In the past, when people lost weight, I envied them. I wanted to know how they did it and emulate them. Today, as a recovered yo-yo dieter, I feel concerned about them. I remember how great it once felt to lose pounds. Diet culture supports it as a significant accomplishment. The people around us chime in to tell us how good we look and to ask about our strategies. But I also remember the cost to my physical and mental health of pushing my body toward an unhealthy weight. So, when people proudly post those weight loss after-photos, I feel concerned that they've set themselves up for a health disaster.
Only a person who loses weight knows whether they sacrificed their health for it. And, sometimes, weight loss is a result of efforts I consider healthy. Some of my clients lose weight when they ditch the stressful dieting mindset in favor of self-respect and self-care, put more nutrition and pleasure into meals, and hone their emotion and eating regulation skills. Even when these efforts don't result in weight loss, they are likely to affect health positively. But too many people have been made to feel that their worth depends on their weight and size. They seek weight loss feverishly, the "lose 41 pounds in 28 days" way promoted by this First For Women cover. They push their bodies by restricting food, overexercising, abusing medication, and waging a mental war on themselves -- the way I once did. When people lose weight that way, it's never healthy.
This magazine wants you to believe that you can lose 41 pounds in 28 days on the diet they promote and then ride off into a sunset with your health intact. I consider this a big, fat lie. No one could engage in such extreme weight loss without harmful side effects. Even a lesser amount of weight loss could come at a cost to health.
Here's what I know, any effort to push your weight below your healthy range will trigger survival responses as your brain does its powerful background work to adapt to the stressful dieting lifestyle and the threat of malnutrition. My clients and I are familiar with the grand spectrum of suffering triggered by hating our bodies, engaging in trendy diets, and the predictable yo-yo dieting cycles that ensue. Our diets have triggered obsessive thinking, constant weighing, fear of regaining, isolation, low-self esteem, feelings of failure, body image distortion, excessive hunger and cravings, disordered eating patterns, bounce-back weight gain, and even chronic illness. I think diets should come with warning labels.
If diets are dangerous to our health, where can we turn when we dislike our bodies, struggle with body image, or need to improve our eating habits for the sake of our health? My book, Non-Dieting: How to Love Your Body and Be Healthy in Diet Culture, will be available on Amazon soon. In it, I offer research about how dieting can actually make us heavier, hungrier, and sick. I also share what I wish someone told me when I started to dislike my body, develop unhealthy eating habits, and began dieting at the age of twelve. I needed someone to explain that health, confidence, and the sense of worth I sought would not come from chasing an unrealistic body. It would come from the realization that my weight was not the most important thing about me. Later, this discovery would free me to focus on my strengths and develop them into a meaningful life. And it would enable me to recover from the stressful dieting lifestyle that had triggered disordered eating patterns and a negative body image. Ditching the diet lifestyle was the best thing I ever did for my health. If you want to learn about getting healthy on the non-dieting path, join my email list. You'll be among the first to know when the book is available.
Take a moment to reflect on how dieting has affected your health. Do your experiences align with mine? Please share with me in the comments below.
-Alison Ross, LMFT
I recently read a story about a dad whose 8-year-old son was starting to feel insecure about his body. His son had a large birthmark on his chest that embarrassed him. He stopped going to the pool with his friends and didn't want to take off his shirt. The father responded to his son's growing insecurities in a beautifully, outrageous way. He went to a tattoo artist where he had a replica of the birthmark tattooed on his chest. It was precisely the right message when his son started to feel insecure about his body -- his father doubled-down on his appreciation for how his son is. You can see the story for yourself here.
Think back to when you started to feel insecure about your body. Was there someone in your life who encouraged you to appreciate your natural self? I was worried about my nose as a child. I repeatedly asked my mother to let me get a nose job. But she always responded by saying, "Nope, you're perfect as you are." Looking back, I appreciate her response. But, weight was a different matter in my childhood home. When I was teased about my size in my preteen years, my mother promptly took me to a diet center. There, I learned how to hustle for my worth, as Brené Brown puts it, by trying to reshape myself into a better form. My first diet was supposed to last ten weeks. I would diet and exercise myself into a perfect form and stay there forever -- at least, that's how the diet counselor made it seem. But my ten-week diet turned into an increasingly extreme obsession for more than a decade. And I'm aware that I'm in good company when I tell this story. In diet culture, too many children are encouraged to start watching their weight when their bodies begin to mature, when others tease them, or when the challenges they face cause them to question their worth.
