If you find yourself embracing the body positive movement while still longing to lose weight – and questioning if both can coexist together – you aren’t alone. I’ve seen this question come up in many conversations, and it’s time to tackle it.
While the body positivity movement embraces forming positive relationships with one’s body image while learning to love and embrace the skin you’re in without any need to change to conform to a societal version of beauty, that’s not entirely what we see depicted on social media.
Search #bodylove, #bodypositivity or something of the like, and you’re bound to see a plethora of heterosexual, thin, Caucasian females in able bodies posing with a big grin and captioning how they love their perfectly imperfect bodies. If this sounds harsh, don’t let me fool you; I myself may have an archived photo under that stereotype too.
However, what we as a society need to recognize is that the body positivity movement didn’t just happen overnight when more celebrities and influencers started embracing it. In fact, it began when the fat rights movement of the late 1960s early 1970s began to emerge. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), the world’s oldest organization working towards #EqualityAtEverySize regardless of one’s weight or physique, began in 1969 when a man was upset with the way his “fat wife was continuously treated.” He, alongside numerous others, paved the way to form a movement that strives to provide a culture where “fat people are free, celebrated, and liberated from every form of oppression.”
Flash forward to today – while the message may have been lost amongst the sea of social media pictures, it’s still very much needed.
According to Cara Harbstreet, MS RD LD of Street Smart Nutrition and author of Healthy Eating for Life: An Intuitive Eating Workbook to Stop Dieting Forever, “Body positivity as it stands today is barely recognizable in comparison to its origins within the fat-positive and body liberation movements.”
Given its deep history, it’s important to have this perspective before thinking for yourself if one can one be body positive and still long for weight loss. And, truthfully, there’s no right or wrong answer, according to experts.
Harbstreet notes there is no clear-cut answer to this question. “To me, the answer is incredibly nuanced because of the way certain bodies continue to be centered and rewarded (thin, abled, youthful, predominately white, cisgender bodies) when they tout the messages of body positivity. For other people confronting weight stigma and body oppression, changing their personal physique may equate to safety, survival or higher societal status.”
Echoing Harbstreet’s thoughts, nationally renowned weight-loss and diabetes registered dietitian Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Everything Easy Pre-Diabetes Cookbook, shares, “No one should be stigmatized for how they look or how much they weigh under any circumstances. But your body is your home and you need to make it a happy place to live. If that means you desire to lose weight, then you should go about it in a healthy way.”
Harris-Pincus notes if you long to change your physique, your main objective should be to figure out why, and then learn how to approach your concerns in the healthiest, most sustainable way possible with the guidance of a trained healthcare professional.
Considering we live in a day and age where weight loss is a common point of concern, it’s important to take note of what Harbstreet says. “Body positivity can easily become ‘toxic’ when you start to think that if you don’t feel 100% enamored with your body all the time, you must be doing it ‘wrong.’” Instead, Harbstreet uses this point to openly discuss with her clients the realities of what it might take to change their bodies, what the risks and benefits are, and whether it aligns with their personal values.
Since individualized nutrition is becoming a best practice of care (as it should; there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition), it’s important to work with each person and their own history to determine what is best for them, personally. Harris-Pincus shares that it’s crucial to tailor plans for individuals that allow them to live their healthiest life within their limitations. “I don’t believe in restrictive diets that someone cannot follow long term. The scale is never the focus, and the journey to optimal health involves addressing far more than food and weight such as stress, sleep, physical activity and self-care.”
As we head into the new year, you can begin to be part of the solution to help destigmatize a culture that thrives off thinness while still addressing and meeting your own personal health goals.
For instance, while research is evolving in the body positivity space in regards to how social media depicts this movement, the current data shows that posting body positive messages over a photo of an individual person, or demonstrating a photo with a person who’s appearance diverges from the common “ideal” referred to above is most impactful in moving the bar forward to really make waves in the body positive movement.
Harbstreet adds, “On an individual level, we can set and reinforce boundaries for healthcare and fitness settings and seek out weight-inclusive practitioners. Additionally, we can focus on creating and sustaining health-promoting behaviors – this includes habits that might look familiar such as eating for well-being and engaging in life-enhancing movement.”
On a societal level, she shares, “We also need to decenter thinness, confront and combat weight stigma, and address anti-fatness as it shows up in policies, systems, and institutions. All the personal body positivity you can muster wouldn’t change the fact that you would still be subjected to traumatic and stigmatizing experiences at the hands of a very fat-phobic society.”
So, while the answer may not be as clear as you want it to be, it’s time to sit with yourself and have a very honest conversation about what your goals are. If it encompasses weight loss solely to meet a number on the scale or society’s depiction of “health”, that likely will not elicit change for the long haul. Instead, work with trained registered dietitians and other healthcare professionals to find the right plan that works for you and your goals. And yes, that may end up meaning you are fully comfortable in your own skin while working to meet those goals, too. Remember, they aren’t mutually exclusive.