As a trainer working with mainly women, I spend a LOT of time talking with women about loving their bodies. I routinely talk women down off the ledge of self-flagellation through starvation and over-exercising. I’ve made it my mission to empower women to love their bodies.
But a few weeks ago, I was in for a pleasant surprise. Not once…not twice…but three times. And I believe that if something happens three times it is a sign that I should definitely pay attention to it!
The surprise was this: three pregnant women told me how since becoming pregnant they have never felt so good about their bodies.
In a society that constantly tells women that they are flawed, too big, too small, too fat, not enough, too bumpy, too muscular, not muscular enough…you get the picture, this kind of radical vanity is rare.
I experienced this kind of body love in my own pregnancies, too. As soon as that bump started to pop out I started to relax a bit about my body. I surrendered to the pregnancy. I surrendered to my own feelings that I was powerful and beautiful and miraculous. I was building a human and that was a magnificent, sexy, amazing thing!
I was so intrigued by this phenomenon that I reached out to my mommy groups online, I asked all my friends, I scheduled interviews to talk about it. I asked, “How did you feel about your body during pregnancy?” What I found, was against all odds, most women felt amazing about their bodies during their pregnancies. Despite the swelling and the puking. The back pain and the waddling. The sleepless nights and the varicose veins.
It got me thinking, could we harness this confidence that women have in their bodies during pregnancy and use it to empower them the rest of their lives? Could our pregnant bodies take down the diet industry?
The Diet Industry and Women
In our culture, women start getting the message at a very young age that they will never be good enough. Everywhere we turn we’re told our bodies need fixing. Someone is always is hawking a product or program. Magazine covers tease us with headlines about quick and easy (or super-secret) diets and workouts, and images that show us what we should be striving to look like. The underlying message is always the same: you need to change. You’re not ____ enough as you are.
Tone your tummy. Slim your thighs. Lose 20 pounds in 10 days with this detox. Wear make-up. Get
plastic surgery. Be curvy…but not too curvy. Be skinny…but not too skinny. Muscles are sexy… but be careful you don’t start looking manly.
We can never really arrive. We never seem to get “there” because the “there” is constantly changing, leaving us forever chasing this elusive ideal.
I can tell you that in my 15 years as a trainer I have never seen someone sustain long-term weight loss when it came as a result of punishment or shame. True, lasting change seems to only happen when people make the journey out of love and appreciation for themselves. In my book, self love is a necessity for weight loss.
Fat Shaming Scientifically Proven Not to Work
One of the things about the diet industry that annoys me the most is that it uses shame to motivate women to buy their products.
Your body is flawed, so buy our product!
And the thing about shame is that is really doesn’t work to motivate people. In fact, it does the opposite. The more the diet industry shames us for the size of our bodies, the more we doubt our bodies. The more we doubt our bodies, the less capable we are of making decisions based on health and not appearance. The more we doubt ourselves, the more we hate our bodies…resent our bodies for being flawed. This causes us to develop unhealthy relationships with food and exercise.
Somewhere along the way, our perception of food and exercise has morphed into something negative. We feel guilty about the food we eat and use exercise as a way to work it off. Even in the fitness industry we use this model. Everything is often measured in calories. We talk about “in vs. out” scenarios. If we spend an hour on the treadmill we can burn off enough calories to justify that slice of cake we ate last night. If we want to lose a pound each week we we need to work off 3500 excess calories (which we now know doesn’t perfectly translate from theory to practice in every instance). In this way, exercise becomes an atonement for food, a punishment for our “bad” behavior.
Doesn’t this seem kind of backward?
The body is not programmed for this double negative. Our ancestors usually moved in order to find and prepare food. Movement was hunting and gathering. It was chasing, digging, butchering, peeling, smashing, climbing. Food was a means to an end and that end was survival. And while this scenario was not necessarily easy, both movement and food are positives. Movement was inextricably married to nourishment and life.
With today’s abundance of food and atonement through exercise, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that our bodies were made for the privilege of movement. We have forgotten that nourishment comes from the ground and from the wild, not grocery stores and vending machines. Our relationship with food and movement is unnatural. We have developed a disconnect.
And the diet industry has capitalized on that disconnect. The problem is…fat shaming doesn’t work. This isn’t just something that I believe, it is a scientific fact. Researcher Eric Robinson found in his study of over 14,000 adults in the US and the UK that perceiving yourself as overweight does not incentivize you to lose weight.2 In fact, it does the opposite! Researchers found that people in the study who perceived themselves as overweight were more likely to overeat. This seems to be in line with the stress that many stigmatized groups feel.
If this is true, the entire approach of the diet industry is flawed. The years women have spent feeling embarrassed about the size of their thighs was actually making the problem worse!
So now we know. And when we know better, we must do better. But where do we start? Habits can’t be broken overnight. It takes practice.
Making Body Love a Practice
Let’s come back to our proud belly-bumping pregnant women. What if we capitalized on this time of body positive feelings. What if, instead of feeling nervous about bouncing back or feeling guilty about “letting yourself go” during pregnancy, we continued the practice of self-love?
Our bodies are miraculous things. And that’s not just limited to our ability to grow, birth and nourish children. They are miraculous in their own rights. They take us places that we want to go. They allow us to ravish pleasures from ice cream to orgasms. They connect us to one another through verbal and nonverbal communication.
When we are pregnant we are more likely to let go of the pressure to diet and restrict because deep down we know that it’s not right and we suddenly have another human to be responsible for. As my step-mom once said about her pregnancies: “I just couldn’t pull my regular bullshit.”
Old habits are hard to break. According to a recent report by Common Sense Media more than half of the girls in the study, at age 6, thought that they should be smaller than they were.1 Many of us have been feeling bad about our bodies for a long time.
I believe that it all starts with self-love. Could we start making self-love a habit while we are pregnant and already feeling quite proud?
Could we nourish as a form of self-love?
Could we move and exercise as a form of self-love?
Could we make decisions that honor all parts of ourselves?
I believe that it is possible to change the conversation about diet and exercise and it starts with our daily practice. Instead of agonizing over diet after diet, we can seek out ways to feed ourselves that satisfies our tastes and our hunger. We can stop punishing ourselves with exercise and find ways of movement that we really enjoy. And we can find something outrageously beautiful about ourselves each day to celebrate and enjoy. And we can find out just how powerful we can be when we are not constantly cowed by the incessant nagging of the diet industry.
- Pai, S., & Schryver, K. (2015, January 15). Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image | Common Sense Media. Retrieved October 13, 2016, from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/children-teens-media-and-body-image
- Robinson, E., Boyland, E., Christiansen, P., Harrold, J., & Kirkham, T. (2014). Stigmatization and obesity: Unexpected consequences with public health relevance. International Journal of Obesity. From :http://www.nature.com/ijo/journal/v38/n11/full/ijo201443a.html.