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Can You Be Body Positive and Still Want to Lose Weight?

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Aside from my private practice, I have been working part-time at a clinic that specializes in weight management for nearly four years. So, in the past few months, I have been narrowing the scope of my practice to focus on weight management (and sports nutrition, another interest of mine.)

I’ve been listening to more podcasts lately, and I stumbled across one by dietitian Christy Harrison called Food Psych. In it, she interviews women from all different walks of life about how they’ve changed their relationship with food and their bodies.

I’m admittedly only a couple episodes in, but this podcast got me thinking – as someone who is against dieting and believes in the idea of intuitive eating and focusing on health as opposed to the number on the scale, by focusing my practice on weight management, am I actually doing more harm than good? Despite approaching it from a place of promoting self-love and worthiness, and encouraging my clients to focus on the behaviours and not the outcome, am I still just adding to the narrative that we need to strive for a certain body type or appearance? That we have more control over our weight than we think?

By helping people lose weight, am I adding to the narrative that we need to strive for a thin body? Click To Tweet

Dietitians’ Perspectives

When I was first exploring this question of whether it’s possible to be body positive and still want to lose weight, I asked some of my fellow dietitians what they thought. Most of them said that it was – one dietitian said, “Definitely. You can love your body and still want to improve it!” Which in a way makes sense – I’m sure most of us can think of something that we love that we want to make better: our career, our friendships, our partners… 😉 And I completely agree when she added, “I believe self love and body positivity can actually HELP a person to lose weight. Self hate / negativity sure doesn’t work!”

Still, this answer didn’t satisfy me – after all, is weight loss an improvement?

Another dietitian said,

“I believe you can. For instance, someone might feel totally happy in their skin, but want to lose weight because they feel their weight is somehow negatively affecting their life (i.e. tired after walking up a flight of stairs, feeling uncomfortable in certain clothes, unable to do certain physical activities that they wish they could do, etc). Or someone who has a strong family history of diabetes, for instance, might feel comfortable in their body yet know that perhaps losing weight could reduce the chance of them developing diabetes as well.”

This answer didn’t really satisfy me either. All of those things – walking up a flight of stairs, feeling uncomfortable in certain clothes, unable to do certain physical activities, lowering diabetes risk, can all essentially be addressed without losing weight.

Many 'weight-related' problems can be addressed without losing weight. #bodypositive Click To Tweet

While I agreed with many of my colleagues that self-love is a huge component of body positivity, and there’s no question that you can lose weight while being body positive, I was stuck on the idea that body positivity also includes “accepting your body as it is” – if you have a desire to lose weight, doesn’t that mean you want to change your body, and therefore are not being body positive?

What is Body Positivity, Anyway?

To further my exploration, I decided to try to figure out what body positivity actually means. I was led down a rabbit hole of sorts, but here are some definitions that resonated with me most:

{Click on the quoted person’s name to view the full article}

“To me, body positivity means accepting the body you have as well as the changes in shape, size, and ability it may undergo due to nature, age, or your own personal choices throughout your lifetime. It’s the understanding that your worth and what’s going on with you physically are two separate entities — that no matter what’s happening inside, outside, or to your body, you’re still just as worthwhile as the person next to you.”

Mallorie Dunn, founder of SmartGlamour

“Body positivity encourages people to be OK with how they look and feel today. It shouldn’t encourage people to wish for or think about some undefined time in the future when their bodies will be different.”

Jessamyn Stanley, yoga teacher

“After working for years with people at every point on the weight spectrum, it became obvious to me that we can’t choose some arbitrary number on the scale and turn our lives upside down to achieve it. This is what we call an eating disorder in a thin or average-weight person. We can’t then turn around and prescribe it to a fat person.

There is probably some range that is your genetic heritage, a range where your body “settles.” […] How do you find it if you can’t trust the charts? It is the weight your body settles and defends when you are not compulsive about dieting, exercising, and eating. You can’t get away from the truth about how you are living your day-to-day life. You can’t live in an unhealthy way and achieve a ‘healthy’ weight.”

Debby Burgard, BodyPositive.com

“[B]ody positivity should mean you don’t always have to feel positively about your body, but you have the right to do so and that you also have the right to exist in your body and have whatever feelings about it without a constant stream of external imagery and rhetoric telling you that you should feel otherwise.”

Ariel Woodson, co-producer of Bad Fat Broads

“To be body positive, it is important to assume responsibility for figuring out what your body needs. In many ways, this feels harder than having an external “expert” voice tell you what to eat and how to move. […] Be willing to trust your ability to know what feels good for your unique body. Learn from trial and error, and be kind to yourself when you make mistakes.

