Spent some time feeling inferior, standing in front of my mirror.
– Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells a Story
I am not quite Chewbacca.
But it doesn’t bother me. In fact, when I’m in the shower and look down at the wall of hair, I think: I can dig it.
I wonder how many readers I’ve lost because of that TMI.
Moving on, the body hair—the stuff on the front side—is one of the few things I feel complete acceptance for with my physique. There are other parts I realize I can work on. This brings me to the issue of bodily self-love vs. self-loathing.
Try not to think in absolutes. There is plenty of grey, and not just in my chest hair.
I’ll stop talking about that now.
Shades of grey do not only refer to shitty BDSM novels. Life is rarely black and white. Reality often lies along a continuum.
I gained a lot of weight in my early 20s and I hated myself, but the harder I tried the less possible it seemed to lose weight. Finally gave up in my 40s. But then something clicked. I decided I needed to be kinder to myself, love the body I had, and love what it could do. Before I knew it I had the confidence to get a trainer … Feel the best I’ve felt and looked in years! – Victoria
Give your body unconditional love. You are perfect the way you are.
Perfect? Really? Nothing you could change or improve upon?
The other end of the continuum is to imagine your body is an unalterable pile of dog barf; you live in a state of self-loathing. Add to this the shame coming from others.
People who shame those with obesity feel justified. “I’m just trying to help by giving people the kick in the ass they need. Body acceptance is bullshit because we have an obesity problem. I’m concerned about them.” The hate-filled don’t want people to feel the love for their bodies, but rather, shame. They see the body acceptance movement as toxic and at odds with being healthy.
What if I told you it is possible to both love your body and have a desire to change it?
I needed a focus away from my body, and when I stopped putting so much focus on every morsel on my plate and every run I missed … It all came easier, and I started to love myself again … My pooch is far from gone, but I’m training for a half marathon—proud and loving what my body is doing … Learning to be proud of small daily accomplishments has made all the difference. – Mandi
Extremist elements work their way into every movement, and that includes body acceptance. Groups such as Health at Every Size have a denial problem, often discounting the benefits of weight loss despite the ample evidence that excess body fat can be harmful to health. It’s great to be kind, accepting and loving of one’s self, but not to the point of being in denial about their health.
Those who are against body acceptance think anyone who supports it is delusional. But again, you can love yourself and still be on a quest to improve / change. In fact, it can be because you feel such affection for you and the life you’ve been given that you desire to work towards betterment.
Knowing that there’s a lot of room between anorexia and compulsive overeating allows me to carve out some room for myself in that space and care for my body instead of destroying it. – Jessica
I’ll let you in on a secret I’ve not gone public with until now.
I’ve not had a drop of alcohol in eight months. After 30 years of falling somewhere on the bad side of “moderate” drinking, I decided it was time for a hiatus of at least a year so that, when I decided I wanted to drink again, I would do it solely as an occasional social undertaking, and be much more restrained.
Despite my life being good in terms of health, happiness, relationship, work etc., I knew a break from booze would make it better. This was another way for me to improve my life.
I decided to do this because I am aware of (some of) my faults. I know alcohol is a Class 1 carcinogen, full of empty calories that can lead to bad eating habits and asshole behavior alike. I was aware that my intake was higher than it should be. And so, I made a snap decision to take an extended break.
Liking who you are can also mean liking what you are capable of becoming.
The self-loathing does certainly create a barrier to wanting to change and work out because you end up thinking “What’s the point? No matter what I do, I’m going to be the same.” And when the scale doesn’t move, you go for what makes you feel good and what has always made you feel good … I’m trying to be better about the self-love in that, if I have a small setback, I don’t treat myself as though I’m a complete failure. I try to remind myself about the things that are good about me. – Cassie
Self-awareness is being realistic about what you can achieve and pursuing it, rather than settling for the status quo because an extremist group told you everything was peachy when, possibly, it’s not.
Deep in Denial
Being overly accepting of your body isn’t the only cause of obesity denial, but there are people who believe that they’re in fine health when they’re not. And for those who don’t see a potential problem, they’re disinclined to take action to fix it.
