body image · diets · Uncategorized · weight loss

Weight Loss, Body Hatred, and the Possibility of Other Motives

We spend a lot of time on the blog talking about body positivity and self-acceptance.  But sometimes we also talk about weight loss.  Whether it be for performance reasons, as I’ve discussed (with some skepticism that it makes it “okay” to have it as a goal) and as Samantha thinks about re. her cycling or to get the blood pressure in check, as Natalie has done, there are reasons other than normative femininity to lose weight.

But some people think that as a feminist blog, we should never ever talk about weight loss as something to aim for. Weight loss is associated the the pressure to be thin, oppressive norms, and a generally negative opinion of fat, fat bodies, and fat people. I

Not only that, but we have always taken a strong anti-diet position on the blog. Diets don’t work. The staggering statistics in support of their inefficacy speak for themselves. Almost everyone who successfully loses weight with restrictive dieting gains most (often more) of it back over time. Sometimes it takes a few years, sometimes just a few weeks. It depends on the method — fad diets and highly restrictive approaches to weight loss have the worst outcomes.

And if diets don’t work, why are doctors always pushing us to lose weight anyway? They give all sorts of unsolicited advice, making body weight monitoring a regular part of ongoing medical care even for people who aren’t having any health issues at all.

We reject the whole BMI thing.  And both Sam and I promote the idea of finding activities you enjoy and getting out and doing them, no matter what your size and without having weight loss as a focal point.

We care about metabolic health, and are more likely to encourage everyone to eat more, not less! In fact, I’m not sure we have any posts that encourage people to eat less.

We’ve written about all of this and more. And yet sometimes we talk about weight loss.  And a few people have let us know that it disturbs them. That it indicates to them that we’re not “feminist enough.”

I’m not big on defending myself as a feminist, either to anti-feminists or to other feminists.  But what I want to say here is that Sam and I aren’t just feminists. We’re actually feminist philosophers.

Now, not all feminist philosophers believe exactly the same things. But one of the things that makes us fairly compatible is that we’re both fairly moderate and open to other ways of seeing things. This means that on our Facebook page, for example, we’ll sometimes post content that we don’t agree with,. We might do that just because it makes an interesting point worthy of consideration OR because it’s clearly getting something wrong in an interesting way.

But the real question for me when we post about weight loss, at least where feminism is concerned, is: are their any legitimate reasons for wanting to lose weight, reasons that have nothing to do with hating our bodies, trying to fit normative ideals, or even worse, hating and punishing ourselves.

And I think the answer to that is pretty clearly “yes.”

I think we’re right to be skeptical about medical reasons even though in some cases it could make a difference.  The fact is, so does getting active and developing healthy eating habits.  Weight loss could be a by-product of that, but setting it as a primary goal is probably going to be self-defeating anyway.

Then there are the performance reasons that athletes obsess about. I blogged about racing weight not too long ago. And Sam has talked about wanting to weigh less so she can fly up hills more quickly. In my post, I worried that after a couple of years of liberating myself from weight loss as a goal, aiming for “racing weight” or any kind of weight-related performance improvement could take me back to old bad habits associated with dieting: poor body image, weight obsession, worrying about food all the time, berating myself for eating.

I also worried that you can dress it up anyway you like, but aiming for weight loss for whatever reason is going to have the same results. Wanting to perform better doesn’t mean your weight loss is going to be any more lasting than if you did it for other reasons. Athletes don’t even expect to maintain their race weight or the weight they will compete at on game day through the entire year. It’s seasonal.

So I guess I have my worries about that too. Yes, we can have non-body-hating reasons to want to lose weight. And in the end, I think those reasons can be consistent with feminist ideals. But having different reasons doesn’t change the facts about sustainable weight loss.

Sam has blogged about weight loss unicorns before. They’re the people, and we all know some of them, who lose weight and keep it off. They’re unicorns because they are rare.

