1) they’re getting this from their immediate surroundings (family, friends, media) and
2) this is definitely not going away in their adulthood on its own.
I’m sure a lot of us have announced a fear of weight gain –or thought of it– at some point in our lives. I totally get it… it’s not your fault for desiring a smaller body… but the question lies in whether weight loss is going to get you what you’re REALLY looking for… and whether having a good body image and gaining weight are mutually exclusive.
Our society believes that a smaller body is the ideal, and that it should always be pursued… but why?
1. WHY We Are Scared of Gaining Weight
Happiness: one of my favorite TED Talks by Emily Esfahani Smith discusses that there’s more to life than being happy, and the four pillars that can create more happiness in your life: Belonging, Purpose, Transcendence, and Storytelling. None of that is related to shrinking our body size or shape, unless you define your purpose by your body size.
Attractive Looks: what’s considered “attractive” changes ALL.THE.TIME. Back in the day, being full-figured and curvy WAS the beauty standard; just look at all the paintings of voluptuous Greek Goddesses who were the definition of beauty. Also, have you ever looked at a photo from your past, and thought, “Wow, I looked so good back then… I can’t believe I thought I needed to lose weight”… Yes, exactly my point. It’s so darn subjective!
Mental Health: Honestly it’s not your fault to feel like you need to lose weight to improve your self-confidence and self-esteem… diet culture does a really good job making you feel that way. Your mental health is impacted by a lot in your life: environment, career, relationships, financial well-being, gut health, stress, sleep, exercise, eating, etc… all of which you can improve independently of your weight.\
Being Healthy: you can eat vegetables, exercise regularly, have perfect blood sugar levels, AND STILL be at a higher weight than the “ideal” size – although what’s considered “ideal” or “normal” on the BMI scale is really an archaic measurement that only takes into consideration your weight & height. (How many other references of “healthiness” can you think of other than weight & height?) Even considering the correlation of higher weights with chronic diseases such as heart disease & diabetes may exist, however that does not equal causation. This means, being in a bigger body doesn’t necessarily cause one to be unhealthy, and being smaller doesn’t cause someone to be healthy… as there are also people in thinner bodies who struggle with health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, acid reflux, arthritis, etc… So the focus on the health behaviours is what holds more klout, than weight.
2. What are the implications of Weight Loss in relation to Happiness & Confidence?
A ssociating weight loss with increased self-confidence may lead to self-destructive and dangerous thoughts and habits, such as:
Attaching self-confidence to weight loss. Here’s the thing, if we feel confident only if and when we lose weight, then it’s highly likely we’ll experience fear because it’s attached to something so volatile and often temporary. As cliche as it may sound, true confidence comes from knowing who you are within, not from being obsessed with who you are on the outside.
Obsessing over our weight and body. This obsession can be manifested in many ways, like restricting ourselves to foods that will “keep us thin”, constantly looking and inspecting ourselves in the mirror, and religiously stepping on and off the scale where small changes would ruin our day.
Losing weight to unhealthy levels. Whether we realize it or not, the following slippery slope is very easy to fall into: “If I feel this confident after X amount of weight loss, then imagine how much more confident I’ll be if I lose more weight.” This mindset can be extremely dangerous – it starts with not feeling “good enough”, progresses to “not feeling worthy or valuable”, and when it becomes a preoccupation, it may even lead to to nutrient deficiencies and eating disorders. When originally your goal was to be healthy by cutting foods out, exercising more, and watching your weight, may continue to become more restrictive and harmful until they result in a plethora of health problems such as amenorrhea (loss of menstruation), osteoporosis, increased irritability, etc… This is real and more common than you may be aware of!
Many people share their struggles online, only after they have been praised for their weight loss. Some celebrities like Demi Lovato, Jameela Jamil & Sam Smith (to list a few) have been speaking up about their relationship with their body as well. When we usually idolize people and compare our reality to their highlight reel, it’s most definitely going to make us feel “lesser than” and as though we’re “failures”.
Equating weight loss and increased self confidence leaves us insecure because our happiness and degree of self-love is fluctuating according to numbers on the scale.
Really, we’re only trapped in two states: worried about our weight gain, or worried about weight we may gain. Let’s ask ourselves: is this really the kind of body-confidence we want?
3. What if you focus on Physical Fitness instead of Weight Loss?
You might say… “Okay, I get that it might not make me happy…I can understand that severe weight loss may result in a lot of health problems, but that’s not me–I’m losing body fat and gaining more muscle so I can be healthy, fit AND have a good body image. That’s okay, right?”
Well…depends. Let’s break that down.
Exercising regularly has a ton of benefits – it strengthens our bones, muscles and heart as well as improves our mental health by releasing pleasure hormones and reducing stress hormones. Just 20 minutes of daily physical activity can have this significant improvement on your health, if health is what you’re after.
If you’re thinking: “The lower my body fat percentage and the more muscle I gain, the healthier and more confident I’ll become.”
This is where it gets tricky — it may be problematic to relate low body fat levels and being “shredded” to optimal health. Sure, it might seem that way when we watch all the fitness influencers on social media and movie stars show-off their raging six packs whilst advertising specific “healthy lifestyles”.
But did you know that this exact community also has many problems with eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and orthorexia?
*Trigger Warning* – This influencer references her calorie intake, weight (lbs), and shows images of her body (before/after). If this is triggering for you, do not click on the link to her channel.
Take Stephanie Buttermore for example, a fitness influencer/Youtuber, reported being extremely lean, but also shared that she was feeling more irritable, tired, cold and had an unhealthy obsession with food. That compromised her mental and emotional health, and likely her relationships as well, so the question is, would you still consider her “healthy”?
Mary Cain shared in a video interview with New York Times about her experience as a track athlete training with the Nike headquarters, and how her experience with her coach of focusing on her weight loss actually made her more physically & mentally ill – she lost her period, broke 5 different bones, and her performance worsened, amongst many other side effects.
All in all, I think the World Health Organization’s definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” puts a lot of things into perspective. Ultimately, having a good body image is not obtained by sacrificing your mental and physical health – it comes from building them.
Looking physically fit, doesn’t make up for your “mental” fitness in how you’ll feel about your body or food, no matter what weight you’re at.
DISCLAIMER & GENTLE REMINDER
I will not judge you for wanting to lose weight… I will support you in discovering and defining your health behaviours, and will focus on the behaviours with you, rather than the number on the scale.
Learning how to accept, respect and love yourself is a lengthy process. Don’t worry though, I can help you. If you want to start taking the next steps to towards self-love and acceptance, start with this blog: 5 Steps to Start Loving YourSELF Today.
If you want someone to talk to, I’m all ears. Book your free 15-minute discovery call for me to learn more about you, share resources as a starting point, and/or learn more about how I can help you heal your relationship with your food & body.
This blog was written with the help of UBC nutrition student Jasmine.
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