The Thing About Being a Fat Health Educator

I am a college health educator and I am fat. I suspect that people do a mental double-take when I introduce myself as a health educator. My educated guess is based on the fact that fat stigma exists. In 2009, Salon published an article asking if Dr. Regina Benjamin, a renowned MD and recipient of the MacArthur genius award, was “too fat” to be Surgeon General. If folks are asking that about her, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine they’re wondering about me too. But here’s the thing. I don’t think my weight has any bearing on my qualifications as a health educator, and here’s a whole list of reasons why.

  1. Nutrition, fitness, and weight management are only one small part of a college health educator’s job. Depending on a college’s size and organization, they may not be in the job description at all. For example, my job description instructs me to spend at least 60% of my time on alcohol and drug abuse prevention, with a secondary focus on running our peer health education program. My next prescribed priorities are stress management, sexual health education, tobacco cessation, and sexual assault prevention. In my copious spare time (sarcasm alert) I attempt to cover the rest, including cold and flu prevention, cancer prevention, eating disorder prevention, and education around sleep, nutrition, and fitness.
  2. Not every health educator became a health educator because they’re a nutrition and fitness enthusiast. In fact, a lot of college health educators get into this field because of the badass health topics we get to cover: sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. My academic interest in sexual health politics (the HIV epidemic, Roe v. Wade, etc.) are what led me to this field; learning more about other wellness topics in the process has been a bonus.
  3. You can’t accurately judge my health status based on my weight. Health does not equal thin. Plenty of thin people engage in unhealthy behaviors, and plenty of fat people engage in healthy behaviors. It is folly to assume that you know anything about a person’s health based on their appearance.
  4. Sometimes being a fat health educator can actually come in handy. Students struggling with weight, body image, or eating disorders sometimes feel more comfortable speaking with someone who they believe can relate to their experiences. Just as they might judge fat health educators as being able to relate to those experiences, they may judge thin health educators as being unable to understand their struggles. Clearly, you cannot tell by looking at a person whether or not they have struggled with weight, body image, or eating disorders, but it’s not far from the mark to assume that a visibly fat person has probably experienced fat stigma and can relate to what that feels like. The desire to receive help and support from someone who shares your experience or perspective is not unique to this issue. For example, many people struggling with substance addiction seek help from other recovering addicts. We see this in the sponsorship model in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. It’s also not surprising that at any given time, 37%-57% of addiction counselors are in recovery themselves. I do not intend to equate the experiences of being fat and addiction because they are two completely different things. But sometimes it really helps to talk to someone who’s been there, you know what I mean?
  5. As a fat health educator, I know first-hand that nutrition, fitness, and weight management are not easy or simple – despite what some people would have you believe. I also know first-hand the unintended consequences of talking about weight management as if it were easy, simple, or even attainable for the majority of people. Those unintended consequences can range from frustration to self-hatred, from “fat talk” to dangerous disordered eating and exercise behaviors. As a result of this knowledge and experience, I am incredibly careful in my messaging around nutrition, fitness, and weight management. I avoid using calorie counts because those numbers can be triggering for people struggling with eating disorders. I stress Health at Every Size – a philosophy that promotes healthy eating and exercise behaviors for their own sake, regardless of whether or not they result in weight loss. I do not promote dieting, but I do promote making healthy dietary choices. I teach nutrition, fitness, and positive body image within a framework that supports an understanding of wellness as multi-dimensional – and I trust students to decide for themselves which dimensions they will prioritize.

It has been suggested to me that I should lose weight in order to be “taken seriously” as a health educator. This is so, so, so problematic on so many levels.

First of all, this is essentially saying that in order to escape the consequences of fat stigma, I should stop being fat. That’s a bit like suggesting a black person change their race in order to avoid the consequences of racism in the workplace, or that gay people stop being gay in order to avoid the effects of homophobia. With social stigma, the morally correct response is to fight to end the stigma, not eliminate the group of people who are stigmatized.

To be sure, being fat is different from being black or gay. I do not mean to equate these different experiences of oppression. Instead, I am suggesting that it’s not really helpful to think of being fat as something a person can necessarily change.

People do not always have control over the circumstances of their lives, especially in regards to health and disability, access to medical care, and financial security. Sometimes people may have medical reasons why they cannot lose weight. For others, the time, money, and energy it would require to lose weight may be more than they have to give. To assume that every fat person could lose weight if they chose to is a hugely reductive perspective, based in stigma, that denies fat people the right to their own individual stories, situations, and experiences.

To get more personal, I guess I could be classified as a person who “could” lose weight if I chose to. The thing is, I have made that choice in the past and it didn’t go so well for me. You can read all about in “My Breakup with Exercise.”

From my past experience, I know that In order to be a thin health educator, I would have to sacrifice to a degree that would have an overall negative impact on my life and personal wellness, as well as my job performance. For me, maintaining a low body weight is a mentally exhausting and extremely time intensive endeavor. It requires devoting nearly all of my free time to exercise and meal planning, to the extent that I do not have enough time or brainpower leftover to hang with friends, see shows, or work on creative projects like quilt-making, comedy writing and improv, and this blog.