And even if someone has reasons for wanting to lose weight that are consistent with feminism, I myself avoid entering into any conversation with anyone where my expected role is to praise them for their weight loss efforts. I pretty much never do that because, as I blogged about here, I do not believe “You’ve lost weight, you look great” is a compliment in polite society. Rather, it bespeaks a kind of body policing. It’s really hard to be explicit about noticing someone’s weight loss (or gain) and not be engaged in body policing.

Weight loss and dieting have long been considered as oppressive tools, contrary to the liberatory goals of feminism. Besides blogging about it a lot I’ve also done a bit of philosophical work on the topic. For me, I know weight loss is a dangerous goal. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand why some people might want to lose a few pounds for reasons that are consistent with the aims of feminism, among which, of course, are the freedom to make our own choices without being condemned for them.


27 thoughts on “Weight Loss, Body Hatred, and the Possibility of Other Motives

  1. Great post. One quibble: I’m not sure that slow and steady weight loss is any better in terms of long term success than fast, speedy weight loss. They’re actually equally bad when it comes to success rates. It sounds like it ought to be true that slow, steady weight loss works better in the long term than speedy, drastic diets but the research on long term maintenance of the lower weight says they fare about the same. See

    1. Thanks for that. I guess I still feel like changed eating habits must make a difference, but that could be clinging to an old world view.

      1. My experience is that I start gaining weight back while eating amounts that earlier would have resulted in weight loss. I’ve tracked my way down and back up again. Two things at work, I think. Smaller bodies need less food and our bodies change…

        Ragen Chastain writes, “The myth goes that almost everyone fails at weight loss because almost everyone quits their diet and goes back to their old habits/doesn’t have the willpower to keep dieting/doesn’t do it “right”” But that’s not what the evidence says. People have a hard time keeping the weight off because their bodies have changed.”

      2. I think changed eating habits are about a lot of things, and weight loss is really only one. I know that my habits have shifted a lot in the last two years, all for the better (I’m enjoying delish breakfast smoothies, taking fish oil supplements, and eating a bit less cheese, though by no means none!!), but that the metabolic shifts that have resulted are no longer associated with steady weight loss, just a healthy and consistent experience of my body. (Weight stable; digestive health great; feeling generally strong physically and emotionally, etc.) So when I get on the scale (which I do, weekly, to be in check with my training) and it’s always the same number, even after a week of austerity or a week of indulgence, I feel good, solid, like my body and I (whatever that means!) are supporting each other really well. The part of me that relates to cultural norms would love to weigh 10 pounds less, but the rest of me knows we are doing great, and feeling really healthy.

        Thx for the post, btw, Tracy: another awesome one. Especially glad you talked about the importance of your status as a feminist philosopher, and thus about the importance of entertaining differing views. That’s so important online, where it’s often not welcome!

  2. When I was just discovering fat acceptance and the body positive movements, I was actually also going to Weight Watchers meetings. I went with my Mom, and for a while I lost weight far more easily than ever before (and at 25 I had been on diets off and on, and felt guilt about food constantly, since about 15 or 16) but my Mom didn’t. She has a history of yoyo dieting and her inability to lose weight isn’t surprising, but it was the way the leader and receptionist and even fellow WW members refused to admit the program could fail that really put me over the edge.
    I was diagnosed with celiacs a few months before I started WW, and began losing weight when I stopped eating gluten. I felt better in so many ways, though, especially mood and focus wise, that it began to depress me how other people only saw that I’d lost weight. The fact that I was happier, that I wasn’t tired all the time, that eating actually satisfied my hunger becuase my brain was finally recieving the proper signals that i had, in fact, eaten; all of these didn’t matter.
    When people began asking what my secret was I got really upset. I would say “solving a major medical issue by diagnosing a chronic condition. The weight loss is just a side issue.” But I know they didn’t believe me. I hated being one of the weight loss unicorns.
    Then, when I stopped losing weight while still obese according to the thoroughly useless BMI, it felt like the people around me were disappointed. Like I owed it to them, or the world, or maybe myself, to keep losing until I was “right.” But most days I do feel right. I’vegained some weight back recently, and for a while it was scary and made me feel out of control like diet failure used to when i was younger. But I’m learning to trust my body.
    Thank you, for admiting that weight loss is a tricky issue. It is incredibly hard to be fat in this world without internalizing all the hate. Some people aren’t strong enough to overcome that, and while I wish we could be happy and fat and amazing all together, I’ll never berate someone for wanting to lose weight so they can simply feel and be treated like a human being. It may make me sad, I may tell them they are incredible and wonderful no matter their size, but I’ll mever think less of a fat person because they give in to the unbearable weight of social pressure. Not, as you say, that it usually helps.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. You’re right that the social pressure is immense and it’s not surprising that people are influenced by it (in this and so many other ways). As if people who are perceived as obese don’t suffer enough judgment, and then we go and judge them for wanting to lose weight. It’s so tricky. And there are so many misconceptions and such a great deal of hatred and prejudice.

