Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Danger of Praising Weight Loss Above All Else

I'm not sure if you've noticed this lately, but we live in a world that's pretty obsessed with weight loss. Scarily obsessed. In fact, if you were an alien visiting Earth for the first time, you would be really freakin' confused about why so many of the world's societies have made shrinking themselves their main preoccupation in life (assuming the planet you came from isn't also overrun with diet culture and rampant with unrealistic body ideals).

It really hasn't taken very long for the obsession to take over, considering 150 years ago intentional weight loss (or 'reducing') was quite rare. The weight most people today would consider to be excess, unhealthy, and unattractive used to be signs of wellness, wealth and beauty in abundance. These days even the slightest bit of natural chub is viewed as some kind of parasite - a dangerous disease to be burned off, sucked out, or starved into submission at any cost, rather than as the harmless, healthy flesh it is. It's really no surprise that the fear of fat has taken over, and dieting has become a full time job.
There are millions, sorry, billions to be made from turning us against our own bodies, and making us believe that weight loss is the ultimate achievement in life is crucial in that business plan. All we have to do is look around us to see the proof...

"Woman loses 50 pounds and gets her life back!"

"She's thin again! [insert any female celebrity ever] battles the bulge and comes back better than ever!"

"Entire population dying from obesity! Losing weight is the only thing that will save us!"

And those headlines are probably all in the same magazine, on a shelf with hundreds more magazines just like it, in the aisle just across from the low fat meal replacement options, in a shop with giant billboards advertising diet plans outside it, down the road from a TV studio that films a show about who can lose the most weight each week while being watched by millions. The news about how 95% of diets don't work, how yo-yo dieting damages your mental and physical health, how it's possible to be metabolically fit at any size, and how countless eating disorders are caused by dieting never seem to make the headlines.

It's estimated that 45 MILLION people in the US go on diets every year, and 29 MILLION people in the UK do the same (in other words, more than half of the adult UK population is currently trying to lose weight). With that in mind, it makes sense that we see encouraging diets as harmless, and 'oh my god you look so skinny' as always being a compliment. The fact that our words could actually be doing serious damage doesn't occur to us, and why would it? Everything is telling us that dieting is wonderful, everyone wants weight loss, and skinny is ALWAYS synonymous with beautiful. We've got diet culture tunnel vision, and it's blinding us.

When I was falling headfirst into anorexia, the compliments came pouring in. Asking how I did it, wishing for the secret to my will power, congratulating me for fighting so valiantly in the weight loss wars. Nobody knew at the time that I was fighting to the death. But those comments sure helped keep me going. When I was 'recovered' (read: chubby), still sporadically starving myself on crash diets and battling with exercise addiction the compliments came again. So much dedication, even nearly dying didn't put her off working for the perfect body, well done for the 5lb loss this week! They should have known better by then, but they didn't. The problem is when you compliment someone on their weight loss, you have absolutely no idea where their motivation lies. You have no idea what toxic seeds you might be planting, or what dangerous notions will grow from them, and blossoming eating disorders are only one reason why we need to stop praising weight loss above all else.

You could be commending the shrinking waistline of someone who's body is deteriorating from disease. You could be pointing out a natural predisposition towards slenderness that someone has actually hated their whole life. You could be reinforcing someone's belief that they are more valuable, more attractive, more successful and important just because there's a little bit less of them than before (although let's be honest, you're pretty much always doing that when you compliment someone on their weight loss).

Let's say you meet a friend out for lunch, and one of the first things you comment on is how thin she's looking these days. At worst, you're fueling an obsession that's currently taking over her life, unbeknownst to you. At best, you're pointing her own focus back towards her body, instead of where it should be at the table with you. Maybe she didn't want to be worrying about her weight while she's with you, maybe she wanted to catch up with her friend, talk about her passions, get lost in the things that matter and set the world on fire. Now all she's thinking about is the size of her thighs. She's anxious about the food choices. She's wondering how everyone else is seeing her - is this a flattering angle? Does she look thin to everyone? She could probably be thinner though... By this point she's barely even there, she's too busy walking round the never ending body image maze in her mind.

The fact that powerful grown women can't even get through the day without being sucked into dietland is horrifying enough, but we are doing this to our children, too. 80% of 10 year old girls have been on diets, and the average age girls start dieting is now 8 years old. Young people are taking in all the same media messages we are, they're being brainwashed with the same weight biased propaganda and photoshopped lies, and they're even less equipped than we are to see through the bullshit. The only hope they have of escaping the weight loss wars is the way we talk to them, and around them, about bodies. It's heartbreaking to imagine adults with so much potential in life being completely consumed by food and weight and their bodies and losing who they might have been. It's even more heartbreaking to imagine that happening to 80% of 10 year old girls.

A 10 year old's brain should not be focused on how many calories there are in a snack or what the scales will say this week. They shouldn't feel like approval and love come from pounds lost and praise from a proud mother, projecting her own body image issues onto her daughter. Both of their minds should be free to focus on all of the wonderful things they are and could be. On their passions, their ideas, their talents, their dreams, their relationships, their goals beyond dropping dress sizes. Unless we make some serious changes to how we talk about weight loss and worth, those minds are going to stay lost. 

The next time you go to compliment someone on their weight loss or praise how thin they're looking, just think whether you might be causing more harm than good. Compliment them on something that actually matters instead - tell them how much you value their friendship, how thankful you are to have them around. Encourage each other to be badass, to be loud and unapologetic and to take up a fuck tonne of space with your words and minds and bodies, not to shrink down until there's nothing left. The world's obsession with dieting isn't going anywhere, it makes far too much money to be dismantled over something as (apparently) trivial as people's mental health - but you can still save each other. Change the conversation. Question what you've been taught. Maybe one day we'll replace our obsession with pounds and points and inches with an obsession over accepting ourselves as we are. No starvation necessary... We can dream.