Just prior to the holidays, I received an unusually straightforward question via email. So straightforward, in fact, that I kind of debated whether I could even answer it. The query was:
How can I stop believing my life will be better if I lose weight?
Obviously, my response here will not be much applicable to those who are perfectly happy to carry on thinking that weight loss is the missing key to their happiness. I am not trying to change your minds -- keep on with your weight-losin’ ways and I hope you find whatever satisfaction you’re looking for.
But if you find yourself saddened and frustrated by the thinner = happier equation, I will offer you the following feeble effort at answering a question that is pretty much impossible to answer.
When I had a big national-chain gym membership, I dreaded the first of the year with an apprehension most people reserve for trips to the dentist, or an IRS audit. I hated it because as soon as January 1 rolled around, my gym would shift from chill workout venue, where the most competitive shit you saw was the elderly ladies comparing swimsuits in water aerobics, to a shoulder-jostling waiting-for-a-treadmill meat market of grunting weight-flinging dudes and Spandex-clad women who are always trying to see what setting I’ve got the elliptical on.
I guess to make sure they can out-fwoosh the fat girl? I don’t know.
It was a super bummer is my point, and it was all tied into the resolution model of fitness and/or weight loss, in which people land on January 1 as some arbitrary moment when they are going to Do Something About the problems with their bodies, whatever the perceived issues might be.
It makes sense. Resolutions are usually about improving our lives -- promises we make to ourselves to do things better in the coming year, and weight loss seems to fit that category for many people.
I’m not against self-improvement, but it sure seems like much of the time when people make specifically weight and fitness related resolutions, they’re less focused on improving the self than they are on improving their appearance. They’re not just looking for stress reduction or to feel more fit when climbing the stairs. They’re looking to achieve a certain look, which they believe will bring them greater happiness in life.
And this is not surprising in the least, given that we are uniformly surrounded by a culture that insists that happiness -- for women in particular -- is often a matter of how you look, not how you feel. Or, at least, a matter of how you look being able to make you feel more awesome.
So shaking off the expectation that weight loss will always make you happier is a difficult task.
Can weight loss solve some problems? Sure, some very specific problems, in particular cases. But being thinner won't necessarily make you smarter, prettier, more self-assured or a more charming conversationalist. It won’t necessarily make you more appreciated for all your many strengths at work, or more attractive to people of the sex/gender you prefer. Depending on how you go about it, weight loss alone may not even make you feel healthier or more fit.
When we all collaborate together to demonize fatness as a moral failing, we scapegoat a bodily tissue for all our perceived inadequacies. Shed the fat, and shed the things that make us unhappy with ourselves and our lives.
If we don’t have a loving partner, it’s the fat’s fault. If we feel insecure and uncomfortable in social situations, it’s the fat’s fault. If we’re not moving up the ranks at work as much as we’d like, it’s the fat’s fault. If we’re depressed or anxious, it’s the fat’s fault. If we’re uncertain of our ability to do awesome life stuff, like changing careers or taking a trip to some distant country, it’s because we’re fat, and if we weren’t fat, then none of these things would be a problem anymore.
Cultural fat stigma is a complex and ubiquitous effect, and it has impacts on the lives of fat people both internally and externally. Maybe you did not get the promotion you wanted because you think your fat made you feel less confident; or maybe the boss making the decision chose not to promote you because you are fat and she herself has internalized a lot of negative ideas about what fat people are.
Either way, the fat takes the blame, and not a culture that unfairly punishes women for not meeting certain physical standards -- by telling them they have no right to self-esteem, and by telling everyone else that those same women are lazy and dull-witted and undisciplined and just plain worse people than their thinner counterparts.
This is what we need to unpack if we’re going to address this idea that maybe being thin is not the key to happiness, this idea that fatness is always either a symptom and a cause of unhappiness, and that where fat exists, a successful life cannot happen.
But fatness alone ought never to be an excuse for not going after the excellent and fulfilling life you deserve.
The obvious fact is that when you lose weight, the person you are does not change. If you were comfortable and confident with yourself, irrespective of your body size, in the before, you will probably continue to feel that in the after.
But if you are unhappy and unconfident with the person you are when you begin your weight loss, that weight loss will not fix these things. It won’t renovate your whole life. You will probably continue to feel that way no matter what size you’re wearing. You may have absorbed the idea that a slender figure will solve all your problems, but the stark reality is that for a surprising number of people, it’s just not true. The parts of yourself that you dislike, the things about which you are insecure, all the stuff that is holding you back will continue to be present either way -- you just might be dealing with these issues in a slightly smaller body.
So the question you must ask yourself is: what do you expect will change as a result of weight loss? And is weight loss really the only way to change these things?
One of the troubles with the thinner = happier ideology is that by tying your confidence to something changeable, like body size, you make that confidence wholly dependent on certain parameters -- in this case, on your appearance, something that will inevitably alter over the course of your life, and which is therefore unsteady ground on which to build a strong sense of self.
Isn't it better to cultivate confidence regardless of what you weigh or how you look? Isn’t it better to be assured and positive because you believe in yourself, and value yourself, and because you are proud of the person you are?
The short answer to the question that opened this post is, simply: You have to fight. You have to fight all the social pressures that tell you fat people cannot be happy. You have to fight the cacophony of voices from friends, family, strangers and even inside your own head that promise you a thinner body will end all your problems. You have to fight to see yourself as a holistic being, whose value is not determined by how she looks, and that the culture that tells you otherwise is wrong, no matter how loudly it may be shouting at you.
You have to design and build your own better life, one that makes you feel good and strong and positive regardless of what size you happen to be, one that doesn’t require you to live with your happiness and self worth inextricably tied to the label on your dress.
Sound easy? It’s not. But it’s possible, with a change in thinking and a willingness to explore what it is, exactly, that we want out of our lives, and to decide to go after it, no matter what.