Recently, the New York Times ran a story about fighting fat discrimination while still wanting to lose weight. This was published around the same time that Adele, one of our most talented and beloved musicians, posted a picture of herself showing dramatic weight loss. Adele’s post lead to a furor of commentary about whether or the picture was a positive or negative for people (especially women) who struggle with overweight and obesity.
First off, I hope that Adele feels good as a result of shedding what appears to be a significant amount of weight. I also hope that she doesn’t give a crap about what anyone thinks of her body.
With that out of the way it’s worth discussing a dichotomy between the body positive movement (i.e., love bodies of all shapes and sizes) and the hard push for weight loss. I believe that this dichotomy is false and harmful.
It is undeniable that obesity is tied to a large number of chronic conditions that, on average, impede upon and shorten life.
It is also undeniable that someone’s weight results from myriad factors over which they have little or no control, including their genetics and early childhood environment.
Weight stigma is real; and it is both cruel and unfair. But it is also cruel and unfair to not let someone celebrate their weight loss. Weight loss is really hard. It’s a big deal. And, if done properly (e.g., without crash diets or amphetamines), it can be absolutely life-changing for the better.
The point is this: Judging yourself and being judged by others is not healthy. Being obese is not healthy. Both of these things can be true at once. The approximate inverse of both can be true at once too. Someone can love and accept themselves and want to make a productive change in their life. As a matter of fact, there is evidence that the more you love and accept yourself, the more likely you are to successfully change!
Weight loss is just one example where dichotomous thinking gets in the way. It applies to challenges like mental illness, substance abuse, and education too. There are people who yell for self-compassion, self-love, and non-judgement and who shun self-discipline and personal responsibility. And there are people who yell for self-discipline and personal responsibility and who shun self-compassion, self-love, and non-judgement. But the truth is that for most things in life you need some measure of both! Self discipline and personal responsibility are key to meaningful change—and these qualities work a million times better when they are situated in self-compassion, non-judgement, and an understanding of all the structural factors that put someone where they are.
Back to weight loss: Perhaps the best movement would be one that is relentlessly body positive and relentlessly in favor of sustainable approaches to health, including losing weight.