The people who encourage children to diet are usually trying to help. Raised in diet culture, they also received the indoctrination that says, "if something's wrong, we can fix it by losing weight." They learned that diets work, even though a growing body of research shows that diets make us hungrier, heavier, and sick over time. In my upcoming book, Non-Dieting: How to Love Your Body and Be Healthy in Diet Culture, you can learn all about that. Although it is usually unintentional, those who encourage kids to diet in response to life's challenges are sending the message that the child is flawed and must fix themselves to fit in. When a child internalizes this message, it can set them up for a lifetime of insecurity, disordered eating, health, and body image struggles.
The right message is something more like what this father did for his son. Not that we need to go to such extremes. We need to find ways to double-down on our admiration for the unique composition of body, mind, and soul that each of us is. A mother once told me that she responded to her daughter's body insecurities by throwing off her shirt and dancing around her room. She jiggled her body as she sang, "This is how I am. I'm awesome." Her daughter found it funny, and she joined her.
How have people supported you to love your body? How have you supported yourself through body image struggles? Or, what do you wish someone told you when you started to worry that you weren't enough? Please share with us in the comments below.
Together we can create a more body-positive world. We can support each others' mental and physical health by appreciating beauty in its many different forms.
-Alison Ross, LMFT
Join Alison Ross, LMFT and her guests as they share their experiences with the body-positive gratitude challenge.
IG LIVE @nondietinghealth
Wed. Aug 5 - 9am PT - singer/songwriter/mom - Julia Faussone-Martinez
Sun. Aug 9 - 2pm PT - actress Veronica Dunne
"Gratitude is the best medicine." - Anonymous
Did you know that a gratitude practice is like medicine for your physical and psychological health? I was reminded of this on my walk this morning when I passed a street sign decorated with flowers and a plaque that said, "Gratitude is the best medicine." Dr. Robert A Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude, said, "Gratitude empowers us to take charge of our emotional lives and, as a consequence, our bodies reap the benefits."(1) Studies have shown that people who engage in a gratitude practice experience profound physical, emotional, and social benefits. Advantages include stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, more happiness, and optimism. And they are less lonely, more helpful, generous, forgiving, and compassionate. (2)
In my psychotherapy practice, I have found that we can harness the therapeutic power of gratitude to improve our body image. Body image struggles represent a loss of appreciation. When our relationship with our bodies is about self-criticism and pushing toward unrealistic forms, we have lost gratefulness for the fact that our bodies are feeling, thinking, sensing, breathing phenomenons! But we can reclaim that appreciation and powerfully improve body-confidence by practicing gratitude. Doing so doesn't require much effort. You can make a shift right now by identifying one thing that your body does for you, for which you are grateful. Go ahead, give it a try. Then reflect upon how you feel. If you need some help, here are some body-gratitude examples:
I am grateful for my body because it enables me to:
See beautiful things.
Listen to music.
Savor my coffee.
Breathe deeply to feel calm.
Hug and kiss my loved ones.
Snuggle with a pet.
Create art or music.
Do meaningful work.
Smell the roses.
Like any therapeutic practice, the more you do it, the more benefit you will get. Consider taking this body-gratitude challenge for one week. Here's how it works. Open up the notes app on your phone. Start a new note entitled "Body-Gratitude." Now, set a daily alert on your phone for the next seven days. It will be your reminder to practice body-gratitude. Each day, when the alert dings, make a list in your phone of five things about your body for which you are grateful. Then, notice how it feels to enter the thankfulness realm. At the end of the week, reflect upon how you feel about your body. Do you notice more gratitude, more confidence, more awareness of your awesomeness? Less criticism and shame? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.
(1) Emmons, Robert. The Little Book of Gratitude. Gaia, 2016.
(2) Prosperity, Gratitude. "Why Gratitude Is Good." Greater Good, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good. Accessed 26 July 2020.
Hi. I’m Alison Ross, founder of Non-Dieting Health in Agoura Hills, California. I’m a licensed psychotherapist and neurofeedback practitioner specializing in eating and body image. My favorite things are my family, my dogs, yoga and working with my clients.