The “decision fatigue” from focusing so much attention on food choices would also take its toll at work, leaving little decision-making power for my actual work. Plus, have you ever tried to go a whole work day on yogurt and salad? It’s not easy to keep that upbeat smile going when you’re hungry and irritable, and it’s definitely inconvenient when a serious one-on-one with an at-risk student is continually interrupted by your stomach growling.

However, with moderation, I can maintain a decent level of health without making those kinds of sacrifices. I may not be thin, but I can live a full life and perform my best at work.

For me, wellness continues to be a journey.

A Softer World

Each year I adopt new behaviors to improve different dimensions of my health and wellness. My priorities may change, but I will be continuing this journey for the rest of my life. My weight may or may not fluctuate as a result of my choices, but I refuse to think any less of myself for doing health education – or any work, for that matter – in a fat body.

So the next time you judge a health professional for being fat, take a step back and check your prejudice. It is up to all of us to create a future where professionals are judged not by their appearance, weight, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, or gender expression, but by the quality of their work.

My Breakup with Exercise

In November, I met the amazing Ragen Chastain at a conference. She was the keynote speaker and blew the minds of college health professionals about Health at Every Size. During one of her talks she explained that many people are currently experiencing a “bad breakup with exercise.” That phrase was a gift to me – I finally have the  words to describe my fraught and complex relationship with exercise.

I was never an overly active kid. I loved to read, play with plastic dinosaurs, and find salamanders in the woods. I hated gym class. I did not like sports. Nor did I like hiking or cross-country skiing, my parents’ favorite activities. Once I hit puberty my body became soft and pudgy and my dislike of physical activity was no longer just a personality trait – it became a flaw. It became an indicator of my laziness and bad attitude, or at least, that’s how my parents seemed to interpret my spirited protests. I quickly understood that I was being forced to go hiking because I was fat. My mom encouraged me to go to the gym with her. I felt out of place there and embarrassed. My presence in this dark, smelly, scary adult space was punishment for being a fat and lazy kid.

I didn’t touch exercise again until my junior year of college. My university required everyone to take a certain number of gym credits and I signed up for a step aerobics class I had heard good things about. I loved it. The instructor was an athletic female coach who was all about strength and fitness, not about appearance. She wore a giant t-shirt and long, baggy gym shorts. I started coming to the gym a few times a week and doing the elliptical machine, crunches and pushups. I signed up for Pilates and a strength-building classes even though I had already fulfilled my Phys Ed requirements. It felt good. It was a happy time for me. I finally was developing some positive experiences with exercise.

In 2009, I moved to Boston to begin my first full-time job.I got myself a gym membership. I started doing Weight Watchers with a coworker, and religiously tracked every morsel I ate. I signed up for personal training. I went to the gym at least 5 times a week. My sessions at the gym now lasted about 2 hours. I would start with 15 minutes of cardio on the elliptical to warm up. Then I would do 30-45 minutes of strength training. Then I would do 45 mins-1 hour of cardio – rotating between the elliptical, stairmaster, and bike. Then I would stretch for 20 minutes. For a month or two, I added another 15 minutes of ab work each night before I went to bed. I turned down offers to go to dinner or evening events in order to go to the gym. I knew that I needed at least a 3-hour block of time to do my regular workout, shower, and change; there was simply not enough time to do anything else on a weeknight. I had no hobbies to speak of, besides working out. I did this for about a year.

Everyone thought I looked great. I lost 25 lbs and fit into size 8 pants for the first time since high school. For a brief period, you could actually see my ab muscles when I flexed. I could wear really short shorts. I ate mostly processed frozen dinners, raw vegetables, and Greek yogurt (no time to cook). I got compliments from friends, coworkers, and my family. Guys asked me for my number. My parents no longer chided me for my behavior; now they were asking me for tips. They soon signed up with personal trainers themselves.

I was down to 145 lbs, but I was convinced that I needed to get to 125. I believed that was considered “normal weight” or “healthy weight” for a woman of my height. I was excited and happy about the changes I felt and saw in the mirror, but I in no way considered myself “done.” I was in the best shape of my life, but I still thought I was fat. And according to my BMI, I was technically still “overweight.”

This too can be yours! Just eat hardly anything and exercise 2 hours a day for the rest of your life!

This too can be yours! Just eat hardly anything and exercise 2 hours a day for the rest of your life!

Then I started grad school. I was working full-time and taking a full course load at night. Suddenly, there was no time to go to the gym. I had night classes and homework. I still tried to go as often as I could, but if I wasn’t able to complete my full 2-hour workout, it felt like failure. A waste. Moderation was simply not in my vocabulary. My new body was slipping away.

