Editor’s Note: this column contains descriptions of thoughts and behaviors associated with eating disorders.
When I speak about the potential dangers of a weight-centric mindset to people with no history of eating disorders, they’re typically quick to respond that their desire to lose weight is healthy.
That response doesn’t surprise me. For some, weight management is a legitimate health concern. Roughly 42% of the US population is obese—and obesity can lead to significant health risks, including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Obesity does pose many health risks. But if we viewed it as only a health issue—or rather, a public health issue, heavily tied to race and socioeconomic status—it wouldn’t be accompanied with so much shame. People suffering from health issues we consider legitimate, like arthritis, cancer or osteoporosis, would never be bullied for their condition. Bullying someone for being obese, on the other hand, is commonplace.
Being underweight has risks of its own, including anemia, decreased immune function, and fertility and developmental issues. And we don’t shame people for being thin. In fact, we typically praise them.
Weight loss is a widely accepted cultural phenomenon—in a study conducted from 2013 to 2016, 49.1% of American adults reported trying to lose weight in the previous year. We’ve been bombarded with social and commercial messaging throughout our lives that has made us terrified of weight gain and fixated on weight loss, all under the guise of health. But if health is our only priority, why are so many people at a healthy weight-obsessed with weight loss?
Because it’s not really about health.
The adoration of slim bodies and phobia of weight gain, also known as fat-phobia, is essential to diet culture. According to Christy Harrison, MPH, diet culture “worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue.” And whether we like it or not, it has become a central tenet of the American value system.
More than anything, diet culture is a psychological phenomenon. How many times have you stepped on a scale and felt a sense of dread to see the number had increased, or a sense of accomplishment when the number had dropped? Those feelings of accomplishment versus failure reveal the biggest danger of a weight-focused culture: we believe, at least subconsciously, that our weight denotes our value.
Simply put—lose ten pounds and you’re an inspiration. Gain ten pounds and you’re a failure.
Unsurprisingly, these beliefs can be incredibly damaging to our self-image, as well as our relationships with food. Had it not been for my own eating disorder and subsequent recovery, I may never have questioned the superficial ideals that have been jammed down my throat my entire life. But diet culture isn’t just dangerous to people with eating disorders. Mental health is never black and white—it’s a spectrum. You don’t have to suffer an eating disorder to have a complicated relationship with your body. Yet because mental disorders are often framed in terms of this binary, we tend to believe that these problematic thoughts and behaviors are only truly concerning if accompanied by a diagnosis.
Let me be clear: It’s totally fine to want a healthier lifestyle. However, if that is what you want, it’s important to define what you mean by “health.”
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The changes you make to your eating habits or workout regimen are usually less important than why you’re making them. There’s nothing wrong with adopting a more nutrient-dense diet for its benefits to your energy levels and mood, or setting an exercise goal to feel strong and accomplished. As long as those reasons are, at the end of the day, what motivates you.
Disentangling these healthy intentions from our fat-phobic values can be challenging at best. Living in an image-driven society has taught us to prioritize our appearance above all else, including our physical and mental health. But that focus is often counterproductive, leading you to fixate on unhelpful numbers like caloric intake or BMI rather than what a healthy body—and a healthy life—looks like for you.
As I mentioned in my previous article, I struggled with an eating disorder through my freshman and sophomore years at Duke. What I didn’t tell you is that during that time, I gained about thirty pounds.
Admittedly, that degree of weight gain wasn’t healthy for me. But neither was the weight loss I’d experienced during high school. I lost weight unintentionally through my participation in high school sports, but after high school ended, I wanted to keep it off—because the feeling of being “tiny” was more important to me than my day-to-day wellbeing. The summer before coming to Duke, I was constantly hungry, tired, moody, and freezing cold.
That thinness wasn’t sustainable. I developed binge eating disorder in the coming months, desperate to exert control over my body—despite the fact that my body knew what I needed more than I did. In my recovery, I finally released control, and that’s when I began to gain weight.
And I gained a lot of weight. But at my heaviest, I felt more beautiful and confident than ever before.
As I consciously chose to disregard the unhealthy messaging of diet culture and make mental health my number one priority, over time, I saw results that no diet, skinny tea, waist trainer, or weight-loss workout plan could ever deliver: I was happy. Truly, tremendously happy with my body, exactly as it was.
I never thought it was possible to actually be free from those insecurities. And not only is it possible, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. Don’t get me wrong, recovery isn’t finite—I still occasionally struggle with intrusive thoughts about the shape of my body and my diet, because I live in a society that continues to reward those behaviors. But my own priorities haven’t changed. Focusing on my happiness has allowed me to listen to my body, eat and exercise to make myself feel good, and settle at a healthy weight for me.
I couldn’t tell you exactly what that weight is. Frankly, I couldn’t care less. It’s been almost two years since I last weighed myself, and I’ve never regretted my decision to step away from the scale.
If I, a person with a history of anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, can make these radical changes to my perspective on my body, surely you can too. And so, whether or not you’re convinced of the potential risks of diet culture, all I ask is that you consider this one simple question: what if your weight didn’t matter?
Rebecca Torrence is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.