[Never Say Diet] Love Your Body, It’s Perfect — Now Change!

iVillage Never Say Diet Virginia Sole-Smith Love Your Body Now Change!Over on Never Say Diet, today’s post was ostensibly inspired by this new study about how loving your body will help you lose weight. Gah. So problematic. I know.

In fact, that post was also inspired by an email that I received over the weekend from reader Lauren.

Now let’s be crystal clear: I’m posting Lauren’s email here because I think she speaks some truth and lots of us can relate, and I thought the wonderful community that is Beauty Schooled might have some words of wisdom to share. You guys are crazy smart and have so many wise words. I am also pretty smart and have a few words (ahem, 1400 or so).

But! I say to any interweb lurkers out there — you’ve been warned. I’m going to be moderating comments super carefully on this post, because I do not want this to turn into a negative, unhelpful conversation that leads, as Lauren says “to tears and yucky feelings.” For her or anyone else.

And please, please everyone be aware that even with my scrutiny, there may be aspects of this post (my comments, other reader comments) that could be triggering. Use your judgment. Come back tomorrow, when I’ll be railing about sitcom marriage stereotypes (honest, I will!) with mirth and hilarity, if that sounds more like your cup of tea.

Otherwise, keep reading. Because here is Lauren:

Hi Virginia,
My name is Lauren, I’m 28 and live in Melbourne, Australia.

First of all I would just like to say a HUGE thank you!! Your insights, honesty, humour, and challenging has had a huge impact on my life. I had treatment with a psychologist and dietitian a few years ago which definitely started my journey to a healthier relationship to food, my body and sense of self and I have been trying to keep working on that by myself ever since but your blog has 1) helped me feel less alone in that journey and 2) actually challenged a lot of my thinking that I realised I was still hanging onto, and thinking I didn’t even know I did!

But this is what I am struggling with – my current size (I want to say “weight” but I’m trying to reprogram myself so weight doesnt become the focus of attention and I haven’t weighed myself since early in the year so I don’t actually know what my weight is.)

Anyway, the reality is I want to slim down. I’m not happy with my current size/shape. My clothes aren’t fitting so well and I feel a bit chunky. BUT I don’t want to diet, I dont want to punish myself with exercise (I have gotten to a place where I exercise to feel centered/energetic/empowered and I want to stay there!). And I also feel like even saying I want to slim down is undermining the work I have done to be OK with my body just how it is. While I feel like I have a much more realistic view of my body and can actually like parts of it (some days I really, really like my ass!) and it doesn’t affect my sense of self-worth like it used to, I would still like to slim down.
I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out if its OK that I want to slim down just because I think I look better and then if so how to do that in a healthy, happy way. I know you have written about this in the past and its a difficult topic but I just wanted to flag that there is at least one reader who could use more of this, if possible!

Thanks again!

And here are my thoughts, speaking not in any way as an expert/trained therapist/medical professional. Just as a girl who has also sort of been there. (Lauren and I have talked about this and we’re clear on the role I’m playing here – that caveat was for your benefit, dear readers.)

Yes. It is okay — morally, ethically, psychologically speaking —  to want to slim down just because you think it looks better.

I did this in January and I still feel good about that choice. It wasn’t about hating my body at that size in the “being this size means I have no value and nobody will love me” sense. It was about admitting that yes, I was applying the thin beauty standard to my body and thinking I would be more attractive to myself if I lost some weight, goddammit. As much as I question beauty standards around here, I will never, ever deny anyone their right to subscribe to one. We get to pick and choose. At the same time that I was buying into the weight standard, I was breaking up with a whole bunch of other standards that I didn’t want to apply to myself anymore because they didn’t seem important or contribute to my overall happiness.

The weight standard felt important. I can’t totally articulate why, but it did. Even though I wasn’t connecting it to my self-worth. It was impacting my happiness in subtle and not so subtle ways.

So yes. It is okay to want to lose weight for aesthetic reasons. To say yup, I’m buying that beauty standard, keep the change, here we go.

But — and this is essential, people so I’m breaking out the italics! — that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Because in order to apply any beauty standard to yourself, you have to make judgments and assessments. Most likely, that means you’re going to find fault with your body and you’re going to focus on those faults. Once you start zeroing in on said faults, it’s pretty hard to switch the focus back to all the things you love about your body. Once you stop focusing on the things you love about your body, it’s pretty hard to stop yourself from connecting “flawed body” to the idea of “flawed person.” After all, it’s your body. Ergo, it starts to (irrationally! not true!) feel like it’s somehow all your fault that it has all these flaws.

