’m committed to eating no pre-packaged complete meals, nothing synthetic, and nothing that tastes bad. (This rules out a lot of so-called diet food, but it also rules out a lot of junk food.) Eating healthfully in the last few weeks, I’ve been able to have tons of gorgeous, organic produce from my farmer’s market, sweet delicious oatmeal with apples for breakfast regularly that tastes like apple crisp, fresh fish, delicious Indian and Mexican food, and the occasional high-quality and to-die-for chocolate. God help me, I love chocolate.
3. Celebrate landmarks not because they indicate “skinniness” or “weight loss,” but because they represent a concerted effort I’m making to care for myself. I started with a goal weight but had to reassess that idea quickly. I don’t have a “goal weight,” because the numbers aren’t really important to me. I have a goal feeling: free, limber, able. So, yes, I weigh myself because it gives me some quantitative data to see if the things I’m doing are pointing me in the right direction, but I’m not getting hung up on end goals or what others would call setbacks. Am I still eating healthfully? Am I still moving my body? I’m good, then.
4. Play to your strengths. I happen to be very goal-oriented (which makes #3 really hard!) and self-competitive (which can be a good or a bad thing, really), so I’m going to treat these qualities as strengths. I’m choosing to make my goals things like, “Exercise every morning, Monday through Friday,” and each week that I do that, I get a reward. Not a junk food reward, because, after all, that isn’t really a reward; it doesn’t do my body any justice. But I can have a pedicure, or a new book, or go see a show! And those are awesome. My self-competitive nature helps me to keep myself working hard and pushing myself.
5. Loving yourself means listening to yourself. As much as I love a challenge and to keep pushing myself to do things that are more physically challenging for me (lifting heavier weights, hiking further, trying new things like yoga and chia seeds), I need to listen to my body. I don’t have to give up on my goals, but sometimes they need tweaking and modifying. Maybe I do a gentle yoga session instead of a hardcore cardio and weights session on a day when I’m feeling sore and tired. Maybe I have a cookie if I’m craving one and make a lighter dinner so my energy intake and output are still balanced.
Ultimately, I think our bodies are incredible, at any size. And I think that they are willing to give us a lot of what we ask for. So I hope that what I ask of my body is a gentle request, a kind one, one that honors and gives respect to the body that has given so much to me.
7 replies on “Losing Weight Without Self-Hatred: An Experiment”
Thanks for this post. Â The possibility of healthy, feminist weight loss is something I have thought a lot about.
One thing you said struck me: You say there’s nothing you can think of that you couldn’t do at a lower weight. Â I think it’s important to recognize that this concept– that weight loss, if done in a healthy way, doesn’t pose any constraints on women– is not true for everyone, and it’s a bit of a diet culture myth.
There are certainly things that I can no longer do since I’ve lost weight. Â The biggest thing is to feel free from open scrutiny toward my body. Â When I was a slightly bigger-than-average size among my peers, people never commented on my body or weight, and to be honest I’m not sure they paid my body much notice. Â I felt my weight gave me a certain protective invisibility from being objectified. Â Once I lost weight, it was open season for comments about my size, eating habits, attire, sexuality, etc.–from friends, family, professors, strangers. Â To someone with personal safety/trust issues, this has been very difficult to deal with.
I recognize that mine is one personal experience, but it was one that really surprised me and made me challenge the less fat=fewer limitations belief.
There are also little things you lose when you lose weight. Â Intimacy changes when the body changes. Â For instance, I find myself a much poorer cuddling partner, for spouse and cats.
When I read articles of this nature, I’m always struck by the strangeness of this assumed food-reverence across the board. I think attaching any emotional or moral value to food (even when they’re good associations) is dangerous.
I’d be really interested in hearing your reasons for thinking that. I was raised to believe the same thing – that food should be an unemotional, pure-fuel thing that we attach no particular importance to, but I found that viewing it that way really disassociated me from the eating I was doing, and I found that to be unhealthy for me. I have never benefited from checking out of any action of mine; I have found a richer, healthier life in being truly present for the things I do, whether it is work, eating, or resting. I found myself viewing my body as a machine into which I put fuel, and it’s distinctly not a machine. I’m an organism, I feed on other organisms, and to deny the fact that I get a great deal of sensory pleasure from the colors, textures, smells, flavors, and even the sound of cooking and eating food would be to deny myself a great pleasure indeed. I don’t see how that’s dangerous or unhealthy.