Soon I become so mentally exhausted that I had no room left for tracking Weight Watchers points. I had no time to go grocery shopping. I started living off of cafe sandwiches, takeout, and Red Bull. My beloved trainer experienced some health problems and had to retire. The trainer assigned to replace him was a douchebro jock who kept talking about getting me a “hot bikini body” and I hated him. Eventually, I stopped going to the gym altogether. And, naturally, I started to gain weight. Like so many people, I ended up gaining more than I had lost.

Three years later, I am the heaviest I’ve been in my life. My parents have expressed their concern, and I have pushed back on their well-intentioned but incredibly painful statements with every ounce of spirit in my body; I will not feel like a worthless fat girl again. And no, exercise is not so simple as “Just do it.”

For most of 2013 I was sedentary. I had multiple false starts as I tried to “get back into the gym.”  Each time I returned, there was a new manager at the personal training company who would spot me on the elliptical and approach me, saying “Congratulations on taking the first step towards a better you!” or some bullshit like that.

I wanted to punch them every time. I am already a better me. I have hobbies now. I have friends. I have a life.

Then the manager would encourage me to try personal training because “beginners always need someone to show them how to do things properly.”

“FUCK YOU, I am NOT a beginner,” I would think.

“If you only knew me when…” And then my anger would dissolve into shame. I was embarrassed at failing so spectacularly.

But looking back on it now, I wonder how could I have done anything else but fail. My Biggest Loser-esque workout regime was extreme and unsustainable. Dieting was unsustainable. My abs were unsustainable. And no matter how thin or muscular I got, I always thought I was fat. I always needed to lose more. I was never not unhappy with my body. Losing weight did not improve my body image whatsoever.

In 2013 I vowed to stop dieting forever and began the long process of making peace with my body. Though I was making progress on the eating and body image fronts, I was still having a really hard time with exercise. Friends would say, “Couldn’t you just go to the gym for like 20 minutes? Couldn’t you just take the stairs? That’s better than nothing!” The thought of going to the gym for 20 minutes or taking the stairs was foreign and confusing. How could you do anything worthwhile in 20 minutes? I would never get my abs back by going to the gym for 20 minutes. I would never lose 40 lbs by taking the stairs. It became obvious that thinking of physical activity in moderate and sustainable terms was going to be extremely challenging for me.

I spent a lot of time thinking of ways to get active that would be fun and sustainable. I didn’t come up with any radical new ideas. There was yoga and hiking, which I have learned to like now that it isn’t mandatory and I can choose to do it on my own terms. But I haven’t found a yoga studio I like yet and hiking is difficult to do on a regular basis when you live in a northeastern city. I kept coming back to the gym – the first place I ever really enjoyed exercise.

But I was, as Ragen deftly stated, going through a bad breakup with the gym. The gym had ghosts of my thinner self in every mirror. The gym was full of people who would assume I had never worked out before. And I still never had enough time to do the kind of workouts I felt were necessary. “Do it right or don’t do it at all” would echo in the back of my head.

I took my time. I thought about things. I let myself get comfortable with tenets of Heath at Every Size. I practiced self-compassion. I forgave myself for “failing” and gaining weight. But most importantly, I worked on letting go of the idea that I could someday be 125 lbs or “get my abs back” or achieve the extreme physical transformation I did back in 2010. This has been, and continues to be, the hardest part. There is a very real sense of loss involved in abandoning the idealized, aspirational vision of yourself that’s been in your head since you were a teenager.

Then I agreed, for the first time in my life, to participate in a fundraiser stair climbing challenge. I knew this would force me to get back to the gym, and it did. The stair climb event is two days away, so last week I forced myself to return to the gym for the first time in many months.

Walking in the door was really hard. I could barely finish my first 20-minute cardio workout on the cross trainer. Five days later, I can do 30 minutes without too much difficulty. I think it’s amazing that my body can adjust back so quickly after so long. I am grateful for its strength and responsiveness. I suppress the faint urges to pull my scale out of storage.

This time, I’m trying to commit to realistic goals. 25 minutes. 30 minutes. Mostly cardio, with some Yoga Meltdown or free weights every now and then when I want to work on building strength. No more than 45 minutes per workout, 3-4 days a week.

Workouts that will help keep me active and give me the health benefits I’m looking for, but won’t consume me. Workouts I can squeeze into my busy life without having to sacrifice other hobbies or time with friends. Workouts that have absolutely nothing to do with losing weight or achieving a “hot bikini body.” Those are the kind of workouts I am aiming for now.

I’ll have to wait and see how it goes, but I’ve got a good feeling about this “moderation” thing. Maybe it could work for you too.

Size 14 and that’s okay.

One Year of Not Dieting

In December, 2012, I made a New Year’s resolution to stop dieting. Forever. I’m proud to say that I have kept my resolution and for the first time in my adult life, I have gone a whole year without tracking a single Weight Watchers point. Why? Because dieting does not work for me.

