Lose Weight or Die(t) Trying
Middle school: it was the worst of times, it was the awfulest of times. It was my rude awakening to the reality that women’s bodies, including mine, are so heavily scrutinized in society. It was also, not coincidentally, when I began my quest to become thinner. And lastly, it was when I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, a disease with many undesirable symptoms, one of which is weight gain.
Well, so much for my quest. As I came to realize that we live in a world where we equate thinness with beauty, intelligence, a strong work ethic, and innate goodness, I was gaining weight for what seemed like absolutely no reason. I was becoming the opposite of what our society values. Despite the fact that I was still athletic, strong, and the exact same person that I was before I entered middle school, I felt like I was falling off the pace on my journey to becoming a “good” woman.
To further complicate things, when I was diagnosed with PCOS at 13, the advice I received seemed contradictory: “lose weight, and the symptoms will go away.” Doctors would say this not knowing that at this point in my life, weight loss felt like my only goal, not just for health, but for social acceptance and self-confidence. If it was so easy, trust me, I would have already done it. Besides, this advice was completely backwards; weight loss was a symptom, not a cause, of my disease. So, why do doctors like mine feel the need to flip the blame to their patients, doing us a disservice?
As I’ve come to realize, the desire to get smaller, the preferential treatment for thin people, and skewed medical weight-based advice are all intricately connected. Although I first came to this realization in middle school, these ideas do not fade out like many other difficulties of middle school do. Diet culture, weight stigma, and healthcare complications for women like me have remained prevalent in my life up to and including now. I spent my middle and high school years trying to get smaller, and even when I finally succeeded the summer before my senior year and began to experience some of the privilege that comes with being thin, the happiness and the weight loss were both short-lived.
In my more recent efforts to understand where we get the idea that people, but mainly women, should constantly be in pursuit of a smaller body, I immediately came across the term “diet culture.” Diet culture is the multibillion dollar industry aimed at taking womens’ focus and directing it elsewhere; mainly, towards losing weight. We devote tremendous amounts of energy towards it. I remember in my “summer of weight loss” four years ago, I spent the overwhelming majority of my time exercising and thinking about ways in which I could get thinner, quicker. Not only have I, and many other women, spent my time submerged in the ideas of diet culture, but many women also invest money in these ideas as well. This is inherently discriminatory, in that huge wealth disparities encourage the thought that some are worthy of the chance to pursue “perfection” while others are not.
Diet culture is, put most simply, a way to keep women occupied, and I can say firsthand that it works. How can we work to dismantle oppressive systems when we are constantly pursuing an unattainable goal? If we wait until we fit diet culture’s definition of “good enough” until we start really living and trying to make the world a better place, we’ll never get there. We won’t have the time or the money to invest in social justice when we’re wasting all of our energy pursuing thinness. These impossible beauty standards are discriminatory and unattainable in so many ways. They are euro-centric and clearly only value thin, white, and abled bodies. The standards are unachievable in more ways than one, ensuring that women are not just distracted short-term, but for our entire lives. Diet culture’s effects are not temporary, they are permanent.
It’s impossible to talk about diet culture without addressing weight stigma, or the preferential treatment of thin people in our society. Diet culture and weight stigma work hand-in-hand; if you’re not thin enough, or you’re not buying into the lifelong pursuit of thinness, your punishment is getting treated poorly. I’ve experienced vastly different treatment from people at my highest weight, lowest weight, and where I am now. Last summer, when I first began cutting my ties to diet culture, I began eating more intuitively and ended up losing some weight. Back at school, people treated me differently. A few people even had the courage to say things like, “You look so much more mature this year, but I can’t figure out why,” or “You look taller and a lot more confident now.” Even as I was intentionally removing myself from the harmful diet culture world, I was unable to escape comments that reinforced the idea that thinness represents all of the good character traits I possess.
