While waiting at the airport in Washington D.C. for my flight home last Monday, my attention was drawn to a message flashed on a neon advertisement board. In big letters, the heading read NATIONAL SECURITY. Naturally, I expected the message below to be related to national security, especially since I was in an airport, but no, it was about the “danger of obesity,” and gave some statistic about how many people are turned away from the military and can’t participate in protecting their country due to the size of their bodies.
I use quotation marks around “obesity” because it is a word I do not use in my own vocabulary due to its damaging impact on fat people. I also use the word “fat” as a respectful term to describe people who live in large bodies.
You may be reading this and thinking, “Well, isn’t ‘obesity’ a terrible health risk and shouldn’t fat people focus on losing weight?” It’s the message we’ve been fed since the early 2000s when the modern war on fat people was declared, and unfortunately as a country we’re still brainwashed into believing this damaging health paradigm.
We have been conditioned to think that fat is the enemy, and fat people should do everything in their power to become thin. After all, the SAFETY OF OUR NATION is at stake, according to the advertisement I just read! What a distraction this is from the real issues we should be addressing in the U.S.
I could go into a lesson here on why weight is not a good indicator of a person’s health, but I’m going to ask you (if you have doubts) to research the facts about Health at Every Size® on your own, because:
If your brain tends to fixate on weight loss, take a minute to contemplate how much time you spend each day thinking you (or someone else) should be losing weight, or actively trying to lose weight, or wishing you were thinner. Have these thoughts helped to create lasting, positive self-care behaviors or maintain a lower weight? Or do they just consume your precious time and energy, leaving you feeling frustrated, defeated, and blaming yourself for your “failures,” over and over again?
At this particular time on the planet, weight loss is a national obsession. Hmmm… might this have something to do with the fact that corporations, doctors, and others who peddle weight loss promises fill their pockets with huge sums of money annually by making people believe that their bodies are fundamentally flawed and must be diminished?
Weight loss “success” stories: They show up in your social media feeds from friends who share their latest dieting accomplishments and from news articles about the amazing feats of people who were once fat and are now extremely thin. You watch TV shows where thin trainers berate, humiliate, and torture fat people into drastic and quick weight loss (one of the best ways to destroy your heart by the way), and the people on the show do lose weight.
If you live in a large body, these stories can easily suck you in and trigger the: If they can do it, I can do it and I absolutely must lose weight now thoughts. If the story comes from someone touting a particular weight loss program, you may also hear your brain spinning on: this person is showing me the way to a lifetime of thinness and happiness so I will give them my money and let them tell me what to do because I really really want to be thin.
We know restrictive dieting doesn’t work to keep weight off long term for 95% of people who do it. We understand that repeated weight loss/weight gain cycles negatively affect a body’s metabolism so that weight gain and a higher ending weight after a diet is broken are pretty much guaranteed. So why do we keep at it? Because the “success” stories are so alluring. We see that the weight loss attempts have actually worked.
I wonder often what the world would be like if people stopped focusing so much time, energy, and money on diminishing themselves, and, instead, put these precious resources towards living in balance and peace with their bodies, and on actualizing their true purpose and passions.
How do we create this beautiful world? Since weight loss “success” stories, airbrushed images, and advertisements touting quick fix schemes aren’t going away any time soon, we need to have filters to protect us from allowing the damaging messages to seep in and brainwash us into believing it is our duty to pursue weight loss at all times.
Here are three techniques I have used to protect myself for more than three decades since healing from my eating disorder and committing to honoring my body size and pursuing real health:
Before you choose to receive information about weight loss from an article, friend’s story, social media post, TV show, etc., get centered in your body by taking even just a minute to be still and breathe deeply. Do this even if it feels uncomfortable to focus on your body.* Imagine that your breath is reaching every single one of your trillions of cells. Thank your body, even if you struggle with its form, for allowing you to be here on the planet. Remind yourself that weight loss is fleeting for the vast majority of people who attempt it, and that going down and up in weight is only going to make it harder to maintain a stable weight in the future, and is extremely bad for your heart.