Each time I committed to dieting I would lose weight and then, whenever I needed to focus my energy on other goals (like grad school) or went through a stressful time, I would gain it all back plus more for good measure. In addition to my personal experience, I have been reading a lot about the science of weight-loss and finding that it’s really not so simple as “calories in, calories out.” I could go into more depth about the research and what I believe, but that’s for another post. For now, I’ll share that it is my belief that thanks to dieting, I weigh much more than I would have had I just left my body alone.

Here are some reflections after a full year of not dieting:

Image1. Fat talk is everywhere. People who are concerned and self-conscious about their eating habits (read: most people) insist on ruining every meal you have together by exclaiming how unhealthy the food is or reassuring you that they never eat like this at home, etc. etc. At first it was hard to stop fat talking, but now – a year after breaking the habit – I find it profoundly annoying and intrusive because I’m still expected to join in. What I choose to eat at any given time is none of your business. I don’t need to justify or explain my choices to anyone, and I certainly don’t need to apologize for my choices.

My decision to stop dieting was, in some ways, a promise to stop judging myself every time I ate some food. But thanks to all the fat talk everywhere, I became hyper aware of how much everyone else is judging themselves or others based on the food they eat. If you are trying to retrain your brain not to associate these negative judgments with food, it’s really annoying to hear everyone else do it constantly. It starts to feel like everyone’s out to sabotage you – or at least your next meal.

2. Real food tastes amazing. Have you tried non-diet yogurt lately? Or coffee with milk and actual sugar? Holy crap. Turns out, food doesn’t have to taste like a chemical sundae. The other day I was eating a big, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie that was given to me at a work training. And believe it or not, I couldn’t even finish it. Can you remember a time when you were not able to finish a diet cookie? Those things are about as filling as a celery stick and they taste like cardboard. And even though they taste like cardboard, you end up eating the whole box anyway because you’re so hungry and it’s either the cookies or a salad, but you’re so goddamned sick of salads and your bowels are a wreck because Weight Watchers prizes foods high in fiber and apparently the secret to weight loss is pooping all the damned time. So basically, you’re sitting there, choking down cardboard cookies, mentally exhausted from decision fatigue over whether or not to eat the cookies, feeling like a total failure because you ate the cookies, and wondering if anything makes any goddamn sense in this world anymore.

Dieting! Huzzah!

3. I am finally learning how to cook. I was never that interested in learning to cook, and dieting made cooking really simple to avoid. After all, it is much easier to buy pre-made, processed foods with the nutrition facts and portion sizes clearly labeled than it is to cook a dish and figure out how many Weight Watchers points it is if you used 3 sprays of non-fat cooking spray and substitute non-fat greek yogurt for everything else that might possibly contain fat and my god how does this bland, sorry excuse for food add up to 16 points per serving when there are no goddamned calories in it?

You know what I did instead of cooking? I ate Lean Pockets. Lean Pockets. If anyone wants to know the deep, dark truth about how low dieting can bring you, just tell them “I know someone who actually ate Lean Pockets.” Now that I’m not dieting and focusing on other healthy goals (like not eating so many chemicals) I am learning to cook. So far this year, I have learned to cook African sweet potato peanut stew, chicken marbella, stuffed tomatoes, mini Greek-style meatloaves with arugula salad, brussel sprout breakfast hash, sweet potato spinach mac and cheese, black bean enchiladas, escarole and orzo soup with turkey meatballs, and more! And even though most of these dishes didn’t turn out perfect and I had to do a lot more cleaning up, every single one was better than a fucking Lean Pocket.

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Yep. I made this.

I’m beginning to be able to eat more intuitively. I used to be just like Louis CK.

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Party food was the worst; if there was a bowl of chips or tray of mini quiches in the room, those savory treats would just not leave me alone. I’d be thinking about how many I could have, and once I’d had those, how many more I could have, and when I could have them again. Now, I am much less obsessive about food at parties. I have some if I want some – and more importantly, I know that I can have them if I want them. Now, I can actually stop when I don’t want them anymore. I actually don’t want them sometimes! It doesn’t sounds like a big change, but it feels super different. It’s like I’ve been granted a restraining order and I am no longer being harassed by bowls of chips.

Of course, this is a slow and gradual process. I still overeat sometimes, by accident and also not by accident. Still, I have started to be more in tune with how food makes my body feel. I’ve realized and accepted the fact that certain foods make me feel bad and other foods make me feel good. That may sound obvious, but while dieting my stomach was always off (so much fiber, why???) and so I focused on ignoring my body’s signals, cravings, and reactions rather than listening to them. Until recently, I didn’t know that mozzarella cheese turned my stomach or that big servings of meat made me feel gross. I knew what full felt like, but I didn’t really know what “satisfied” felt like. I never felt satisfied when I was dieting because I was never satisfied. How can you feel satisfied when you’re eating weird, calorie-free versions of food instead of actual food? Now that I can recognize satisfied, and enjoy that feeling, it’s easier to stop.

