It’s the time of year when we’ve rung out the old and are ringing in the new, making resolutions for the coming year. New Year’s resolutions usually involve goals for self-improvement, often including weight loss. Magazine ads and articles extol the benefits of amazing diet plans that promise permanent weight loss in short amounts of time. Body image and health concerns drive the desire to get smaller, sleeker, leaner in the new year.
While this might sound like a positive, worthwhile ambition, it can become an exercise in futility, backfiring and increasing one’s sense of failure, not for lack of trying, but because the very premise of “weight loss” is faulty. We can’t lose weight, or for that matter, gain it. We can do things that result in a change in the amount of body fat and muscle mass we have, and that might thus cause the number on the scale to get higher or lower. But mentally, weight loss is about what those numbers represent to us: what we feel and believe about the significance of the numbers, and the lengths we go to in order to get those numbers to change.
When I was in eighth grade, my mother enrolled me in a program for girls given at the local Burdine’s department store, called “Glamorama.” At Glamorama, we learned about make-up and fashion. At one session, the facilitator called out a list of heights and the appropriate weight for that height. I don’t remember much of what went on at Glamorama, but that height/weight list has remained etched in my brain to this day. In puberty, as my body changed and grew, it exceeded the number the Glamorama facilitator had stated was right for my height. In terror and shame, I went on the first of many diets.
Dieting usually involves figuring out a goal weight (determined by anything from a doctor’s recommendation, to body mass index, to insurance company tables, to a place like Glamorama) then deciding upon a diet or an exercise plan. Next, we follow the plan until the magic number appears on the scale. We have succeeded!
In our goal-oriented culture, we tend to focus on outcome, deciding upon a desired end, and then figuring out the means of achieving it. This works well for many things, from figuring out a driving route, to saving money, to buying a house, to making career plans. But when it comes to weight, it’s another matter entirely.
You may have heard that the majority of people who lose a significant amount of weight gain most of it back. This is because the idea of “weight loss” is putting the cart before the horse. We think of our bodies as things that can be molded, bent, twisted to be the shape and size we find aesthetically pleasing. We forget that they are parts of ourselves that have wisdom of their own and needs to be met.
Our bodies are designed to operate optimally on a given combination of nutrients and energy. Energy comes into our bodies as calories and leaves our bodies as movement. Our bodies and brains are wired to know when they are in need of energy and nutrients, and we recognize this via hunger. When we have had enough, we feel satisfied. If we care for our bodies and brains by eating the right kinds of foods in the right amounts and by giving our bodies (and brains—exercise benefits brains, too!) the kinds and amounts of movement they need for good health, our bodies will be the shape and size that is just right for us.
The number on the scale is arbitrary: humans invented scales and numbers and the meaning they have. Gearing eating and exercise behaviors to achieve a certain number on the scale is going at it backwards: if one’s body has more adipose tissue (i.e., fat) than is healthy, then the reason for it is because that person’s relationship with food, with exercise, and with their body is out of whack. Weight—or better, body shape and size—is an indicator of something, not the thing itself. There is no such thing as a “weight problem.” The problem is with one’s internal state, which is driving behaviors that aren’t in harmony with what they need. Dieting is an externally imposed way of eating—it has nothing to do with listening to one’s body and nourishing one’s self. It is about eating certain types of foods, in certain amounts, at certain times, to attain a certain weight. This, ironically, exacerbates the very problem behind the issue the dieter is trying to solve: a relationship with food that is disconnected from one’s inner awareness.
It took me many years not only to let go of the Glamorama number, but to find my way back—after years of bouncing around between dieting, binge eating, and eating according to rules that kept my body smaller than is natural—to an intuitive and relaxed relationship with food. To do so, I had to stop thinking about “weight” altogether. Instead, I focused on feeding my physical body the food and exercise it needed to be healthy, and tending to my emotional and psychological “bodies” by giving them what they needed. This was much more complicated than following an eating plan!
Shifting one’s focus from the external (weight), to the internal process (hunger/satiety signals, eating, and exercise behaviors), and to the underlying issues that drive them, is essential. This involves learning to care for, trust, and listen to our bodies. To nourish them because our well-being matters, because we are worthwhile and valuable. And difficulty believing in our worth and value is part of what drives problematic eating patterns, so healing these problems is often part of healing our relationship with food. This won’t sell magazines, but it will make for living in harmony and compassion with ourselves.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.