Originally appeared in Sixty and Me.
Right now, there seems to be two extremes when it comes to weight and self-acceptance in popular culture.
The “EVERYONE NEEDS TO HAVE A NORMAL BMI” Camp:
- Any pound over a “normal” BMI and flat belly makes you a magnet for preventable diseases, unattractive, and means something is wrong with you. Any sort of ache or pain can be cured by losing weight. You should hate looking in mirrors and hate your body, you will like yourself and feel confident once you’re smaller.
The “YOU’RE FINE JUST THE WAY YOU ARE” Camp:
- Your weight and what you eat don’t matter at all. Attempting to lose weight is always harmful and optimal health can’t be achieved with weight loss. You should work towards acceptance of yourself and your body rather than changing your body.
In my opinion as a post menopausal weight loss expert and Registered Dietitian on a mission to help women calm their food and body obsessions, I think both extremes can have merits and problematic perspectives.
I’m telling you upfront that I probably don’t fall into category #2, so you will recognize my bias. Other practitioners, like say an Eating Disorder specialist, for example, may have a drastically different view. You get to decide if my perspective is helpful for you.
OK let’s get to the juicy stuff, to find out if it’s possible to find a middle ground between losing weight and accepting yourself read on…
Everyone has to have a normal BMI: Pros
Some people argue about the validity of some studies that relate weight loss to improved health outcomes. And while that may well be true, the larger pool of scientific research suggests that having a large body puts you at risk for specific obesity-related conditions. And losing even a modest amount of weight may reduce your risk of some chronic diseases.
For example, in the Diabetes Prevention Program study, weight loss of 5-10% of starting weight made participants less likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes.
Furthermore, the Arthritis Foundation reports that losing 1 pound can reduce 4 pounds of pressure from the knees in adults with osteoarthritis.
Take away: losing weight may reduce pain and disease risk.
Everyone has to have a normal BMI: Cons
First, the worship of BMI seems to be unfounded. You don’t have to have a normal BMI to avoid knee pain or reduce your risk of diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Secondly, the normal BMI camp seems to believe that weight is entirely in someone’s control. That people who live in large bodies are lazy and are just not trying hard enough.
This belief that more self-control will solve the problem ignores genetic components, environmental and lifestyle issues like having a desk job or not having access to safe walking paths, and emotional causes of eating.
The cultural obsession with size has actually turned into a stigma.
Comedians making fat jokes, barbed comments from relatives, tiny airplane seats, your doctor’s obsession with your size, and how hard it is to find cute clothes in larger sizes…
This discrimination and mistreatment of people in larger bodies is called weight stigma and it can cause anxiety and depression. Yes, it’s not that being larger causes anxiety/depression, it’s the way you are treated by your culture, family, and community.
Weight stigma can lead to feeling ashamed and unworthy of connection with others because of your body size.
If you feel like sugar cravings are stopping you from being at your ideal weight, grab my free guide “Discover the #1 strategy for women in midlife and beyond to stop overeating without obsessing about food!”
You’re fine just the way you are: Pros
Focusing on self-acceptance can decrease stress. Stress hormones can lead to overeating and weight gain, so a decrease in stress can help on the path to weight loss.
Frameworks that center self-acceptance rather than weight loss, like Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size have been shown to decrease risk of eating disorders, reduce anxiety and improve body image.
You’re fine just the way you are: Cons
The idea that intentional weight loss is always harmful is an overgeneralization. It may be harmful if you have an eating disorder, an unrealistic goal, or are planning to follow a rigid plan.
Weight loss is unhelpful when you are doing it so you can be more worthy of love and release your shame. Or so you can look in the mirror and like yourself. These are deeper heart issues that take more than a physical change to truly heal.
And yet, what if you held weight loss with an open-hand, curious about what might be possible for your body if you optimized your metabolism, healed your relationship with food so it was easy to make healthy choices and began listening and responding to what your body was asking of you?
Weight loss really can reduce painful inflammation, improve certain blood labs and reduce disease risk… so who can fault a woman for wanting these benefits?
How can you want to lose weight and love yourself just the way you are?
Here is the middle ground I have found between these two extremes, which I use in the Courage to Trust Method:
- Examine your motives for weight loss. Are they coming from a place of self-love and self-care (like wanting less pain) or from a place of unworthiness and self-hatred?
The truth is, even if you lose weight and feel more worthy of love, you’ll be left with crippling fear of weight regain.
- If you decide to pursue weight loss, focus on behaviors you have control over, rather than the number on the scale. More vegetables, less red meat and more walking all provide health benefits even if you don’t lose pounds as quickly as you’d like. If sugar intake is a problem for you, grab my free guide “Discover the #1 strategy for women in midlife and beyond to stop overeating without obsessing about food!”
- Practice self-acceptance. You don’t have to pretend that you love everything about yourself, but finding pieces of yourself and your body that you enjoy or admire is a great starting point. If that feels like a stretch, work towards neutrality and/or focus on gratitude for what your body has done (carried children, kept you moving, climbed mountains, etc).
- Get to the root cause of barriers. Identify what is stopping you from getting to your goal and get curious about the root cause of your barriers. If you find you are overeating, consider if emotions may be driving your eating habits, or if sugar is a particular problem for you. Perhaps you are stressed, or have low motivation. Restrictive diets are rarely the solution. I have linked each barrier to a specific blog post/resource to help you address the root cause.