5. I haven’t lost weight. Yet. I won’t lie. I was really hoping that after I stopped dieting, my body would revert back to whatever it “naturally” would have weighed. That didn’t happen. Let’s be real. After years of dieting, the initial freedom to eat all the things was so novel and exciting that I definitely ate all the things. Unsurprisingly, I gained a little bit. (I stopped weighing myself when I stopped dieting so I am blissfully ignorant of the numbers.) This part has been hard and disappointing. But after more reading and reflection and discussion with health professionals, I’ve been reassured that this takes time. Longer than one year. After all, I’m just beginning to eat intuitively. I’ve also started working on my relationship with exercise – something just as complicated as my relationship with food. It’s a process, and I’m still at the beginning of that process.

I do have hope that as I develop new, healthier relationships with food and exercise, my body will respond accordingly. In the meantime, I’m working on my body image. I’m learning to let go of the idea that being thin will make me happier or my life better. I am accepting the fact that I will never be a size 4, and exploring the possibilities of being happy, fit, and confident with my body as it is.

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After a year of not dieting, I am confident that I’ve made the right choice. I feel healthier in body, mind, and spirit. I’m excited to discover where another year of not dieting will take me. And most of all, I’m grateful to finally be in touch with my body.

As it happens, my body is exhausted and telling me to just post this already and go to sleep. And I’m going to listen to it.

*** Edit ***
I made these. Enjoy.

Weight Watchers 1

Weight Watchers 2

Your Fat is Not Your Fault 2: Blocking Out the Noise

Sunday night I returned from a long camping weekend off the grid to find a whole slew of angry comments on my most recent post, Your Fat is Not Your Fault. Apparently people get really mad when you deign to suggest that it’s okay to be fat on the internet.

Most of the comments were mean and/or stupid in that predictable way people like to be mean to fat people. Those were, and will continue to be, deleted. There were also some typical interweb lols like “I lost 100 lbs eating Paleo. Have you considered that everyone should just eat Paleo?”

There were, however, some comments written by actual thinking, feeling, people critical of  my assertion that dieting almost always fails, and that obesity as a social problem that must first and foremost be addressed on a systematic, societal level. While I won’t address all of those arguments right now, I feel that they are secondary to (and distracting from) my overall point. My point–that it’s okay and important to forgive yourself for being fat–unfortunately got lost in the politics of fatness.

I’m not here to debate whether or not obesity is unhealthy (at least not today). I am here to argue that guilt, shame, and self-hatred are unhealthy. If it makes me a  radical to suggest that guilt, shame, and self-hatred are significant problems then so be it. Body image disturbance (the term for all types of body image issues including dissatisfaction and distortion) is associated with eating disorders and low self-esteem. Self-hatred and low self-esteem keep people from reaching their full potential; they keep people from participating fully in their own lives and becoming productive, contributing members of society.

Think obesity is a drain on the healthcare system? Well, body image disturbance is a drain on every system.

Last year I wrote a post called Positive Body Image Won’t Make You Fat: The Case for Body Positive Health Promotion. Read it.

Having a positive body image won’t make you fat. Letting go of the guilt and blame will not keep you fat. In fact, it will help you begin to heal and one day embrace self-compassion and fun as motivators for healthy eating and fulfilling physical activity.  And once you’ve embraced self-compassion and let yourself have fun-while-fat,  you can start to make those positive lifestyle changes that will allow you live your life to the fullest, whether or not it results in weight loss. If you’re looking for help with this, there are some amazing books on the subject like Kate Harding’s Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere and Linda  Bacon’s Health At Every Size, as well as coaches like Isabel Foxen Duke and Sarah Jenks.

But forgiving yourself for your fat is especially hard when everyone wants you to fix it, apologize for it, or suffer for it. It’s especially hard when when everyone acts as if it’s as easy as “putting down the cheeseburger,” when in reality it’s a gargantuan, exhausting, and wholly demoralizing task that requires strict self-regulation of every thing you eat or do for the rest of your entire life. It’s not helpful to listen to the noise, ever, even if you do want to lose weight.

Unfortunately, fat shaming trolls can be found just about everywhere, including the medical and public health establishment. I’ve recently learned that they are especially virulent among the uber-libertarians (“fat people are destroying our economy because they’re lazy and looking for handouts just like homeless people are lazy and looking for handouts”)  and men’s rights communities (“feminists are destroying my game by telling fatties it’s okay to stay fat”). Add ’em to the bingo card, boys.

In order to “become healthy” — whether that means getting fit, raising your self-esteem, having more fun in your life, etc. — you need to practice self-compassion. Treat yourself the way you would treat someone you love. That means looking backwards and thinking about when you “became fat.”