  3. Very true. Dieters obsess about the weight on a scale when it’s more important to feel vibrant and alive! It’s more important how your clothes fit and how clearly you can think than abiding by how many calories one consumes. Eat for nutrients not calories, Well done! Blessings,

  4. I’m totally agree with you. I think people should focus only in eating healthy not losing weight.That shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be feeling happy and being healthy. Thumbs up! Thank you for the wonderful post!

  5. Weight loss is a decent goal so long it doesn’t take too much charge of your life.

    For example, I try to lose weight. My method is to work out every day. That’s it. I know that if I do that, I’m doing my part. I’m against dieting because I believe in eating what tastes good for you. It’s important to also make yourself feel good. In the end, the goal is to be happy. If you torture yourself in order to lose weight, you’ll just be thin and miserable.

  6. Although I agree with most points you make, it upsets me that you refer to some reasons for wanting to lose weight as being ‘consistent with feminism,’ while others aren’t. If someone wants to lose weight because they wish to look a certain way, what is wrong with that? Surely women should be free to look as they wish for any reason they wish without being seen as ‘unfeminist’? Maybe I’m wrong but I was under the impression that this freedom is what feminism is all about.

    The problem occurs when other people, or the media push their idea of ‘ideal’ onto others, and I totally agree that this is a massive problem. But I don’t think people should feel excluded from feminism for wanting to lose weight to look how they want.

    ps. love your blog, I read it regularly, although this is my first comment 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment and I totally see where you’re coming from. I hate that “not feminist enough” or “not feminist” or “bad feminist” game so much. I think my concern here was that wanting to change how we look is usually motivated by body hatred or at least by feeling the need to adhere to normative ideas of femininity that, frankly, have an oppressive social and cultural history. That having been said, this comes up in all sorts of feminist debates, from marriage and motherhood to the wearing of make-up to, of course, weight loss. I’ll say here what I say often in these debates: what is the motive behind the desire to look a certain way? Where does it come from? Why do so many of us have it? Are there any oppressive social patterns that emerge as a result? You’re right that in this post I assumed that weight loss for appearance-sake was an instance of giving in to oppressive norms. In fact, I was responding to people who complained that we weren’t feminist because we sometimes talk about weight loss at all. But there is probably another blog post to be written about whether wanting to lose weight to look different can be a free choice that isn’t bad for women. Thanks for your comment and I hope we hear from you again.

  7. When I wrote the post about 40lbs I definitely thought “I’m being a bad feminist here”. I feel guilty about even talking about weight loss but then I thought, WHY can’t I talk about weight loss? I can talk about being fat, depression, not having gastric bypass surgery, arguing with my partner but not weight loss?

    that’s not to say every woman needs to loose weight
    that’s not to say it’s the end all be all of health goals

    but when I feel I can’t honestly talk about my health and markers of success without wondering if I’m a bad feminist I start to wonder, who does my silence on this serve?

    Isn’t part of being a feminist being willing to grapple with taboo topics?

    I get fired up about this because I was overeating, which was making me really unhealthy, and I wasn’t feeling great exercising, and now I am. I can go for a run and not feel like I’m about to burst. Then I think why am I worried about being a bad feminist at all? Isn’t being any kind of feminist better than not being a feminist ? So I’m cool with being a bad feminist by other peoples’ measures because not being any kind of feminist is way worse for me.

