On Losing Weight and Diets

My feelings about weight loss are simple and complex.

Simple: It’s your body. You make the decisions for your body. Your decision to lose weight (or not) is none of my business. The end.

Complex: Diet culture sucks and 95 percent of diets fail.

I want to dig deeper into the complex.

Diet Culture Sucks

First, diet culture sucks. I grew up surrounded by women who were either on a diet, who just got done with a diet, or who were about to start a diet. Only to restart the losing-weight cycle eleventy billion more times.

Diet culture thrives because we’ve been soaked in lies about the size of our bodies since we were tiny.

Lies diet culture sells:

  • a thin body is the “right” kind of body to have
  • thin = healthy and desirable
  • participation in dieting includes belonging

Bodies come in so many shapes and sizes. And everyone’s body is “right” for them. There isn’t one body that is inherently better than another.

Some thin people are healthy, but thinness does not automatically equal health. There are many people in larger bodies who are healthy. It all depends on what metrics you’re using to determine health. If weight is the only way someone is measuring health, that is a ginormous red flag that “health” isn’t what they’re actually concerned about.

And desirability is a personal preference. There are so many flavors of desirability. It’s true that some people won’t openly share their desire for someone in a larger body because fatphobia also sucks, but that doesn’t mean the desire doesn’t exist.

Finally, diet culture pushes hard to make us believe that we can belong, at least on the fringes, if we’re always striving for thinness. And the expectation is that we must make whatever sacrifices are necessary for an invitation to the cool club. Sacrifices include, but are not limited to, food restriction, exercise with the purpose of losing weight, diet pills, shots, fasting, cleanses, surgeries, eating disorders, and more. If you’re not naturally thin, then you better meekly acknowledge you had the audacity to be born in a body that doesn’t fit into a narrow weight-range of acceptability and then work your ass off (literally) to try to be thin.

Diet Failure

Second, diets fail. By fail, I mean that 95 percent of the people who lose weight on a diet will regain the weight lost, and possibly more, within two to three years. There are researchers who’ve invested a lot of time and expertise in this field, and if you want receipts, I can point you to some resources. I was first exposed to these numbers in Dr. Lindo Bacon’s book, Health at Every Size. This fact has become so indisputable that weight-loss companies are now using this language to convince people that their lifestyle program is somehow different. (Looking at you, Noom.) Spoiler alert: it is not.

Diets do not work long-term for most of us. Again, for something like 95 percent of us. But what about that 5 percent? I imagine you want to know what they’re doing that the rest of us aren’t.

For the tiny bit of the population who maintain their weight loss for more than three years, odds are high that they either hit the weight their body is most comfortable living at; they are naturally predisposed to have a thinner body; or they continue to restrict their eating over the course of years/a lifetime.

When the diet “fails” and we regain the weight, we are the failure. Not the diet. Us. So we try again. Maybe we switch up the weight-loss plan, but the mechanics are always the same: Restrict food. Exercise to lose weight or earn food. Maybe throw in a supplement or a pill or a shot. Repeat.

Never Straightforward

As much as I grieve the way women (and men) throw their bodies against the unyielding wall of diet culture over and over, I understand some of the complicated emotions that feed a desire to lose weight.

  • Fear that we will be judged harshly if we gain weight. Our society promotes a narrative that people in larger bodies are not worthy of compassion or medical care or love. Fear of rejection. When even the people who are supposed to love us best judge us for our size, or want to change us so the world won’t treat us harshly, how can we hope that we’ll be accepted by others?
  • Discomfort in a body that feels different or clothes that no longer fit the same way, or at all.
  • Acceptance and belonging. We are wired for connection, and when we’re excluded, the pain is brutal.
  • Sometimes we have nostalgia for the days when our body size fit onto a more socially acceptable scale because of the privileges we received.
  • Shame. Pain. Loneliness.