  • Were you a child? Not your fault.
  • Were you a teenager? The teenage world is one of desperate insecurity; you coped the best you could.
  • Were you in college? You were stressed and not sleeping and maybe partying a lot and still feeling invincible – it’s okay. As my fellow college health professionals often say, it’s “developmentally appropriate” behavior.
  • Were you pregnant or did you just have a baby? Were you coping with depression or another mental illness or maybe a disability? Were you working long hours with no time for yourself? Were you dealing with an eating disorder?

You are not to blame for all the circumstances of your life. Give yourself the compassion and respect you deserve. You would not blame your best friend. Don’t blame yourself.

If anyone out there wants to make you feel bad about your body or feel bad about yourself because of your body correctly identify them for what they are: a troll. If they act concerned for your health, they are a concern troll.

Only you know what’s best for you. Only you can determine what it means for you to live a healthy, happy lifestyle.

Block out the noise. Delete the comments. Do you.

And if anyone has any questions about my comment policy, this is basically sums it up:

Your fat is not your fault

Your fat is not your fault.

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You are not lacking willpower.

You are not lacking willpower because you can’t stick to your diet. You are fine; it’s dieting that doesn’t work. No really. Diet and exercise DO NOT CURE BEING FAT. They may help you lose weight for a few months to a year to six years… but, according to a massive analysis of every long-term weight loss study, no one — statistically speaking NOT A ONE PERSON — has kept off a significant amount of weight (i.e. more than 15-20 lbs) permanently. There is a lot of emerging evidence that when a person goes on a diet, their chemistry changes so that they’re bodies will continue to fight against weight loss long after the dieting has stopped. As David Wong from Cracked put it, “It’s like being an addict where the withdrawal symptoms last for decades.”

You are not lazy.

You are not lazy because you choose to focus your time and energy on things other than losing weight. To quote David Wong again, “The people who successfully [lose weight and keep it off] are the ones who become psychologically obsessive about it, like that weird guy who built an Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks.” So congratulations, you aren’t spending every waking moment of your life focusing on your waistline. You are doing amazing things, whatever they are. Seriously! Whatever you are doing with your precious time and brainspace (reading, writing, working, creating, studying, caretaking, being nice–contributing to society in any small way) is worthwhile and meaningful and more important than spending it obsessing about your weight.

If you want to be more active, then cool. Go for it. Hopefully you’ll find some activities that will bring you pleasure and joy. But don’t think that being more active is going to make you lose weight. It’s not. (See above). So don’t force yourself into a lifestyle that doesn’t work for you–you’ll only end up making you feel worse.

tumblr_mab2gzHeHb1qm339ko1_500You are not unhealthy.

You are not unhealthy just because you happen to be fat, I mean. Isn’t that great? Your weight and your health are two different things. You can be healthy at any size.  Health is determined by your behaviors, luck, and genetics (more luck). Your behaviors are up to you. And they are NO ONE’S BUSINESS but yours. For whatever reason, being “healthy” has been equated to being moral or being “good” in our society. Let me blow your mind for just a second by throwing this nugget out there: You have a right to be unhealthy. For any reason. It’s YOUR body and you can treat it however you wish. But if you choose to be healthy, eat nutritious food and try to sleep for 8-10 hours a night. Find some active things to do that you enjoy and quit smoking. But don’t conflate your health with your weight. Losing weight probably wont improve your health, and improving your health often times doesn’t result in weight loss. This is okay.

You are not stupid.

You are not stupid for trying that juice cleanse or hoping that trying Weight Watchers or eating paleo or forcing yourself to go to the gym every day would “fix” your fat. Our society believes that diet and exercise cures fat. This is what our doctors tell us. This is what the medical and public health arms of our government advise. They are wrong. They have failed us.

Instead of focusing on fixing the real, structural, environmental problems that cause people to become overweight, like poverty or food deserts or lack of sleep or being overworked/overstressed, food advertising, agricultural subsidies, high fructose corn syrup and processed flour…. public health officials have spent millions of dollars and time and energy telling you to diet and exercise. Why? Because it’s easier. It’s much, much easier (politically) to tell individuals to diet and exercise than it would be to fight the lobbyists or make any real headway in regulating the food industry or addressing poverty or our tradition of overwork in America. As Gary Taubes wrote in The Daily Beast, “…the reason the anti-obesity efforts championed by the IOM, the CDC, and the NIH haven’t worked and won’t work is not because we’re not listening, and not because we just can’t say no, but because these efforts are not addressing the fundamental cause of the problem. Like trying to prevent lung cancer by getting smokers to eat less and run more, it won’t work because the intervention is wrong.”

You are not weak.

You are not weak. In fact, your strength is incredible. You are living in a world that does not make it easy for you. You are living in a world that tells you you have to look a certain way in order to be loved, and at the same tells us food is love. You are told to resist eating foods that are scientifically engineered to be literally irresistible — as in, they trick our senses in order to make us physically unable to resist eating them. You have struggled with stigma and shame and guilt and survived. You are alive and you are living.

So let me say this one more time: Your fat is not your fault.

it-s-not-your-fault-o

Give yourself permission to forgive yourself.