I wish it wasn’t this way. But once the train leaves the station… I found it pretty difficult to keep myself propped up on this slippery slope. (Yes. The train left the station and proceeded down a slippery slope. Excellent metaphor mixing, VA… really, subtle work.) I’ve had a lot of moments over the past seven months — especially when the weight loss wasn’t going as smoothly as planned, or I was stressed and angry about something else entirely but decided to project it all onto my midsection, or I was PMS-ing up a storm, so at least once a week all told — where buying into the weight beauty standard felt way too expensive from a pure cost/benefit analysis.

It was too hard to steer clear of the flaw obsession.

I had to keep consciously reminding myself of the things I love about my body because it is my body no matter what size (like my blue eyes, pretty feet and backbending talent) because I’d be way too caught up in the things I don’t love about my body — also no matter what it’s size. Ah! That’s a sneaky little truth: No matter how close I’ve come to matching up to the weight beauty standard in my life, I have always, always nevertheless thought my stomach could be flatter, my triceps could be more toned, my chin could be more defined.

If you’ve got a list like that and you think weight loss will solve it, well… odds are good, twenty or however many pounds from now, that list is going to be just as bullet-pointed and bolded in your mind.

All of this is why I hopped off the “concerted weight loss effort” train sometime around the end of April, even though I lost only ten-ish of the twenty pounds I intended to shed. (Yes, back to the train. I let it roll down the slippery slope without me…oh you get the idea.)

Turns out those ten-ish were enough. They were my sweet spot where the price of the beauty standard (being a little too focused on bathroom scales and stomach bulges, skipping wine on weeknights, constantly calculating portion sizes in my head) wasn’t too high for the rewards (getting back in to some beloved clothes I couldn’t wear last year, feeling more pleased with what I see in the mirror).

I’m sure I could lose those other ten-ish pounds with some more concerted effort. And yes, it would be delightful in some respects — even more of my old clothes would fit, I’d be even more pleased with what I see in the mirror. I actually can’t think of any other specific benefits right now, but I’m sure there are some.

But it would also be really, really not delightful. Because that concerted effort would require more rules about wine and portion size calculations and regular assessments of flaws. And that would mean spending more time feeling sad and deprived and overly focused on flaws and not nearly focused enough on good things. I just wasn’t into that. To quote Kate of Eat the Damn Cake: I don’t hate myself enough to change myself that hard.

Everyone has to do their own pretty price check math, though. And we’re all going to get different numbers on what we want to spend or save. But if there is one thing I’ve learned (from life and also from Extreme Couponing): Never pay retail.

Thoughts for Lauren — and really, all of us? Do you think it’s okay to slim down just because you think it looks better or are you also worried about my train/that slippy slope/insert your overwrought metaphor of choice here?


Filed under beauty standards, Never Say Diet

13 responses to “[Never Say Diet] Love Your Body, It’s Perfect — Now Change!

  1. (Um, to clear up grammatical confusion, the “you” here I’m addressing is Lauren, not Virginia or the Internet at large!)

    I’ll go ahead and sign onto much of what Virginia’s saying here, particularly the idea of there being a cost/benefit analysis. That train that was going down the slippery slope? It can be headed to crazytown if you don’t make sure that you’re really getting something genuine from it.

    Several years ago I lost more weight than is natural for my frame and lifestyle, which is pretty healthy overall. And somewhere around my “goal weight” I realized: The benefits of being slim really aren’t that great. It felt awesome to wear anything in my closet, and getting compliments felt nice, but at the end of the day I wasn’t really any happier, or smarter, or prettier. I was a helluva lot hungrier, however. Now, I wasn’t being healthy about it, and it sounds like you’re pretty aware of those pitfalls and wouldn’t walk around half-starved all day. Your cost/benefit analysis will be different than mine was. But I’d urge you to do it before you lose weight, and while you’re losing weight.

    I suppose that’s a buried answer to your question: Yes, I think it’s fine to want to lose weight for aesthetic reasons, especially if you know that you won’t do it in a way that’s harmful to your body and soul. Your benefits of having your clothes fit better and feeling more empowered might well be worth it, in which case, that is fantastic! We don’t live in a vacuum; we don’t live in a culture that’s particularly well-balanced with food and body image, and undoubtedly this question would not be as loaded as it is if we were.

    I feel like there’s a weird paradox of being aware of keeping your body image on the up-and-up–you know the scientific maxim that the very act of observation changes what’s being observed? I think it’s the same of body image. You sound like an astute, level-headed thinker who doesn’t want to damage herself in her quest to inhabit her body as fully as she can. I wish for you enough trust in that very astuteness and level-headedness to be able to know that wanting to look a certain way–which, if I’m reading you right, will be a perfectly healthy way to look–doesn’t have to be indicative of anything in particular. I wish you luck!

  2. Lauren

    Virginia and Autumn thank you so much for helping me to feel better about wanting to slim down without feeling like a total traitor to good body-image/healthy self-worth!