I’ve had plenty of my own experiences with roller coaster weight loss. In eighth grade, my body began to add curves at the same time that I was using food to comfort myself. I gained weight quickly and the discomfort in my own skin compelled me to act out in brutal ways. I mean-girled other girls so I could stay in the popular group. If I could push someone farther down than me, I’d keep my spot. I also experimented with promiscuity. If boys were willing to make out with me, I must be desirable, right?

Then a couple of years later, when my home life stabilized, the weight I’d gained magically disappeared as if my own fairy godmother had blessed me with the “Bippity Bobbity Boo.” It wasn’t magic so much as biology. I stopped using food as a coping mechanism, and my body returned to its more comfortable weight, also known as set-point weight.

Side note: I say all the time that our bodies are miraculous. They know what their optimal weight is. And when we don’t get in their way, they will manage our weight just fine. But that requires so much self-trust and often some helping hands along the way. If this notion speaks to you, start researching intuitive eating. I can point you toward resources if you want.

In grad school, I dabbled with over-the-counter diet pills. They kept my body small. And my nerves jangly.

The last major diet I committed to was after my first daughter was born. I promised myself I wouldn’t be one of those women who “let themselves go” after I had a baby. So I immediately signed up for Weight Watchers, now known as WW. And lose the weight I did, like the overachiever I’ve always been. Never mind that I was struggling with nursing because I couldn’t make enough milk to feed my baby. Not once did I consciously acknowledge that starving my body meant I couldn’t nurse. Because everyone I asked about it told me as long as I used the extra “food points” I got for nursing, there would be no problem.

Two years later, after my second daughter was born, the thought of counting food points again felt like despair. Instead of dieting this time, I decided I’d start running. I had never wanted to run, and in fact, I carried some childhood trauma around running, specifically how I looked while doing it. (That is another day’s essay.) Despite all that, I appreciated that I could walk out of my house and start my workout for free. So I ran. It often hurt, and not even once did I feel like a gazelle, but I kept at it. Until my knee became so unstable I couldn’t keep going.

Once again, I had sacrificed my body on the altar of thinness.

What about Being Healthy?

I know some of you are nodding along, agreeing that diet culture sucks, but your brain is screaming: What about being healthy? We can’t just let ourselves go. If we stop controlling our bodies with food and exercise, we will die. Figuratively and literally.

Those thoughts are direct courtesy of diet culture.

Being “healthy” has become code for dieting. So has “lifestyle change.” The truth is that weight should never be the sole measure of anyone’s health. There are so many other factors to include. And there are healthy people living in so many different body sizes. Just as there are unhealthy people living in so many different body sizes.

And I am all about “letting myself go” if that means I tune back into my body’s wisdom and offer her what she needs, when she needs it.

In no way am I saying that you shouldn’t eat nutritious foods or move your body. Our bodies need a variety of foods, the more nutritious the better. And our bodies need to move to stay healthy physically and mentally.

What I am saying is that you can be healthy without dieting. Without attempting to shrink your body.

Anti-Fatness, or Fatphobia

It would be wrong not to bring anti-fatness into this complicated conversation. In the same way our world is made for whiteness, it is also made for thinness. It is easier for someone to break up with diet culture (i.e., stop using food restriction and exercise to shrink their body size) when they live in a smaller body, even if their body is larger than the current beauty standard’s ideal. People in larger bodies are often discriminated against in the medical field, in the workplace, in the travel industry, in clothing stores, and more. Diet culture literally endangers the lives of people with larger bodies.

But other people are more willing to offer grace to a person in a larger body as long as they are “trying,” i.e. using prescribed methods to lose weight that are almost guaranteed to fail.

It’s Your Body.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight. You may have very solid reasons for wanting to do so that have nothing to do with diet culture.

I’m not here to judge you if you want to lose weight. If you decide that’s the best move for you, then I will support you in that choice.

I’m not here to judge you if you don’t want to lose weight. If you decide that’s the best move for you, then I will support you in that choice.

I just encourage you to realize that you do have a choice if you’ve always based your decisions about your weight from diet culture’s narrow point of view.

You get to decide what’s best for you and your body.