Hey guys, gals, and nonbinary pals! I have a contact page here on this blog, and sometimes, people email me for help. I’ve been responding to these questions privately since I started my blog last year, but you know what? It’s time to start having these conversations out loud, for others to hear. Because they’re important, and because there are few places you can go to find out, say, what to do when you want to embrace Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating but still aren’t comfortable with what you see in the mirror. Or when you’re not sure how to handle a coworker who will not shut up about their diet. So, we’re going to do that, here.
I’m really trying to embrace body positivity and intuitive eating and HAES but I still have a hard time fighting this voice in my head that says I should diet, that I’m too fat, that I would be happier if I lost weight. Sometimes I get sucked into googling weight loss surgery and fantasizing about what it would be like if I lost a bunch of weight. It’s especially hard with all the New Years stuff I am seeing all over social media and on TV. How do I get past it?
This is the hardest part of the whole journey, friend.
Unfortunately diet culture is not a switch you can simply flip off when you’re ready — it’s more of a chip that’s implanted in your brain, it becomes part of you and your cognitive function. It’s that invasive. It’s a copilot you didn’t ask for second-guessing you at every turn. And it’s hard for everyone to silence it.
The first step is recognizing it. New Year’s is the most profitable time of the year for Diet Culture: it’s when people try to shake off the “excess” of the holiday season, join Weight Watchers, buy diet books, join gyms, sign up to try new exercise classes, and make a commitment to shrinking themselves. So that pressure you’re feeling right now? When you’re bombarded by messages telling you that you’re too big, too much, too soft, and must shrink? That’s Diet Culture. It is hustling this time of year. So, it’s no wonder you’re feeling particularly fragile about your body and attempts to accept it as is: you’re fucking surrounded. You are bombarded. We all are. You are not alone in this.
The good news is, even though you are being literally attacked with this message of shrinking yourself, you can make a choice. You can give in, and entertain these thoughts of shrinking, and keep Googling. Or, you can block it.
I mean this literally and figuratively. Curate your social media feed. If you have a friend or family member blathering on about their new diet, or how much weight they’ve lost or gained, mute them. You can unfriend them, if they’re people you feel comfortable losing. You can also mute them or snooze them for a limited amount of time. (And, trust me, give them a month and they will probably just move onto the next thing. That’s the thing about New Year’s resolutions — most people are done talking about them by February 1st. Planet Fitness basically designed its whole business model on people giving up on New Year’s resolutions.) You can also give feedback about ads you see; get familiar with your Ad Settings on Facebook. Report or hide ads about dieting or selling you diet-related nonsense. It feels like an attack you have no control over, but you do have some control. So, use the control you have to block the shit you don’t want to see. If you want to make a New Year’s resolution, resolve to prioritize your own mental health and proactively block things that are damaging to the path you’re on. Unfollow people who make you feel bad about yourself, and follow more people who look like you, are on the same journey, and empower you.
And, while you’re at it, surround yourself with contrasting messages. Have some Amazon gift cards from the holidays? Build a fortress of books around yourself. Start with the building blocks, if you haven’t read them yet: Body Respect and Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor, Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Fat? So! by Marilyn Wann, Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby. Read some books by amazing fat badasses: Landwhale and Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls by Jes Baker, Shrill by Lindy West, The Body Is Not An Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor, You Have the Right to Remain Fat by Virgie Tovar. If you don’t have gift cards or money, check out your local library — they may have some you can borrow. And if you are part of any online communities, ask! People may be willing to mail them to you. And if you’ve already read these and have them in your library, revisit them.
The other part of your question is the hardest. How do you learn to love yourself when you aren’t happy with yourself? Oh, if only I had a simple answer to that! But it starts by letting go of the idea that you need to love yourself. You don’t. Start with respecting your body. Start with honoring it. Only then can you start to liberate it. It is, after all, the only body you get. So, you should take care of it. That doesn’t mean dieting and shrinking it, that means respecting it and taking care of the whole you — and that means not dieting.