Go out and live your amazing life.

Healthy Choice™ and healthy changes

I’ve recently taken note of a new ad campaign by Healthy Choice stating, “Don’t diet. Live healthy.” Turns out the campaign isn’t actually that new since the New York Times covered it in September, 2012, but since I didn’t have television until recently, it’s new for me.

I liked this ad as a wellness educator and body image researcher, and as a former dieter and purchaser of SmartOnes Weight-Watchers-friendly frozen dinners, it made me laugh.

Yes, you heard right. I am a former dieter. At the end of 2012, after yet another frustrating year of failed attempts at dieting and weight loss, I made a serious decision. I decided to stop dieting, forever. I cancelled my Weight Watchers Online subscription for what will be the last and final time. It all started last year when I started researching body image and “fat talk” for my dissertation-equivalent Health Communication project. Conducting that research often and unintentionally became “mesearch,” forcing me to examine my own feelings and behaviors with the intensity of a laser beam. It was painful and I did not like what I found.

I learned that I was one of the 90% of students with body image concerns. I learned that body image disturbance, an umbrella term for body image dissatisfaction and distortion (believing you are bigger than you really are), is associated with depression and low self-esteem. I learned that I was one of the majority of women who engaged in “fat talk” — a term coined in 1994 to describe the specific way girls and women talk to each other about the size and shape of their bodies or diet and exercise regimens, typically in a negative or self-disparaging manner. “I’m so fat.” “You’re not fat! If you’re fat, what does that make me?”

After leaning that fat talk is associated with greater body image disturbance and thin-ideal internalization (the idea that skinny=pretty) and coming to understand the way it normalizes and reinforces body image concerns at the societal level, I started paying attention. It was staggering to realize how many of my conversations with other women were about dieting, exercise routines, the clothes we “could” or “couldn’t” wear, how much weight we wanted to lose, the reasons why we hadn’t been able to “commit” to our weight loss plans. I never realized how often I apologized for eating (“I’m sorry but I’m getting a big burrito tonight”) or made excuses for eating (“I ate like nothing all day today so I’m going to get fries”).

I started to learn more about dieting. I began to realize that all dieting is bad. Yes, ALL dieting is bad. Even if you really need to lose weight for medical reasons like heart disease or diabetes, dieting only helps in the short term. Dieting offers nothing that might help you stick to your diet. Dieting doesn’t help once you’ve reached your goal weight. Cleanses and fasts are even more stupid than diets. They’re like douching–completely unnecessary when you’re healthy, and potentially harmful when you’re not.

I have come to believe that dieting is unhealthy. Slowly but surely, I came round to the philosophy behind Health At Every Size. Believe me, it took a while.

I am overweight but not horribly so. I have been this way for most of my life. I have wanted to lose weight ever since I was 10 years old. That’s a long time to want something. So, making the decision to stop dieting and pursue health rather than weight loss is nothing short of worldview-shattering. A complete about face. A completely new paradigm positioned 180 degrees from my former belief system.

This kind of conversion doesn’t happen easily or quickly. I’ve sat and mulled and struggled with these feelings and developing beliefs for a year or two now. Even today I’m still often shocked by how radical they sound to my own ears. Deciding to stop dieting has been one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done, and I’ve just barely gotten started.

I created a plan for myself. Instead of dieting, I would:

  1. Get active for the right reasons. Find and embrace the pleasure in physical activity. Exercise because it feels good or to meet goals other than weight loss (do 30 push ups, hike that mountain, etc.).
  2. Learn to cook and eat take-out and prepared food less often
  3. Practice mindful eating, listen to my hunger signals, etc
  4. Practice good sleep hygiene (lack of sleep affects the hormones that regulate your appetite and feelings of satisfaction after eating, not to mention the myriad other physical and mental effects)
  5. Cut out “fat talk” entirely; if others around me are doing it I will not participate or change the subject

Truthfully, I started on number five about a year before I made the rest of my plan to stop dieting. Cutting out fat talk turned out be easier than I thought. At first it felt awkward and I didn’t know how how to act or react when friends and coworkers launched into the usual self-put downs and mutual reassurance tango. It turns out that simply not participating or changing the subject works pretty darn well. In a couple of instances, I talked with some close friends about it and my decision to stop. They were receptive and overtime less and less fat talk creeped into our conversations. Overall, I think I am happier for it. Now when I hear fat talk I’m struck by how annoying and insipid it is, and grateful that it’s no longer a part of my social repertoire  It’s been harder, of course, to silence the fat talk that goes on inside my own head, but hey. One step at a time.

This January, I  started the rest of the plan. The first week of diet-free living felt amazing. It was FREEDOM. I felt great to eat something “normal” (non-diet food) and even better to allow myself to NOT feel guilty afterwards. The elation didn’t last long, though, as my insecurities and doubts bounced back with a vengeance. They’re still with me today, louder than ever:

I doubt that I will be able to make any real measurable changes in my weight or my health without dieting. I doubt I will be able to stick to my 5 point plan. I doubt I will be able to be happy if I stay at my current weight, even if I’m super healthy and fit.

