We’re led to believe that losing weight is pretty much the ultimate goal in life. That all your wildest dreams will come true… if you just reach some ambiguous ideal weight. You’ll be more confident, outgoing, attractive, capable… and yes, healthy. We’re led to believe that, with a lot of hard work and willpower, we can achieve the thin ideal and finally be happy. But I’m here to tell you, from a lot of research and a lot of painful personal experience: Weight loss won’t make you happy.
Once upon a time, I lost a bunch of weight…
It was the mid-2000s and I was in college. I probably should have been studying and buying shares of YouTube, but instead, I was focused on yet another diet and exercise kick.
It’s the one time I managed to lose a significant amount of weight, and I remember just how good it made me feel. I received compliments and attention like I never had before. I started to like how my body looked, and I started to feel okay about other people seeing me without my jeans-and-sweatshirt armor. I felt more confident and outgoing, and like I had finally achieved something. (Let’s just ignore the fact that I was a solid student at a selective private college, on my way to graduating with honors, right?)
But I also felt afraid. I was constantly afraid that I would regain the weight. That, if I let go of the control I clung to for even a moment, the old fat me would come bursting out like some awful clown-filled stripper cake. I would be revealed as a fraud, and all of the praise and acceptance would just… stop.
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I was still the fat kid, even if no one could see it.
And when I inevitably did start to regain weight I was devastated. I could see the pity in their eyes, even if they never said anything outright. The compliments stopped coming, and it was all my fault. I wasn’t strong enough, determined enough, controlled enough. Obviously, if I couldn’t maintain a lower weight, there was something inherently wrong with me. I was still the fat kid, and I wasn’t enough of anything to change that.
It took me a number of years, and several more diets and “lifestyle changes” to realize what was wrong with my approach. I, like so many other people, was so focused on changing my body that I completely missed what I was actually searching for…
So What Are We Really Looking For?
There’s a LOT going on in our world that leads us to believe that everything will be better if we just manage to lose weight. We’re told pretty much every day that we’re disregarded, ignored, harassed, and abused because we’re not pleasing to the social eye. And obviously, if other people are being shitty, we’re the ones that need to change.
We’re raised to believe that having a fat body is unacceptable.
In one study “…researchers found that weight-based bias, which is often accompanied by overt discrimination and bullying, can date back to childhood, sometimes as early as age 3.” And another study found that nearly half of 3- to 6- year old girls say they worry about being fat.
And if that’s not terrifying enough, “Twenty-six percent of 5-year-olds recommend dieting behavior (not eating junk food, eating less) as a solution for a person who has gained weight, and by the time they’re 7 years old, one in four children has engaged in some kind of dieting behavior,” (Common Sense Media).
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We grow up surrounded by messages that we have complete control over how much we weigh (we don’t), and that being fat is absolutely not okay. So it’s really no wonder that larger children learn very early on that there’s something wrong with them.
It’s still completely legal for businesses to discriminate against fat employees.
Companies routinely deny career opportunities to fat people (especially women of color) and keep them from interacting with clients and customers because they supposedly don’t represent the company well. Managers, co-workers, and customers bully and degrade them. Fat employees are more likely to be taken advantage of and less likely to receive recognition for their accomplishments.
“The result of this prejudice is not only that [fat] people stand less chance of getting a job; they are paid less, too… [Fat] people also work longer hours, are considered less qualified for leadership positions and are expected to be less successful, according to numerous studies,” (The Guardian).
We’re far more likely to receive applause for losing weight or turning down cupcakes in the name of some crazy-restrictive diet than we are for achieving anything else.
Healthcare professionals routinely dismiss fat people’s concerns.
Despite a slew of evidence showing diets don’t work, and the resulting weight-cycling is actually worse for your health than being fat in the first place, doctors continue to prescribe weight loss to fat patients for just about everything under the sun. And since we’re taught to trust doctors for their superior training and knowledge of the human body, this reinforces the idea that everything will be okay if you just manage to lose the weight.
“Weight bias in health care is particularly troublesome because it discourages people at high risk of health problems from receiving medical care or discussing health concerns with their doctor. After visiting health care professionals, obese patients report feeling disrespected, not being taken seriously, and having all of their medical problems attributed to their weight.”
Even our friends don’t always take us seriously.
I hate the bonding-over-bad-body-talk thing. You know what I’m talking about.
This is harmful to anyone because it reinforces the normality of hating on your body. But it’s especially awful if you’re actually fat.
Your thin friend’s comments about her jiggly thighs make you wonder what she thinks about your body (that’s a microaggression by the way), and when you point this out she backpedals furiously, stuttering something about how “You’re not fat you’re beautiful!” (can we PLEASE stop with that bullshit?!).
Then there are the unsolicited “concerned” comments about our health (i.e. concern trolling). And at worst, we’re relegation to the role of the Fat Friend.
“We’re supposed to be stylish, upbeat, have witty comebacks for the endless wave of hate that comes our way, regular as the tides. We’re also supposed to be empowered, confident, let criticism roll off our backs. We’re not supposed to give in to detractors, even if our harshest critics are family, friends, partners, doctors…
We’re expected to accept street harassment, diet talk, all manner of public discussions about our repulsive bodies. We are not to interrupt. Neither are we to talk about our experiences, lest we be told we’re “playing the victim.” If we give voice to our inevitable sadness or anger, we’ll become the self-fulfilling prophesy (sic) of the sad, isolated fatty. And we’re expected to reject our bodies at every turn. If we dare to broker a ceasefire with our own skin, we’re “giving up.” If we learn to love our bodies, we’re “glorifying obesity.”
So: be ashamed but confident, doomed but upbeat, abused but unaffected, unbothered by reminders of our own impending deaths.” (Your Fat Friend)
We’re taught that our marginalization is our own damn fault, and sometimes spend years trying to fix ourselves enough that we can be accepted. Because that’s what we’re really after, isn’t it? Through years of restrictive dieting, forced exercise, and missed desserts…
All we really want is to feel like we belong.
It’s the feeling I gained when I lost all that weight, and the feeling I was terrified of losing as I gained the weight back (and more). I wanted to feel worthy, wanted, appreciated, and liked. I wanted to feel like my opinions, emotions, and needs were valid. I wanted to feel confident in myself, in a world that continually told me I couldn’t possibly feel confident existing in a fat body.
Weight loss doesn’t change the way you think about yourself.
So here’s the thing: weight loss will definitely change the way other people treat you. That in and of itself is a pretty shitty fact.
But weight loss won’t change the way you think about yourself. It won’t change the fact that all of the good things you start to feel are now (still) entirely tied up in the number on the scale, the number on your clothes, and the way other people respond to your presence. It won’t change the constant understanding that your grip on this reality is tenuous – entirely dependent on you maintaining that weight. Because if you don’t, if you slip, you lose everything you’ve gained. You’re revealed as the fraud, the person they let into the club who doesn’t really belong. And eventually, you’ll be back out in the cold.
It isn’t real if it can be taken away so easily! Weight loss doesn’t actually make you happy. And we’re unlikely to wake up any time soon to a world that’s magically fat-friendly. So what do we do?
Stop waiting for weight loss.
Seriously. Just stop.
We can’t change the way society sees us all at once or the fact that so many things in this world aren’t made to accommodate us. But we can stop letting all those negative messages interfere with us enjoying our lives. We can take all that energy we’ve spent trying to control our bodies and put it into trying new things, creating memories, and achieving things that are actually important.
I’m not going to pretend it’ll be easy. Finding the confidence to ignore the voice of society is freaking hard. It’s a process that’s never really done, but I know you have what it takes!
And I’ll be here with you every step of the way.