Now, as you take in the information (or at this point you may choose to turn away from the source), be conscious of the purpose behind the story and all of the conditioning you have had in your life to make you believe something is wrong with your body. How do you feel? Breathe in deeply after receiving the information. As you exhale, release what you just took in, and focus on something that connects you to how you can use your body to experience purpose, joy, fun, etc., even if it’s hard to do. Doing this activity for just 20-30 seconds every time you are presented with information designed to make you not like your body will start the process of changing your brain chemistry to keep you from getting hooked by the insidious weight loss messages that surround you.
*As a former body worker, I know that most people live in their heads, and think of their body as a foreign object, something not connected to whatever they think of as self. People who want to lose weight are especially susceptible to this disconnect. It is this separation of mind/spirit/body that makes it easy to be manipulated by those who profit from our suffering over our bodies.
When a weight loss “success” story appears, listen with your eyes wide open. Listen with your whole body. Listen with your copy of Health at Every Size, Body Respect, or Big Fat Lies open next to you. Listen while staying conscious of the real truth about weight and health. Pull up in your brain the repeated dieting “failure” stories from your own life and your friends’ lives. Resist the desire to block out what is your birthright—you are here to live your life fully, and you have a purpose to fulfill. Thinking that something is wrong with your body is a distraction that will leave you feeling empty and unfulfilled.
In every moment, we have the freedom to choose. It may not seem like it when things happen to us, but what we can always choose is how we respond to the stimuli that present themselves to us. I was deeply moved reading the story about psychiatrist Victor Frankl in Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Frankl was a prisoner in one of the German death camps during World War II. In the midst of absolute horror, he had the epiphany that no matter what his captors did to his body, they couldn’t take away his freedom to choose what he experienced in his mind. He learned to discipline his mind to see his life beyond the horrible acts happening to him in the moment, going mentally to a place in the future where he was teaching students the lessons he was learning from being tortured. Between stimulus and response, he had that split second where he could choose how to react in his mind. His freedom, which he believed to be greater than that of his captors, was his power to decide how he would respond.
I tell this story because it describes a similar practice I began while healing from my eating disorder (without knowing about Victor Frankl). When the tremendous fear of my body’s flesh would arise after eating a meal, I learned to recognize the moment where I had a choice in how I would respond. I could follow fear and resume my eating-disordered habits, or I could sit consciously in the discomfort, breathe into it, and see myself as a whole, healed person. One of the things that helped me embrace this vision was that a loving person in my life, after learning about my bulimic behaviors, told me they could see me beyond my eating disorder and would hold that image for me until I could get there on my own. What I was learning was a filtering tool that allowed me to live in this world where fear-of-fat and dieting messages are ubiquitous. It’s quite difficult to heal from eating and body image issues when, wherever we go, we get the message that our bodies are fundamentally bad and wrong.
When I am forced to look at airbrushed images of “health” and “beauty” while standing in line at the grocery store, I use my Freedom to Choose filter that reminds me to pause for that split second so I remain aware of what is being done to me by the advertisers. In that second I have the power to choose how I respond. My action, since I am free, is to cover the magazine that is screaming shit messages and images at me with a different one that instead discusses politics or food. I don’t destroy the store’s property; I just move it around! When I hear one of my friends bash their body (nowadays it’s usually some attack on their aging flesh), I activate my Freedom to Choose filter and pause so I can listen while giving love to my own aging flesh, thanking it for allowing me to be here on this beautiful planet. When, by accident, I stumble across a weight loss show on TV, I breathe deeply and send my compassion to the people being tormented into thinness, and pray that they will one day understand that what is wrong is not their bodies, but rather this society that profits off the suffering of others.
I close with a few questions for you:
We are here on planet Earth for a fleeting time, even if we live to be 100. It goes fast—and faster and faster the older you get! My sister Stephanie was dead at the age of 36 because of her desperate desire to be thin and (a very limited version of) beautiful. In honor of her short life, and for all who have lost their lives to the body wars, I choose to live each day as best I can in harmony with my body. I’m not pretending it’s easy, but I do know that my filters help when the fear starts to creep in. I hope they help you, too.
If this blog post spoke to you and you’re curious to learn more, my book Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body (and quiet that critical voice!) is a helpful resource for thriving in a society that aims to tear us down. And, if you’re local to the Bay Area, or want a weekend getaway, there is still some space available in my one and only workshop this year—join me for my Be Body Positive Public Workshop on November 4th in Berkeley, CA!