When I hit medical school I was 17, 162cm, and 90kgs. That gave me a BMI of 35+. I hated the way I looked but jumped on the self-love, “BMI is rubbish” bandwagon. During my clinical years I saw: IV cannulas that weren’t long enough to get through the fat to a vein / people that had a simple ankle sprain, but were so heavy they couldn’t use crutches / rashes and infections in folds that shouldn’t be there / injuries missed in trauma patients because the fat hid swelling/bruising … By the end of med school I was 35kgs lighter and no longer delusional. – Kate
A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity analyzed National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data of several thousand Americans and learned that men and women who had “misperceptions” about their weight (meaning they were in denial about having either overweight or obesity) were 71% less likely to report that they wanted to lose weight than those who had accurate weight perceptions.
I gained weight with each child like many women do, hated my body even more, did not stay in shape … finally reached a point about 7 years ago where I realized I needed to work with what I have and not how I wanted to look, started slow, gained speed, lost weight, ended realizing there were psychological benefits to exercise as well as just physical, ended up losing 50+lbs. – Jen
In the U.K., 2012 survey results published in the British Medical Journal found that less than a third of Brits with obesity realized they had it.
As a transgender girl growing up, I really struggled with the intersection of gender dysphoria and disordered eating … I had this image in my head of what I thought I needed to look like in order to be loved and accepted, but no matter how big or strong, or “masculine” I got, I was miserable … My transition has helped me develop greater self-love than I could have imagined, and as a result, I take a much healthier approach to diet and exercise. – Charlotte
It’s not just our ability to perceive our own weight that is subject to denial, but how we view our children. A 2014 study published in Childhood Obesity reported: “As high as 78.4% of parents perceived their obese child as just about the right weight.” If the child is overweight, this misperception jumps to 95%.
My health and weight did take a nosedive for the worst in my 40s … A doctor visit changed that when tests showed I was prediabetic and had high blood pressure and high cholesterol. That month I quit smoking, became a vegetarian and started exercising. All issues cleared without medication. – Sharon
Anecdotally, I know every time I mention body mass index (BMI), many people misplace their excrement, saying the measurement is “useless.” Here are a few facts about BMI people should consider:
- It’s one tool of many. By itself, it is not an accurate method of assessing health. It was created in the 19th century as a quick way to assess obesity levels population wide.
- Fewer than 5% of Americans get 30 minutes of physical activity five times a week, so it is highly unlikely that everyone saying BMI is irrelevant to them because of their muscle mass is accurate.
- Exposure to excess body fat is, in some ways, like exposure to radiation; increasing amounts and longer time periods increase risk for negative health outcomes. In regards to the latter, just because a person has no identifiable health consequences from their obesity (such as type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, or heart disease) in their 30s or 40s doesn’t mean this will remain so as they age.
- Nevertheless, it is possible to be both fit and fat. High body fat does not always spell doom.
I will note that you don’t have to take action. It’s your life and you are free to do what maximizes your happiness. Sometimes, this involves not trying to lose weight.
I have swerved between the body acceptance and dramatic concern for my body for most of the past 6 or 7 years. I have slowly come to terms with the fact that body acceptance does not mean that the body I accept is healthy. – Eduardo
Laid Low by Loathing
If you hate your body, you’ll be less inspired to change it. Because passion for exercise and healthy eating rarely comes from a place of self-loathing. I know people who say they lost weight because they were filled with loathing over their bodies. It can work for some, but the research indicates that shaming and self-loathing over obesity leads to comfort eating and immobility far more often than it leads to action.
The bingeing and purging and anorexic behaviors started around 4th/5th grade … By 8th grade I was closing in on 200 lbs at 5’3/5’4; loathing defined. I have ballooned to near 300 and dropped to 160 in the past 10 years. I am finally in a better place mentally, physically and am in treatment for both mental disorders and eating disorders. I have a psychiatrist, a dietitian, a weekly counselor and a primary Dr. that are all on the same page with me. – Taryn
In a 2013 paper published in PLOS One, researchers from Florida State University asserted that not only does stigmatizing obesity lead to poorer mental health outcomes, but the authors stated: “Rather than motivating individuals to lose weight, weight discrimination increases risk for obesity.”