At first, I only saw thin people being treated better as a person-to-person issue. Maybe, I thought, some people don’t face those problems; maybe thinness is still just a preference that people have. I have come to realize, though, that weight stigma is a systemic issue that is not imagined but a painfully unfortunate reality. Size intersects with many other aspects of identity including gender, race, ethnicity, economic status; the list goes on. In workplaces, schools, and even more casual social settings, women are already pressured to not take up metaphorical “space:” we are more likely to be called bossy simply for speaking confidently. But what about physical space? Women of size are up against multiple biases at work, among friends, and in education simply because they take up space.
The strangest part is that as someone whose weight has fluctuated dramatically in recent years, I have found that its actually hard to maintain good character traits, which are associated with thinness, when I’m focusing on dieting. Sure, dieting requires “work ethic,” but if I’m solely working towards a smaller body, then how much energy will I realistically have to work on a job, relationships with others, or my relationship with myself? And while dieting drains all of my energy and makes me feel lazy and unhealthy, when I eat intuitively I feel energized and the opposite of those things. In my experience, all of these desirable traits associated with thinness are actually harder to achieve in the constant pursuit of weight loss. When we give up the desire to be thin, we can redirect our focus to what really matters to us: social justice, friendships, romantic relationships, our jobs, and our passions.
Perhaps the most significant way that diet culture and weight stigma harm women is that they deny us access to adequate healthcare. In my experience with PCOS, the advice to constantly diet is not only counterintuitive, but harmful. In my years of dieting, I ended up worse off than at the start of my diagnosis, and I know that my experience is not unique. There are studies that show that dieting doesn’t work long term, so why are healthcare providers still advocating for it?
The answer is easy: diet culture and weight stigma are not absent in the medical field, and this hurts women disproportionately. And it’s not just women with PCOS whose health is often compromised at the hands of diet culture and weight stigma. Many overweight women are prescribed weight loss for more serious health issues, which ignores root problems in most cases. When providers advertise dieting and getting smaller as a cure, they are ignoring real women’s health issues, thus preventing them from living their healthiest and happiest lives.
For many women, fertility is an important and perhaps sensitive medical issue, and it might be the area in which weight discrimination is most noticeable. So many fertility practices have BMI limits, or offer to see patients only when they’ve lost a certain amount of weight by whatever means necessary. This can make the process of having a child, which is hugely significant to many women or couples, completely dependent on unsustainable and unhealthy methods of weight loss. These practices strip women of their feelings of femininity and make them feel unworthy of adequate care, or undeserving of the pursuit of happiness, simply because of their size. They take up so much energy, just for women to never achieve their doctor’s goals.
Harmful medical practices, for fertility and otherwise, serve as another way to keep women occupied. They encourage us to feel shame and guilt about our bodies, and our condition is only made worse by ignorant advice from doctors and others who prescribe unattainable goals as a cure.
Diet culture demands that women constantly chase smaller bodies, and weight stigma tries to ensure that we’ll be punished if we don’t. We are promised overall better lives filled with happy relationships, a better appearance, perfect health, and workplace success if we achieve thinness through dieting, something that is nearly impossible to maintain. While weight stigma might ensure that we’re treated better when we’re thin, a smaller body does not guarantee any personal fulfillment. I do not like myself nearly as much when I’m thinking about food and exercise instead of my relationships, my education, my work in the surrounding community, and the pursuit of social justice. Whether we like it or not, ditching diet culture is a political statement, and it is now one that I’m committing to. I’m spending my time writing this essay instead of staring at my arms in the mirror wishing there was less fat on them. I’ll continue to research racism in education instead of researching how quickly I can lose ten pounds. I’ll commit to spreading love and lifting up my friends and family instead of tearing myself down by pursuing weight loss at the expense of everything else. While we’re not busy chasing undesirable goals, we can be truly fulfilling ourselves and getting more important work done.
Dagny Albano is a college senior pursuing a degree in Special and Elementary Education at Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA). Her interests include walking, youth mentoring, flute playing, cooking, baking, and playing with dogs.