    1. I don’t think it’s being a bad feminist. I think there is still a ton to say about this issue. I love your honesty about this. The fact is, I also feel good when I lose weight (even though it’s not a goal for me any more), and I also feel like a bad feminist when I feel good about that. It’s worth interrogating why.

      1. Hey Tracy, and the Natalies– this is such an important topic! This year I changed a few habits (increased activity, meditated more, and cooked/ate nice food when I could, despite my heavy teaching schedule), and I’m 5 lbs down. I gained 8 last fall when I was overwhelmed with work and not exercising and stress-eating. I’m happy about this– it feels healthy to me, as it seems to be the result of caring better for myself. I still want to lose more, in order to be faster on the bike, xc skis and squash court, to be nicer to my wonky knee, to help guard against type 2 diabetes (my mother is diabetic), and (I admit) to fit back into my clothes that I wore when I was a LOT more active. Actually, I should say these other things are my goals, and weight loss helps me achieve THOSE goals. Yes, let’s keep the conversation going!
        p.s. Tracy and Sam– I’m giving at talk at a conference on Values in Medicine Science and Technology on bridging the gap between public health messages about weight and Health At Every Size messages. More on this anon.

  8. I think it’s ridiculous for people to come on television and tell us that the skinny arms are how ours should be. I really stopped hating my body recently when I saw how awfully thin a couple of stars have gotten. It was frightening they looked so sick

  9. I think it’s important to remember that we as feminists are a part of this culture and that cultural narratives impact us, whether we want them to or not. I love it that most of you talk about your place in these, the tensions, and what it means to negotiate these discourses

  10. Thanks for posting this. You know that I’m new to “feminism” and I am hesitant when it comes to using the word or declaring something “oppressive” or “empowering” in my blogs or in papers I write for school. That being said, I’ll admit something I’m not really proud of: I’m hesitant to call myself a feminist because of the fears I have about not being “feminist enough.” There’s that darn “enough” word again — whether it’s not good enough, not skinny enough, not fit enough, not productive enough, not being ____ enough is the quickest way to hold me back. Think there’s something in that?

    I would love to talk with you about this as I’m writing my thesis, because I just don’t know how to tackle something like women who “go Paleo” and get muscular and love their bodies. Is it empowerment? Subjectively, lots of the media seems to paint the picture as yes. Or are they being controlled and directed towards some new ideal? Because it seems to me like it all relies on women not liking the way they are and needing to fix something about themselves, and it being required of everyone to take care of their health in order to be considered a good person. But I ramble…

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks a little bit in circles on this. Thanks again.

  11. Useful discussion thread.

    Isn’t feminism with respect to one’s own health, is taking charge of your own health with appropriate chosen support of expertise, safe long term methods, flexibility to change with age and lifestyle demands? It’s self-control on a woman’s own path to improved long term health and fitness no matter where she lives anywhere in the world?

    Think of it this way: If you were required to relocate to…Saudi Arabia where women are far more restricted to engaged in physical activity outdoors on their own in a strict Muslim society and it’s a hot climate that doesn’t exactly encourage hrs. and hrs. of intensive sweaty activity, expensive imported food, then what would you do? Your personal habits must become good enough and flexible enough, to take you worldwide….to be healthy and feel good health wise.

    Eating healthy, like brushing teeth is the way to go, long term. If you don’t, your body just naturally feels lousy…

  12. I don’t really think about feminism at all when it’s about food, eating and exercise.

    For me, food and eating, has been not been about feminism and body image at all. For myself, for past few decades, it’s more of a cultural shift in cuisine choices, fusion dishes and mix-‘n-match East + West foods, casual philosophical approaches about food, as well as expanding my taste palate.

    Healthy eating is opening up the global picnic basket of whole food dishes and cuisines. Rethink this entirely and kick out the feminism approach . It becomes oppressive just to think about feminism, body image and food. It sure would dullen my view of motivation to even cook anything.

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