I was filled with self-loathing over how I looked since my teens and a week would not go by without some humiliating comment … I dieted incessantly only to gain it back and more. But I was in denial about health consequences until diagnosed with diabetes … I was just trying to be kind to my pancreas but as I lost weight my insulin dose went down then zeroed out, then I was off the orals then tested normal and then got into running. I fell in love with what my body could do if not my body itself. – Lisa
And another study published in 2014 in the journal Obesity looked at 2,944 UK adults over four years and discover that those who reported experiencing discrimination over their weight gained more pounds than those who did not. After accounting for baseline difference the study found that, on average, those who faced fat shaming gained a kilogram, while those who didn’t lost 0.7 kilos. See how that worked? Shaming = weight gain / no shaming = weight loss.
When I was severely overweight, I was almost oblivious to it. Once I started to work on losing weight I moved into self-loathing mode. Once I actually achieved a healthy body weight I moved into self-acceptance (focusing on what my body could DO rather than what it looked like). – Lesley
This applies not just to the shame others heap upon those with obesity, but when they heap it upon themselves. Many have tried time and again to lose weight, only to fail, quite possibly because they didn’t realize that the weight loss industry is epically full of shit.
A middle ground needs to be found.
Achieving Self Awareness
Whichever end of the spectrum you fall on, it’s important to push away from the fringe of either the black or the white and move towards the middle grey area. This image is an oversimplification of the myriad nuances of human behavior, but it still warrants consideration.
Instead of black vs white I used rose-colored glasses vs. feeling blue, and green instead of grey because it means go. Seriously, the light is green. Put your damn phone down and hit the gas.
Every single day I still deal with a dysfunctional relationship with food … and feelings of inadequacy because I’m overweight and I’ll never be thin and I get judged by people daily for it. It’s getting better, but damn it’s a struggle. – Bryce
How do you become self-aware? A good place to start is with your family physician.
There are instances in which family doctors have not been helpful to their patients. They have ignored non weight-related issues brought to them by patients only to be told, “You need to lose weight.” It’s a problem. There are doctors who engage in fat shaming and even make patients afraid to seek out healthcare. But when a doctor encourages losing body fat because doing so will help alleviate obesity-related medical conditions, that is not fat shaming. It’s solid medical advice.
I was always a fat kid, hated sports and physical activity because I was no good at it. Huge feedback loop: hate myself, try to get fit, fail, eat my feelings, hate myself. In 2009 I lost 100 lbs and started working out three to five days a week … I have become the guy I used to fear and hate. – Robert
So find a good one who wants to work with you and be realistic about the approach. Determine what are meaningful health indicators related to body weight such as hypertension, impaired fasting glucose, elevated liver enzymes, aches in back, feet and other joints. Have you developed type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis or reflux disease? Are there limitations in daily living, anxiety, or other impairments to wellbeing related to body weight?
You could also ask yourself: Can I do better?
I spent years unhappy with my weight … I would hide food and opt out of gym whenever possible because I had been told so many times at that point that my body was flawed, I didn’t believe it was capable of anything … In my late 20’s, joining the body positivity movement helped me see value and worth in my body and what it’s capable of … and will be completing my 4th half marathon next month. – Amanda
Can you track your physical activity and find ways to do more? Can you go longer, more intensely, or more frequently? Can you consume less alcohol and more fruits and vegetables? Can you eat fewer treats, eat to satisfaction instead of being full, and cook more rather than eat out? Can you stop underestimating your caloric intake and take more care with portion sizes and random snacking?
As I gained weight in college and after … the self-loathing gained also … Body acceptance for me started around 40 and has been a work in process since then … Now I crave exercise for my mental health and I understand how my food choices impact me physically and mentally. That has allowed me to get more comfortable in my skin. – Kelli
Self-awareness is evaluating how you can improve, and this does not only apply to body weight. It’s about realizing that none of us are perfect, and that we don’t have to settle for the way things are. It’s about going on a quest to live a better life, not just for ourselves, but for those who love and depend upon us.
I don’t believe in the kick in the ass. I believe in the helping hand.
Reach out and take it.
James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.