    The train to crazy town of obsession is EXACTLY what I fear! So I am creating a plan of action to help me avoid that old frenemy (so if/when I do happen to fall/jump on that train running express to crazy town, I can jump the hell off as quickly, and with as little damage, as possible).

    I thought I would share my plan so far (I assume it will be a work-in-progress) in case any of it would be helpful to anyone else. I want to note that some of these things I have picked up from Beauty School posts/comments or from other blogs (usually featured on Beauty School – I have a slight girl crush on Virginia because she is awesome!). Where I can remember which blog I found the gem, I have included the name of the site. For those I can’t recall, I’m sorry and I hope it’s suffice to say that I am greatly indebted to the women who provided these wonderful ideas that I am using/sharing to help me on my journey.

    Here I go,
    Repeat my mantra several times a day “I am a happy and strong woman who is healthy and fit”

    Eat 90% for my body, 10% for my soul. The 90% for my body is fresh, healthy, super foods to boost my immunity, complexion etc. Practice mindful eating.

    Remember that health can be at any size.

    Exercise simply because it makes me feel good. Listen to my body in terms of what exercise to do on what days. Continue with my yoga practice for strength, flexibility and connectedness.

    Remember it’s my thoughts not my thighs! (from the Body and the Brood)

    Remind myself of the things I love about my body, because it’s mine.

    Avoid making a set goal of clothes size/weight/measurements. (Although all the goal-setting rules out there would say to make a specific goal, I am consciously choosing NOT to. I suspect that my goal would not actually be my “sweet spot” in the cost/benefit analysis. Aiming to get “down to” a certain whatever has never been a healthy journey for me. Maybe in part because I start wanting to lose a couple of kilos and the next thing I know, I’m imagining myself looking like Elle Macpherson frolicking on the beach aka the PERFECT Aussie woman! Although maybe that should now change to Miranda Kerr but somehow Miranda’s body/life seems wayyyy too unrealistic).

    Avoid having a timeline to see/feel changes (This is going to be hard as usually around this time of year I would be starting to think about “getting ready” for summer/my birthday). Remind myself that if I eat more mindfully and exercise more consistently my body will change in time and in a holistically healthy way. If my body can trust me, I will be able to trust it. (the last bit, at least, I got from Health for the Whole Self)

    Continually check in with my cost/benefit analysis – remind myself of the strong pull of beauty standards and try to find my own voice in that. When I start to feel the cost/benefit analysis tipping in the wrong direction, I can remember that at the end of the day, according to my values of what a good human being is, and what a fulfilling life looks like, being skinny hardly even makes the list.

    Maintain a healthy work/life balance, budget etc (because feeling out of control in other areas of my life is a very clear trigger for me jumping on the train to obsession-ville)

    That’s it, so far. Like I said, this is a plan in progress so if anyone has any other ideas for keeping on a healthy (psychologically and physically) track that would be great (as long as I’m not being too greedy!). I hope that some of this may be helpful to others if thinking about their own plans. And thank you again ladies!

  3. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long, but I felt like I was hacking my way through some pretty dense undergrowth trying to sort out the ethics underlying all this. I wrote up my thoughts as a post on my blog: http://bit.ly/p5odQI. Hope it’s helpful in some small way…or at least a curiosity as a slightly different way of looking at this way of thinking (which I’ve succumbed to in the past as well, Lauren).

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  6. I love this post. Body image can be SUCH a tricky issue… how can we love our bodies, but still want to be healthier or look differently, & reconcile those two desires? For me personally, I find it a slippery slope… it’s the slope that led me down into the nightmare of a long-term eating disorder. I recently wrote about my thoughts on this, actually: What I Talk About When I Talk About Dieting.

    I’m really enjoying your site… & your insight. 🙂

  7. This is great! I’m glad I stumbled upon your blog. Much needed deep thinking!

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  10. whenonedoorcloses

    I’m so glad I found this as I’ve been struggling with this issue as well but ultimately do believe that one can love their body but still want to change it for aesthetic reasons or just to feel better. Early this year I was tired of being tired and crabby, tired of my ugly boxy clothes, and so so tired of not feeling well at all. Also I had an issue with an airplane seat fitting way too tightly and my desire to do more physical activities but being limited by my lack of strength and shortness of breath. So I made a change, became more active, lost some weight while honoring my body and cravings, and I think that’s OK.

    • Hi whenonedoorcloses — I agree, that’s 100 percent OK! Wanting to feel better is a form of loving your body, because it goes hand in hand with taking care of yourself. Which, it sounds like, is exactly what you did. And of course aesthetics are a very often a part of all that — but it sounds like you made wellness your top priority. Which rocks.

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