Another approach to being body positive is to examine the messages you’ve received — and continue to receive — throughout your life about health, weight, food, and exercise. You’ll want to pay attention not only to what you’ve been told by the media and medical professionals, but also by your family, friends, and culture. Once you clearly identify the messages, you can begin to think critically about which ones work for you. If particular information is intriguing, try it out to see how it makes you feel. If you adopt a behavior that leads to better physical and/or mental health, and — most importantly — it is something you can sustain over the long term, keep it in your toolkit. From this same observant position, you can also identify the messages that trigger guilt or shame. If the information doesn’t make you feel better or it is a behavior you can’t maintain over time, discard it and return to what you know to be right for you.”

Connie Sobczak, co-founder of thebodypositive.org

It’s All in the “Why”

I will admit that going into the research for this post, I was leaning towards the idea that body positivity and desire to lose weight were mutually exclusive. As I combed through the various definitions, particularly the last two quotes, I’m left feeling a little more ambiguous again.

I mean, who am I to tell someone that they are not being body positive if they want to lose weight? To me, body positivity needs to include self-love, body acceptance and body autonomy for everyone.

Who am *I* to tell someone that *they* are not #bodypositive if they want to lose weight? Click To Tweet

I think the answer to whether it’s possible to be body positive and still want to lose weight lies in the “why”. Ask yourself: Why do I want to lose weight? Is it to have more mobility? To be healthier? To feel more comfortable in my clothes or my own skin? (And, if the answer is “to get to a certain number on the scale”, dig a little deeper – why does the number matter?)

Now, turn the question on its head – do I need to lose weight in order to achieve [insert your reason for wanting to lose weight here]?

I think why the argument for the “no” side is so strong for me is because chances are, you don’t – you may be able to achieve your goal without losing weight at all, or perhaps weight loss is only one of many possible solutions to your core concern.

In the rare cases where weight loss is the only solution, such as making weight for a weight class sport, or losing weight on the advice of a doctor so that you can have surgery, I think it can be approached in a body positive way if you look at the weight loss objectively – it’s not about how good you are at the sport, or how healthy you are, it’s just the admission fee. Though I think it’s important to point out that weight loss in these cases is temporary; you just need to be that weight for those few moments you step on the scale.

That being said, even when our intention comes from a body positive place, like wanting to get healthier, as humans we naturally want some tangible, measurable result that we can grasp on to, and it’s easy to use weight as a yardstick of our progress. If that is the case, I invite you to continue to check in and be curious throughout your journey – is weight an accurate reflection of what you are trying to achieve? Does it feel good to use weight as a measure of your progress?

How This Will Change My Practice

To be honest, I think many people land in my little corner of the web because they are looking to manage their weight, and I’m not quite ready to transition to a fully weight-neutral practice yet. However, I think I need to be more curious when it comes to talking about people’s desire to lose/manage their weight, instead of just taking it at face value, and challenge myself to get comfortable with the uncomfortable conversation that is telling someone that perhaps weight loss is not the answer.

Get comfortable with the uncomfortable conversation that #weightloss is not the answer. #BodyPositive Click To Tweet
What do you think? Is it possible to be body positive and still want to lose weight? How do you define “body positive”? Is it bad to not be body positive? I’d love to know your thoughts.

PS: I realized after I finished this post that Rebecca Scritchfield and Leslie Schilling, two weight-neutral, body-positive dietitians based in the US, did a Facebook Live in response to my question. The whole video has a lot of little nuggets, but if you’re pressed for time, they get to answering the question at 10:37. (And now I feel like I need to rewrite my whole post again 😓)

Can you be #bodypositive and still *want* to lose #weight? Join the conversation. Click To Tweet

15 Comments

  • Bronwyn on Oct 28, 2016 Reply

    This is a great post Vincci!
    I think it is also important to remember that nobody makes a choice to “want to lose weight” in a vacuum: we live in a world where being obese and overweight means being discriminated against and treated poorly and we still have limited acceptance of people who are “non conforming sizes”. As much as I’d like to believe you can be body positive and want to lose weight, it is so important to think about the messaging we receive everyday about weight as a marker for health, and a marker for self worth. Many of my clients want to simply be accepted and treated like they are a human being and person, because being at their current weight they are ignored, treated poorly, bullied, and so much more.
    I’m glad you are willing to have uncomfortable conversations with clients that maybe something other than weight loss is important for their health. Sometimes clients have never considered not focusing on the weight. Sometimes they don’t want to consider it, because they believe in the messaging that tells them giving up means they are lazy and complacent and all the bad words we associate with obesity and overweight.
    Other great weight neutral (fat positive even) RDs: Aaron Flores, Glenys Oyston.

    • Vincci Tsui on Oct 28, 2016 Reply

      Thank you for your great thoughts, Bronwyn!

  • Shelley Boras RN on Oct 08, 2016 Reply

    Vincci, I am an RN who has worked in weight management for over 10 years and as my practice has evolved into one that includes messages of self compassion and enjoyment of life, it also began to include messages of self acceptance and body positivity. I have pondered the very question you wrote this blog about many times and I appreciate you writing this! I do believe the answer is yes, and I do also believe why is an important part of that. I spend a lot of time talking to people about health rather than weight and what motivated them to come to us. Thanks for sharing your thought-I always enjoy your blogs!

