When working with disordered eaters, exercise addicts, women wishing to recover their periods, gaining weight invariably occurs. Food freedom is not only necessary for recovery, but literally the healthiest thing clients can pursue after enduring any sort of (semi-)starvation, that in turn, creates a host of metabolic, hormonal, emotional and mental health issues.
Rationally, my clients know this. In fact, it is exactly why they reach out to me for support. But one of the most commonly heard statement in my practice remains: “I felt so much better at a lower weight though“. Behind it hides the belief that if they could fix that ONE perceived ‘flaw’ in their appearance, they would instantly feel more confident and at ease and ready to take on the world.
Could body image be fixed through changing the body? Let’s deep dive into this.
If you are born post 1950, there is a good chance you have grown around statements that perpetuate the idea that thinness equals morality and health. Stuff like “nothing tastes as good as skinny does”, “clean eating”, “no pain no gain”, “sweat is your fat crying”, “guilt-free foods”, “watching what you eat”, “feeling fat”, “cheat days”, etc. Although none of these are backed by evidence (more on this here), there is a super lucrative (279bn USD/year globally – Source: Orbis Media) weight loss industry behind these messages, that luuuurves making their claims as morally charged as possible, and you as guilty as possible when you (inevitably) fail to achieve the impossible dieting dream (more than 95% of diets fail, long term).
The thing is : WORDS MATTER.
When we keep hearing that thinness is what we should pursue for health and external validation, of course we end up internalizing those as our core beliefs and actually “feeling better” at a lower weight. For many of us, manipulating our bodies is less about vanity than feeling like we belong, like we know what we’re doing, like we are worthy of love and attention, like we are one step closer to happier, more serene times. That’s where dieting shares many traits with religions. Try discussing your new leather jacket with your vegan friend and see what happens. There is an excellent book on this called the Gluten lie. But I digress.
Let’s return to our matter: if the key to body image and acceptance issues was to have a certain type of body, some people out there [deemed to own that body] would be perfectly at ease with themselves, completely naturally. Yet we all know someone in our direct social circle who -despite absolutely fitting the current beauty standard- is super anxious and uncomfortable about their appearance. In fact, when surveyed, 91% of women claim they’re dissatisfied with their appearance.
So, this brainwash on the inherent need to ‘fix’ our appearance to attract positive things in our lives and finally ‘feel good about ourselves’ is not only useless but it is unsustainable, unethical and downright harmful. Why? Because not only are human bodies perfectly capable of managing themselves (if you let them), they really HATE being micromanaged into weight suppression and will ALWAYS find ways to adjust back to their comfortable set point, however many efforts you implement to fight this. This is why many people actually experience weight gain EVEN THOUGH they remain dedicated to long term dieting.
Also, living with the belief that you are ‘broken’ and in need of ‘fixing’ your appearance to experience love and acceptance leads (alongside physiological issues related to dieting) to a whole bunch of mental health issues, including obsession-compulsion, irritability, low self-esteem and depression. That stress can truly wreak havoc on your whole metabolism, whether the threat you fear is real or imagined. [a great book on this is Gabor Maté’s when the body says no].
Feeling better about your body, experiencing a more positive body image, doesn’t require you to eat less or exercise more. It doesn’t require you to have a shorter nose, a tinier waist or bigger breasts. It requires working on feelings, beliefs, emotions, thoughts, mental health, rather than the body itself. It requires to dig deep into where these beliefs come from, whether they still serve you, and how to let go of them and rewire your brain to create new, positive, self-supporting ones.
It doesn’t work in 2 weeks like a juice detox or even in 30 days like a beach body challenge. Positive body image is something you build brick by brick, changing habits one at a time, taking baby steps towards self-compassion, kindness, respect, joy, self-awareness and radical acceptance. It is the work of a lifetime, but the beauty of it is: you can feel love and belonging, happiness and freedom REGARDLESS OF YOUR SIZE, APPEARANCE OR HEALTH STATUS.
So, if you are currently doing this work of recovery and keep thinking ‘but i felt so much better at a lower weight’: know that this is only a thought and show yourself a lot of compassion. Thoughts don’t define who we are. They are mostly impermanent. They change as we grow, evolve, age. We can acknowledge them, and sit with them or we can simply notice them and then deciding to ignore them and move on.
You are not your thoughts.
The journey towards self-acceptance is about putting one foot in front of the other, working on creating new habits to nurture self-awareness, emotion regulation and self-care instead of self-hate, consistently rewiring the brain to generate different thoughts and get over old toxic beliefs. And that journey is just as powerful as the destination.