Refusing To Celebrate Weight Loss Victories Will Not Make The World A More Fat-Accepting Place
Dismissive is the word I would use to describe my reaction whenever I heard someone say weight loss is as much an emotional journey as it is a physical one. And then my trainer made me walk up and down the stairs at the gym with weights so many times I almost threw up and then nearly cried on the sidewalk afterward as I waited on the bus thinking, I'll never be able to do this shit. In that moment I thought, this must be what people mean when they say weight loss is an emotional journey too. That wasn't even the half. If you're smart, you start to unpack the reasons you put on the weight in the first place (fun!), there's also the process of getting used to your new body, which won't be all crop top and booty short joy like I thought (sad!), and then you have to deal with other people. Other people who will talk about how fat you used to be as if you aren't still the same person; people who will congratulate you in one breath and tell you not to get any smaller in the next; people who will treat you like you're suddenly somebody, implying that you were a nobody before.
The latter is what Seattle writer Ijeoma Oluo recently discussed in a Facebook post in response to a prior call for "greater care when discussing issues of weight and weight loss." She issued that call because "some people were feeling beat down by repeated reminders that people were trying so desperately to escape bodies like theirs." To illustrate her point, Ijeoma discussed how she went on a diet the day after she was sexually assaulted by an ex-boyfriend.
"I was twenty two years old. I didn't know how to process what had happened to me. After surviving childhood sexual abuse, and recently leaving an abusive marriage, I didn't want to be a victim again. So, I blamed the only other party - myself....And when I tried to figure out why - why someone who so many people had repeatedly said had so much going for her would be hurt so often, I settled on my weight. I decided that as long as I was fat, nobody who wasn't abusive was going to want to be with me."
Over the next year, Ijeoma says she lost a lot of weight and, as a result, "I suddenly mattered. People held doors open for me instead of letting them slam in my face. I got better service at restaurants. People complimented my 'hard work' and 'personal strength' to lose weight. Men - men were everywhere - saying hi, striking up conversation, telling me I was beautiful, funny, smart. Women wanted to be my friends, they wanted to hang out at clubs - it finally occurred to them that I too am someone who can have fun in public."
Though the writer eventually regained the weight after having another baby, launching her career, and focusing on other things, she notes:
"For five years, I got to be treated like a human being.
"And it pissed me the fuck off.
"Because I had done nothing - nothing but starve myself, obsessively count every fucking calorie that entered my mouth, step on a scale 3 times a day worrying about every incremental change, run every day until my knees ached, obsessively take pictures of my body to compare with the previous months pictures to see if I could find a visible change, measure all of my body parts to feel good or bad about a lost or gained centimeter, forgo dinner so I could have a cookie for the first time in months, spend thousands of dollars on every book and every magazine that would help keep my motivation up for eating shit I didn't want every single day. And all of this work that took over my entire life gave me nothing but a smaller body.
"I didn't become a better person, I didn't become a more interesting person (if anything, I became far less interesting), I didn't become more creative or kind. I became me, only smaller, and absolutely obsessed with what I put in my mouth."
I know exactly what Ijeoma is talking about. At my lowest weight, I started to "matter" more too. And, like her, I realized nothing about me had changed. I was still a moody introvert who wasn't here for the extra shit. The only thing that changed about me was my size (and I got a weave but I'm pretty sure, if anything, that cost me points with the naturals). The point is, in the moment you kind of don't realize what's going on when this newfound attention comes your way and then when you reflect on why people suddenly see you now, you can't help but think (a) this is some bullshit and (b) I'm really not trying to fuck with you now.
But where I differ from Ijeoma is how she let that experience affect her. She ended her piece saying:
"So no, I will not talk about diets, and no I will not congratulate you on your weight loss. I will not support the harmful notion that a smaller body is a moral victory. I will not give the abusive assholes who say that they matter more because they weigh less the satisfaction of watching me hate myself into a small enough body to be loved by them."
While Ijeoma says she won't debate her point, I will because I think there are some generalizations being made that simply aren't fair -- the greatest being the idea that anyone trying to lose weight hates themselves and is doing so simply so they can be more accepted.
I don't think I have to walk anyone bigger than a size 2 through an explanation of why she would think that's a safe assumption to make. Everything in society tells us smaller is better (unless you're in Texas) and many of us internalize that message in ways we aren't even aware of. But that internalization doesn't lead everyone to engage in obsessive behavior to meet the status quo. Certainly enough do to make it an issue that should always be called out, but it's not fair to paint all individuals on a weight loss journey with the same brush of disapproval.
Here's the thing. Ijeoma admits it was a traumatic experience, in combination with societal brainwashing, that caused her to want to lose weight and to go about it in a compulsive way. That's not everyone's story. Ijeoma thought the loss of something physical would heal her emotional wounds and that wasn't the case because it's impossible. Weight gain tends to be the manifestation of emotional issues; healthy -- key word -- weight loss can only come about after those issues have been dealt with. Then you can begin to shed the physical weight that represents the person you once were. When I went on my health kick my motive was turning 30. I wasn't trying to be sexy(ier) at 30, I no longer wanted to be insecure at 30 and I knew (or thought) my weight was my biggest insecurity. Guess who was still pretty insecure 92 pounds later and confused AF?
Now you could argue I was only insecure because 90% of the messages I got in life told me I needed to be thinner, and that would partially be right, but that doesn't explain why 10 pounds away from my goal weight I tossed 11 months of hard work out the window only to fall back into bad habits when I was so close to the thin promised land. I didn't shed old, negative thinking as quickly as I l did fat. I still wasn't satisfied because I missed the memo that I'm good enough regardless of my physical, financial, marital, or professional state. Like many, I had this idea that if I lost weight suddenly everything else would fall into place and when it didn't I was like, dafuq is this about? I've been told all my life "If only I were smaller..." Instead I got smaller and life was like "Silly little formerly plus-sized girl fairy tales are for kids --and rom coms). But just because I was out here like big girl lost doesn't give me the right to shit on other people who want to improve their physical fitness for reasons that have nothing to do with filling a void. Not all weight gain is the result of trauma and not all weight loss is the product of torture and low self-esteem.
I empathize with Ijeoma but I speculate had she done as much work on her emotional wounds as her physical ones she wouldn't have grown to be a person who "resented every compliment" and "every smile." In fact, she might of realized some people were smiling and complimenting her all along but she couldn't see if through her gaze of fat = unlovable. Yes (some) people are superficial AF, but not everyone who's consistently in the gym and curbing their cravings is supporting "the harmful notion that a smaller body is a moral victory." Some of us just want to have more energy, less knee pain, be stronger, not be a diabetic risk, and feel better physically. And anyone who does that successfully with the right intention deserves applause. If someone else choosing to shed physical weight to improve their quality of life negatively impacts your psyche, the responsibility lies with you to figure out why that's so and then take whatever steps are necessary to make it not be. Whatever that is, not celebrating someone else's victory over their weight issues is not the answer.