I doubt everything regularly, but I’m so committed to building sustainable, healthy habits that will last for the rest of my life that I can’t give up.

It turns out that quitting dieting is the easiest part of making this lifestyle change. A harder part is actually developing and maintaining my new, healthier, lifestyle and the hardest part of all is silencing the doubts and insecurities that make me want to give up or give in to the seeming futility of it all.

I appreciate the message behind Healthy Choice’s latest ad campaign: “Don’t diet. Live Healthy.” I believe it to be a healing message for both individuals and our sick culture. Of course, if it were easy to “live healthy” in America today we wouldn’t have turned to dieting in the first place. And as great as Healthy Choice products are (that is, marginally better than SmartOnes and other diet food), frozen dinners are not the answer.

Positive body image won’t make you fat: The case for body positive health promotion

I’m currently designing a social marketing campaign to improve body image among undergraduate women at a major university. On three different occasions, my classmates—a cohort of public health, nutrition, and health communication students in leading graduate programs—expressed concerns about my project, asking “Aren’t you worried that you’re promoting obesity?”

There seems to be a dangerous misconception in the public health community that the goals of positive body image promotion and obesity prevention are at odds. That somehow, by helping people feel better about their bodies, we will inadvertently “encourage” obesity.

But body image promotion isn’t about glorifying fatness, just like obesity prevention isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about the glorification of thinness. More accurately, body image and weight management are interconnected elements of holistic mind-body approach to health and ultimately, the public health community has more to gain by thinking of them as complementary rather than competing interests.

Obesity prevention efforts may appear to benefit from a status quo that stigmatizes fatness and worships thinness, but the evidence just doesn’t support it. We live in a culture that idolizes underweight supermodels and relegates fat actors to fart and food jokes, and yet none of it has done anything to make people healthier.

A lot of people worry—myself included—that without body dissatisfaction, we would lose our motivation to slim down. It’s an easy trap to fall into because, for many of us, negative thoughts are the only motivation to lose weight we’ve ever known. It’s scary to imagine life without our internal “fat talk”; it takes work to imagine using positive feelings as a source of motivation.

But contrary to popular belief, shame is not a good motivator. In addition to reinforcing an impossible, demoralizing standard of beauty, using fat shame as motivation will always backfire. Fear, shame, and self-disgust may prompt people to change their habits temporarily, but once they start to feel better and the bad feelings dissipate, they are bound return to old habits. Motivation-by-fat-shame doesn’t create a culture of health; it creates a culture of yo-yo dieting and January gym memberships abandoned by March.

Not only does fat shaming fail to help people get healthy, it actively hurts people, leaving maelstrom of negative body image, low self-esteem, depression, eating disorders, and other pathological eating and exercise behaviors in its wake. This is no small matter, as these conditions cause pain and suffering for millions of men and women, of all ages, all over the country and the world.

Obesity prevention efforts that reinforce the thin-ideal status quo are doomed to perpetuate a broken system where body image dissatisfaction is normative, obesity rates keep rising, and the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry capitalizes on both. But obesity prevention efforts that embrace positive body image promotion, on the other hand, have a chance to break the cycle.

Meaningful body image promotion encourages women to reject the tyrannical and reductive thin-ideal portrayed in the media, and to understand that pursuing a healthy lifestyle for its own sake is much more rewarding than obsessing about dieting and weight loss. After all, “thin” doesn’t translate to “healthy.”

For example, the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement is based on the understanding that weight does not determine health, and that exercise and good nutrition are beneficial, whether or not they result in weight loss. Instead of using BMI, HAES advocates using more specific measures, like blood pressure and cholesterol, to determine one’s health status.

Instead of relying on body dissatisfaction, HAES teaches us to draw motivation from positive sources, like the desire to explore new hobbies (yoga, archery, kickball), to achieve new goals (run a 5k, learn to surf), or to enjoy the flavor and feeling you get from nourishing your body with healthy foods. This is the kind of lifestyle change that keeps people engaged and motivated for the long haul, and it will keep us healthier, whether or not we’re overweight. Also, it’s fair to say that by letting go of the “impossible dream” of one day looking like the (photoshopped) people on the cover of magazines and by learning to accept and love our bodies as they are, we’ll be happier too.

This type of holistic approach—incorporating positive body image, mental health, physical activity, and good nutrition—is actually sustainable because it promotes an understanding of “health” as a lifelong process rather than a set of restrictions or punishments to be lifted once you reach that magic number on the scale.

We know that there are no health benefits to negative body image. So why would we limit the scope of obesity prevention to exclude the potential benefits of positive body image?

Encouraging positive body image does not “promote” obesity. Rather, it helps people let go of the shame, fear, and unsustainable weight loss behaviors that are keeping them trapped in a state of bad health.