I admit that a lot of my relationship to food in this way has been shaped by agrarian writers like Wendell Berry, theological writers like Robert Farrar Capon, and food writers like MFK Fisher. I am interested in hearing an explication of your view, because I cannot on my own conceive of a life in which my relationship to food is not in many ways moral and emotional, and I have worked hard to rescue that relationship from its unhealthier tendencies. We are not machines; we are feeling creatures, and food is a deeply feeling topic. Just ask, well, anyone who writes about food. I think it’s dangerous indeed to pretend that food is not emotional, is not moral, is not more than just the physical sum of its parts. That kind of alienation from food is what has brought us genetically modified organisms, junk food, and disordered eating. In my experience, too little feeling for food is just as dangerous as too much.
It’s just the assumption that everyone feels the same way about food. Lots of people who are healthier than either one of us have even less emotional attachment to food than you do. They just don’t think about it that much.
I think foodies forget that the way they think about food is the way other people think about their own passions and interests. I enjoy food when I’m eating it but I reserve actual feelings for my personal outlets for my talents and passions.
I promise I’m not ignoring this comment. I’m just, so to speak, chewing on it, and considering the point you’ve raised. :)
Ooooh I could talk with you for hours on this subject! It’s something I’ve been trying to figure out for years, and especially for the past 8 months or so. And it’s complicated as hell! I think the conclusions you’ve come to here are most definitely accurate and useful – I particularly need to get better at focusing on non-weight-related landmarks.
There is such a fine line to walk between body acceptance/fat acceptance and, at the same time, wanting to lose weight – it’s nearly a contradiction, and sometimes for me feels like a betrayal of a community that helped me immensely. But still. Anyway, I appear to be rambling, so I just wanted to say I loved this piece.
It IS complicated as hell. And it is a fine line, indeed. I knew that – for me, at least – I could never lose weight healthfully if my point was just that I was uncomfortable in the body I have and wanted a new one, because I think that’s a mental state, not a physical one- the point being my unhappiness, not my shape. My change needed to stem from a place of not just acceptance but nurturing and appreciation. I think the HAES community can be a really powerful place to learn how to do that, and to encourage others to do that, too (nurture, appreciate, and accept our bodies, that is). But I also think that any community that makes you feel like you’re doing wrong by them – betraying them, in your words – by doing what you intuitively feel is best for your body is a community that still needs some tinkering. (I refuse to throw such a precious baby out with the bathwater, though; there’s no denying that HAES is an essential idea to body acceptance and to self-love.)
As far as it being a contradiction, I think in 9 cases out of 10 it can be, or is, because we’ve been trained to see our bodies, negatively assess them, and THEN want to lose weight. If I have any criticism of what I’ve seen in the HAES community it’s that there seems to be an implicit denial that our bodies are dynamic: we are constantly changing already, our shape, our fitness, our health in general are constantly changing based on everything from genetic blueprints to the actions we take. (Again, this is not to say that our body shape makes us unhealthy.) But that dynamic element isn’t just accidental or the result of time; our bodies are dynamic and impressionable, and everything from the food we eat to the chemicals we intake to the activities we engage in to the clothing we wear effects some of that change. Change is not bad. Self-hatred is. HAES is on to something; but if we truly believe in Health At Every Size, we’ve also got to believe that it’s okay for intelligent, informed women to make a dispassionate appraisal of their own bodies and make choices to further their own health and enjoyment of their bodies. Does that make sense? And by “further their own health,” I don’t mean that fat=unhealthy therefore getting rid of fat = healthy. I mean “It is generally taken as health-improving activities to raise your heart-rate daily for a sustained period and eat organic produce and laugh a lot and fall in love and pet animals and dance your ass off.” Some of those things, when done on a regular/basically daily basis, tend to change your body.
I guess what I’m saying is that there needs to be a certain order of events in order to ensure healthful body image and healthful change in the body. I’m trying to work from the point where I have seen my body, positively assessed it, and said, I think there’s a little more I can give you; not the point where I have seen my body, assessed, criticized, and wanted to change out of loathing or sadness. We are capable of loving friends and either seeing ways we could treat them better ourselves or seeing ways in which they need to be encouraged to change – a situation that comes to mind is a friend who was in a loving relationship that had stagnated and, while neither of them were abusive to one another, they had simply outgrown their time together and both needed to move on. It was a powerful thing to witness because, to me, it was such a perfect metaphor for the change that’s born out of love and positivity and growth rather than hatred and negativity and a shrinking in upon oneself. And I hope to treat my body with the same kind of respect.
Anyway; you weren’t rambling at all, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.