Dieting doesn’t work. Really, it doesn’t! Even weight loss surgery works for only a stunningly small percentage of people past the first few years. Remind yourself of that, each and every day. Weight cycling is harmful to your body. I know it’s tempting! Dieting sells a beautiful lie: that when you lose weight, you will become the person you’re meant to be, you will become self-actualized, and the whole world will open up to you. And parts of the lie are true: fat bodies are marginalized and oppressed. Fat people can face discrimination in so many places! At work, at the doctor’s office, from friends and family. Sometimes we have a hard time finding clothes that fit (let alone clothes that are in our personal style) and fitting into public spaces that weren’t built for us. And that sucks. It hurts. Sometimes it seems like it’ll be easier and simpler if we just lose weight to fit in, because it doesn’t seem like the rest of the world will change. Being thin is easier in a world where fat people are oppressed. But no one knows how to make a fat person into a thin person. If we could successfully do that, the diet industry would not exist, and people would not need to make New Year’s resolutions to diet, year after year.
So, next time you look in the mirror and feel bad at the body starting back at you, ask yourself: who benefits from me feeling this way? It’s certainly not you. But there’s a whole industry that makes billions from you feeling that way. Yes, billions. The diet industry makes an amount of money from you feeling bad about yourself that is hard to even wrap your mind around. Get angry about it. Get angry, and rebel by finding something about your body that you like. Do you have big, strong arms? Delicious thunder thighs? Awesome tits? A cute, soft, round belly? A killer smile? Beautiful eyes? Try to look at yourself the way you’d look at a friend who was feeling bad about themselves. Try to find the things about yourself you love, the things that make you you. Do it every day. It’s not your body that is a problem, it’s the culture that tries to shrink it. So, lift yourself up. It may feel forced or even silly at first. It may even be painful. But the more you do it, the easier it will feel, and the more you will believe it and be able to silence that voice in your head (the Diet Culture chip) that tells you that you need to shrink.
And, lastly, I can’t reassure you that you won’t gain weight when you ditch diet culture. You might! If you’ve been restricting your food intake on a diet, you may gain weight. I did. But you know, it’s not the end of the world. Bodies change. And when you stop dieting, hop off the hamster wheel, get angry at the hamster wheel, silence the bullshit around you and lift yourself up instead of putting yourself down, it won’t matter as much. And you can finally begin to do the work of healing your relationship with food and your body.
You know what won’t give you peace with yourself, your body, and food? Dieting. If it worked for you, you wouldn’t be on this path. You wouldn’t be trying to incorporate HAES and IE and body positivity into your life. The fact you’re trying to embrace these things means you’ve probably been down this road once or twice before, and it didn’t make you thin, make your life easier, help you chill out about food and your weight, or magically turn you into a different person. So, why would it work any differently this time? SPOILER: it won’t.
The company I work for just sent out an email about their new wellness plan that allows employees to get a discount on our health insurance premium if we enroll and reach certain benchmarks for health, including weight loss. I’m really annoyed by this. But… I could also use the discount. I’m torn between just gritting my teeth and enrolling and writing them an angry email. ARGH WHAT DO I DO? Help!
Oh, I’ve been there and worked for companies with “wellness programs.” For those unfamiliar, these programs are typically orchestrated by Human Resources departments in a bid to keep their healthcare costs down. When employees opt in, they submit to “biomarker” screenings that categorize their health: whether they smoke, their blood pressure, their BMI (obviously), and HR uses a discount (either a flat dollar amount or a percentage) as an incentive to encourage employees to be “healthier.” Sometimes you get the discount by submitting a form from your doctor that declares you “healthy,” and sometimes you have to complete health-related milestones to get the discount. (For instance, completing a smoking cessation program, or lowering your BMI, or lowering your blood pressure.) These are inherently fatphobic (since it’s using weight as a health marker — and encouraging employees to diet) and ultimately benefit the insurance company and company you work for more than employees (since the insurance company’s goal is to not pay for health expenses, because that’s how they make money, and because your company wants to negotiate a lower rate for themselves by making the case the their employees are “healthier,” and therefore less likely to need expensive healthcare.) Sometimes it’ll even involve a corporate partnership, like a discount for a gym or diet programs like Weight Watchers.