    • Vincci Tsui on Oct 08, 2016 Reply

      Thanks for your kind words, Shelley! It warms me to know there are others working in the area of weight management who are also preaching self acceptance and body positivity.

  • StellaB on Oct 07, 2016 Reply

    As a (retired) primary care physician, I’ve watched many healthy but overweight people become less healthy over time. Normal blood pressure and normal blood sugar always begin to rise. I started to gain weight in my forties and at first my blood pressure and blood sugar were fine until, slowly, they were no longer. I can think of at most one or two of my senior patients who were overweight and not suffering the effects of diabetes and hypertension. We know that on average, at the time of DMII diagnosis, people already have evidence of microvascular disease.

    Although it may be true that there are healthy, active people who eat a balanced diet and are overweight, I haven’t met any. In my experience, overweight is usually a marker for poor lifestyle choices. I had a college roommate who really sincerely believed that she ate a small amount of food and suffered from “a slow metabolism”. I lived with her for a year and saw her eat a large amount of calorically dense food every day while avoiding much movement, yet she truly did not believe that that was her lifestyle.

    I used to encourage people to lead a healthy lifestyle that included dailyish exercise, more vegetables, smaller portions of refined starches and sugars, smaller portions of fattier meats and dairy. When they did make those changes, they not only experienced better blood pressure, but also lost weight. I certainly did when I started measuring portions sizes of calorically dense food.

    • Vincci Tsui on Oct 07, 2016 Reply

      Thank you for your thoughts, Stella. I agree that many people are not motivated to make lifestyle change until a health crisis or new diagnosis, because it’s natural to have a mentality of “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” To me, body positivity is not about complacency or encouraging unhealthy lifestyles, but about looking beyond weight as a marker of health or reason for change. Anyone can benefit from the healthy lifestyle of regular exercise and better eating habits that you described.

  • Priscilla on Oct 07, 2016 Reply

    It occurs to me that the only way to achieve a healthier weight is to accept myself first. Only then can eating be an act of love.

    • Vincci Tsui on Oct 07, 2016 Reply

      So true! Thank you for sharing your insight, Priscilla!

  • Casey Berglund on Oct 06, 2016 Reply

    Brilliant post, Vincci! It is thoughtful, honest, and vulnerable. I think it’s amazing that we, as dietitians, are really exploring this question and learning how to have important conversations like this with clients and colleagues.

    I think you know my stance: body positivity AND weight loss can co-exist. Most perceived dualities in our culture are only so because of a limited mindset.

    Props to you – proud to call you a colleague and friend.

    • Vincci Tsui on Oct 06, 2016 Reply

      Thanks for your insight, Casey! Already today I’ve gone in to make edits to the post, only to stop midway as I argue myself out of this new viewpoint again. Despite putting it out there, I think I will still be ruminating on this one for a while.

  • Kathleen Hernder RD on Oct 06, 2016 Reply

    Thanks for the awesome post Vincci! I’ve been struggling with the same thing recently as I previously worked in a sister clinic to yours and recently started private practice so naturally, weight management is one of my focuses. I’ve also been listening to Christy Harrison’s podcast and love it and every time she mentions the diet mentality I question this exact thing.

    I agree with you in that the why of the want to lose weight is what can make it body positive or not but also the manner in which they’re approaching the weight loss. I’ve been reading your blog so I feel I can say that you have a similar philosophy to mine when it comes to teaching clients to listen to their bodies and eat mindfully as well as including more balance in the diet. I think those are things that everyone benefits from and in many individuals, especially those with emotional eating, it can lead to weight loss and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that because we are teaching people to listen to and fuel their bodies.

    In those individuals who already have a balanced diet and are moving their bodies in a way they enjoy are the ones where I’m not sure it can be body positive since they’re then ignoring their body’s cues to lose the weight. Since I’m newly in private practice, I think I’m a little more hesitant about bringing up the conversation about not being so focused on the scale and weight loss not being the answer but I too am going to try to work on it!

    I’m definitely going to check out the Facebook Live post; maybe that will shift my thinking on the subject even more!

    • Vincci Tsui on Oct 06, 2016 Reply

      Hi Kathleen,

      Thanks for your comment! I love it when you say, “In those individuals who already have a balanced diet and are moving their bodies in a way they enjoy are the ones where I’m not sure it can be body positive since they’re then ignoring their body’s cues to lose the weight.” That is perfect!

      Vincci

  • dixya @food, pleasure, and health on Oct 06, 2016 Reply

    while im not an expert in this area,i do embrace the concept of intuitive eating…and im leaning more towards the idea of being body positive and thats okay to want to lose weight (granted they are not stuck on some number or unhappy but reduce disease risk etc). i have been waiting to read this post as it has so many different views from other RDs. Thank you!

    • Vincci Tsui on Oct 06, 2016 Reply

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dixya!

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