One of these ideas is to define "healthy
weight" not from a generic height/weight chart or even arbitrary Body Mass Index
cut-offs, but rather as the weight your body is when you are living a reasonable
life. It is the weight at which your unique body seems to "settle"
when you are not obsessing about food and exercise. It is the weight your body may
try to "defend" if you diet, or (conversely) if you eat more than your body is
hungry for. For most women, this weight is higher than they want it to be, since our
culture deems the leanest bodies as the most desirable. It seems probable that
people come in a range of fatness, just like they come in a range of heights. We
don't think it's bad for someone to be tall or short, but lots of people feel bad to be
heavier than average (or even average!) these days.
In practice, the focus of Body Positive is not on
weight at all, but rather the decisions you make day-to-day about how
to parent yourself and meet your needs.
This viewpoint is the outcome of my experience as
both a fitness instructor and a psychologist. For many years, I taught a class
called "We Dance - Exclusively for Women over 200 Pounds," which was then
featured in the book, Great Shape, co-written with Pat Lyons. At the same
time, I ran an inpatient program for women with eating disorders. I was working with
the healthiest fat women in my dance classes and the sickest thin women
in the hospital! It became very clear to me that health was not automatically linked
to thinness, that I couldn't really tell by looking at someone's body what they were doing
with food (or whether they were healthy), and that I couldn't ask a fat woman to embrace a
diet mentality if that's what I thought was partly responsible for ruining the lives of my
eating disordered patients.
Moreover, the evidence that dieting didn't work
was mounting, decade after decade. We were not able to show that dieters could
maintain weight loss more than a couple years. We were not able to show that fat
people and thin people ate differently. Instead, we began to see studies showing
that different bodies use fuel differently, and that genes play a substantial role in that
I became interested in the dilemma faced by large
women about whether to even try to lose weight, when their own experience and much of the
research was showing that weight loss didn't last. I wanted to know how the
experience of "failing" repeatedly was affecting their self-esteem and sense of
control, and I also wanted to know how the large women who maintained their self-esteem
did it, despite the cultural hostility toward fatness. It seems like pretty valuable
information, both for members of stigmatized groups in general, as well as for women
across the weight spectrum who live in fear of their weight ruining their lives. My
research study shed light on some of these issues.
After working for years with people at every
point on the weight spectrum, it became obvious to me that we can't choose some arbitrary
number on the scale and turn our lives upside down to achieve it. This is what we
call an eating disorder in a thin or average-weight person. We can't then turn around and prescribe
it to a fat person.
There is probably some range that is your genetic
heritage, a range where your body "settles." You could be
"underweight" on the height and weight charts and be above that range for
you. You could be "overweight" on charts but below that range for
you. How do you find it if you can't trust the charts? It is the weight
your body settles and defends when you are not compulsive about dieting, exercising, and
eating. You can't get away from the truth about how you are living your day-to-day
life. You can't live in an unhealthy way and achieve a "healthy" weight.
Whether you are a thin, average-weight, or fat
person, if you are struggling with food and weight, the recovery process looks much the
same. You have to learn to let the focus on weight recede, and instead cultivate weight neutrality. You have to work with your body,
make it a partner - and there is joy in this. You have to learn to be a good parent
to youself, to care about what you need and desire - and there is joy in this. You
have to strengthen your "emotional immune system" to
withstand the culture's nasty messages about femaleness and fatness and failure - and work
to change the culture - and there is joy even in this.
May you find joy,
Debby Burgard, Ph.D.