Wellness programs put employees in a tricky position: I remember getting the yearly emails about the company wellness program, and considered enrolling several times. At one organization, my healthcare was good but expensive, and I could have used a discount. They also made me feel singled out, and worried that by enrolling, I’d be giving HR access to my BMI and blood pressure and other personal health information. I worried that it would affect other areas of my employment, like being considered for promotions, or being considered an insurance liability. (I mean, they knew I was fat, because they could see me. But it meant submitting a form to them that told them exactly how fat I was, and put them in a position to judge my health.) I usually quietly deleted the emails and never enrolled. I also never fought them, or wrote the angry emails I wanted to write them about their poisonous, fatphobic program. Ultimately, they just provided a wave of shame, and made me feel awkward.
I never said anything about it at any organization I worked for. It was not a hill I was willing to die on. I wanted a steady job, opportunity for advancement, benefits, and good reviews and relationships with colleagues. And I already felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb and had to work twice as hard for recognition because I was one of the few fat employees at the job I worked at the longest. It seemed wiser not to stick my neck out, not to be seen as a “problem.” I was willing to sacrifice speaking my mind for the sake of a steady job.
Before deciding what to do, learn more about your company’s wellness program. How much is the discount you will see? Ask questions, if you need to. If you were to enroll, how much would you actually save each year? How much would you see put back in your paycheck? Healthcare expenses are high and most of us could use a discount, but unfortunately, sometimes the discount employees receive for participating is next to nothing. $500 per year may sound like a lot, but that’s not a cash rebate — that’s spread out over an entire year of paychecks. Do the math. Is it worth it for you, financially?
And if your employer’s wellness program does end up saving you a nice chunk of change each year, do some additional math to figure out what it will cost you personally. Understand the wellness program and what you’re signing up for. It could be that your employer is running a pretty lean wellness program where you get credit for easy things like getting a check up, getting a flu shot, and so on. Easy stuff! In that case, it may not cost you much personally or emotionally to sign up. But understand the terms. What are they measuring? What information will they require? What can they do with the information? Contact HR and ask to see any forms you’ll have to submit so you can decide. Know what you’d be signing up for.
Then you’ll need to do a cost/benefit analysis. Weigh the pros and cons. If you’d be getting a big discount that would may your paychecks go further, but not cost you much personally and has terms that seem reasonable to you, go for it. You can probably drop out if you find out you hate it. But if it seems to cost more than it’s worth, opt out.
Now, on whether to address the issue of having a wellness program, period, with HR … well, that’s a little trickier. It depends entirely on your comfort level. If you’re comfortable giving HR a (polite, professional) piece of your mind, go for it. Maybe send them the New York Times article linked above about the efficacy of employee wellness programs. My recommendation is to make it less about your feelings, and more about the message it sends to employees — namely, that they privilege thin, able-bodied employees and don’t seem to be considering employees who may have disabilities, chronic illnesses, or bodies that don’t conform to the image of “health.” That’s a language they can understand. And since their job is to protect the company from lawsuits, that may be the thing that makes them sit up and take notice, especially if your company bills itself as an Equal Opportunity Employer.
But it’s also okay to just delete the email and say nothing. If you’re new and don’t want to make waves, or if you live in fear of HR and want to keep your head down, or just don’t feel like you can communicate what you want effectively … it’s okay to just opt out. It takes a lot of bravery to stand up to HR. Ultimately, they’re not there for employees, they’re there to protect the company. Some HR departments are more open to feedback than others. You know your HR department best. Do what’s best for you. Protect yourself and your well-being first.
Whatever you choose, you have my full support.
Got a question? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!