The Complicated Reality of Weight Loss in the Body-Positive Movement
An honest look at the ways women are taking care of their minds and bodies in real life.
A few years ago, before I had kids, I became fixated on an eating regimen that took a mental and physical toll on my life — and my relationships. Since then, I’ve typically avoided scales. But one afternoon at the doctor’s office after my second son was born, I accidentally saw that I weighed about 50 pounds more than when I started my pregnancy.
I breathed in. I knew pregnancy had done a number on me, physically — stretch marks covered my stomach, thighs, and hips, evidence of all the hard work my body had done. I knew, too, that shaming myself into a certain body size would do no good for me mentally or physically. Even so, I was rattled by a number I saw on the scale. It reflected back at me how my lifestyle had changed since having kids. It reminded me how not myself I felt.
According to my doctor’s standards (and the incriminating BMI chart in the exam room), I was overweight — and therefore more vulnerable than my pre-pregnancy self to weight-associated health problems like high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even mental illness.
Still, I immediately felt defensive about the shape and size of my body. While the medical community tends to overemphasize weight and BMI without taking context (or privilege) into consideration, I understood that the context of my weight gain mattered. My body changed because motherhood changed the way my life worked, not because I stopped caring. With the responsibility of two toddlers, I simply had less time to exercise and think through what I was putting in my body.
Still, I knew this was something to address, mostly because of how I felt. I wasn’t sleeping much at night, because my kids weren’t. As a result, with any spare moment of my day, I chose to sit on the couch with my phone or take a much-needed nap. Fresh air and exercise weren’t exactly priorities, and neither were well-rounded, mindful eating habits.
Without shaming me about the size of my body, my doctor gently told me losing some weight would probably help me feel better and get healthier by medical standards and prescribed mindful eating and more frequent exercise. While my pre-pregnancy weight wasn’t necessarily a realistic goal, a healthier version of myself was suddenly in sight. I felt hopeful at the prospect of somehow feeling like “me” again — energetic, present, and vibrant. But I also felt guilty, like the desire to change my body meant I loved it less.
There’s a complicated cultural narrative surrounding body image, one that’s often left me feeling like there’s no good way to exist in my own body. On the one hand, mainstream culture narrows the definition of beauty by perpetuating the message that skinnier is better, and “fit” is synonymous with “healthy.” But the body positivity and fat positivity movements, on the other hand, seem to propagate self-acceptance across the board, and often discourage dieting. To truly love my body, I’ve gathered, I should just accept it as it is, fat or not.
But what if loving my body means changing it? Can I simultaneously make an effort to lose weight for my own physical and mental health, and love my body for what it is?
To demystify the body positivity message about weight loss, I spoke with Connie Sobczak, the executive director of The Body Positive, a Berkeley, CA-based non-profit organization dedicated to dismantling damaging cultural messages that keep people in a perpetual struggle with their bodies. Her answer? Focus on loving your body first, and you will nourish it with a lifestyle that promotes lifelong health — which, if your body wants it to, might include weight loss.
Sobczak, who is also the author of Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body, believes that while weight loss may be one byproduct of a healthy lifestyle, weight loss itself shouldn’t be goal. She encourages the pursuit of holistic health through more sustainable (and joyful!) habits, like mindful eating and habitual physical movement, over restrictive dieting, which can range from ineffective to dangerous — especially for those with a history of disordered eating.
“[Body positivity] isn’t about telling others how they should or should not live their lives; there’s room for you to be in your body in whatever way works from you, ” Sobczak says. “But we know that when people go on restrictive diets, 95 percent of them will gain the weight back.”
While traditional, diet-based methods of weight loss might yield immediate, measurable results, when diets stop being visibly “effective,” Sobczak says dieters often assume their efforts toward health have been ineffective and give up. Plus, restrictive diets can often lead to unhealthy behaviors, like binging. That’s why Sobczak values self-compassion over the scale.
“What our bodies want to do isn’t always what our minds want our bodies to do,” she says. “It’s so important that we focus on creating connection with our bodies, on really listening to what they need instead of depriving them.”
While The Body Positive isn’t formally affiliated with the body positivity movement, it embraces a similar perspective of self-acceptance and rejects that there’s an objective standard of beauty or health. The reality is, Sobczak says, there’s no one, ideal weight; everyone has a genetic, natural set-point weight range, which flips the script on language we use to describe bodies (and the BMI charts in our doctor’s offices.)
“We don’t use the term ‘overweight’ because we don’t know what someone’s natural weight is. Some people just come in large bodies. You just can’t know your natural weight until you have balanced eating and frequent movement in your life,” she says.
Mia Redworth, a 22-year-old body-positive social media influencer, has worked hard to love her changing body since becoming a mother while pursuing her own version of health as opposed to a cultural standard of weight loss. She uses her platform to encourage others on the same journey.
“I hit a real low with my confidence just after having my son, but I got so sick of hating myself. I decided what my body had done for me was amazing, and when I want to, I know can change it to look even better than before I was pregnant,” she says.
Still, Redworth’s aim isn’t to “get her body back.” She just wants to be healthy, whatever that means for her. “I only want to be a size that is natural for my body. I eat healthy and exercise, so if this means I’m a size 16 in the end then I’m happy with that, or if I end up being a size six naturally, then I am happy with that,” she says.
Jasmine Grimes, a 25-year-old cosplayer and content creator, has also built an Instagram following around her fat and body-positive messages. For her and many others, body positivity is a political movement about the rights and freedoms of marginalized people more than it is about simply loving one’s own body. A truly body-positive perspective, Grimes says, is inclusive and intersectional, and doesn’t impose objective ideas of health on others.
“We’ve been sold a message of what ‘health’ is supposed to look like, but you honestly can’t tell if someone is healthy or not based on their appearance, and health should not be a requirement on if someone is treated as human and respected,” Grimes says.
While Grimes has no intention of changing her body, she, like Sobczak, doesn’t see weight loss and body positivity as mutually exclusive. She believes the crux of body positivity is personal choice — but that standard has to apply to everyone.
“If people choose to lose weight, and it’s what makes them happy, then go for it. People have a right to do whatever they want with their bodies,” she says. “But we have to keep that same energy. If people should be allowed to do whatever they want with their bodies, then respect the people who also choose to be fine and comfortable with their bodies as they are now.”
When I wanted to lose weight again after pregnancy — in a cultural climate where women are fighting for agency over their bodies — I assumed the desire to change my body somehow made me less of a feminist. But body positivity means I am free to make my own choices about what health means for me, uniquely. It means I can desire to change my body without obsessing over it, and without buying into a cultural standard that says I have to be thin to be valuable.
And, more importantly, body positivity means I can practice agency over my own body without projecting my journey onto someone else. Because while body positivity is a solo journey of learning to love myself, it’s also a movement. And we’re all in it together.
What does body positivity mean to you? Tell us @BritandCo.
(Photos by Ashley Armitage / Refinery29 for Getty Images + Drazen / Getty Images)