the HAES files: can i love my body and still want to lose weight?

by Health At Every Size® Blog

 by Deb Burgard, PhD

Many people who are intrigued with the Health at Every Size® approach find the notion of “weight neutrality” the hardest aspect to accept. “Loving your body” is not too controversial, unless your body is not a “correct” body.  If your body is a non-conforming body, then there is real debate about how much you should “love” it, especially if that means rejecting the assignment to try to lose weight. 

People who are trying to love their bodies need to be curious, not ashamed, about the desire to lose weight.  It is not a surprise to find ourselves fantasizing about weight loss.  All the triggers for wanting to lose weight that have always been there are still there polluting our environment.  We are told to lose weight to make sure no one will reject us.  To comply with our doctor’s orders.  To fit into plane seats.  To be able to get a sense of control.  To become a “whole new person!” To buy the social approval that we are at least “trying.”  To participate in the workplace dieting along with everybody else.  And as of this fall in some states, maybe even to be able to qualify for health insurance.

“Love Your Body Day” represents a movement to challenge all the messages that our bodies are not good enough.  But even organizations that support “self esteem” and “body acceptance” seem to get confused about the part about pursuing weight loss.  For example, the National Eating Disorders Organization (NEDA) has partnered with the “Stop Obesity Alliance” (an organization trying to frame fatness as a disease in order to create markets for “weight loss” drugs and surgery) to sponsor events to reframe the pursuit of weight loss as “not about appearance but rather about health.”   These actions have been the cause of confusion and concern among NEDA members, who are wondering how the very same practices that are diagnosed as eating disorder behavior at one weight are being prescribed to people at a higher weight.

So what does “loving your body” mean?  And is it ever compatible with pursuing weight loss?

Loving your body means you don’t blame it for the cruelty of other people.  Loving your body means you appreciate that wherever you were before you were born and wherever you go after you die, the chance to live your human life depends on this body.  Loving your body means you try to care for it as best you can.  Loving your body means you respond to its signals for sleep, water, food, stimulation, pain, movement, pleasure, as best you can.  Loving your body means you negotiate for what you need from people whose agendas may not be in your best interest – that you are willing to make some fuss to be sure you are safe, cared for, listened to, etc.

Loving your body does not mean you are always “confident,” whatever that is.  It does not mean you think every part of your body is pretty. 

Do all the actual people you love have to be pretty?  No. Do you even have to like all the aspects of the people you love?  No.  Loving is not shallow.  The people you love, and the body you love, are not perfect, and you can have mixed feelings about them and still love them.  It’s about the relationship, not the visuals.  It is about the effort, commitment, nurturing, appreciation you bring.

One way to answer the question of whether it could ever be loving to try to lose weight is to imagine someone who supposedly loves you telling you to lose weight.  Does it feel loving?  Could it?  Would you ever tell someone you love to pursue weight loss?

I actually would not tell anyone to pursue weight loss, whether I loved them or not.  We have plenty of evidence that the practices associated with pursuing weight loss make people sick.  For almost everyone, weight “loss” is really weight cycling.  For some of the “maintainers,” maintenance is really an eating disorder.  I know people who have ended up at a lower weight as a side effect of other changes that have been important to them, and they are doing just fine.  But I don’t know people who have lost weight by organizing their lives around it who are really at peace with food and their bodies.  They are not fine.

But that does not mean I would never encourage someone I loved – of any size – to feel entitled to treat herself well, to care about the practices that make her feel better in her body.  Those practices are worth doing regardless of weight outcomes, and I think they are more likely to become sustained efforts when people find intrinsic reasons for doing them, rather than associating them with the pursuit of weight loss. 

It also does not mean I would never speak up to someone I loved – of any size – about practices I might believe are harming her.  “Loving your body” does not mean ignoring disordered eating, addictive and compulsive acts, self-harm, or neglect.  But none of that is necessarily linked to a particular weight.  And the great news is that many many people recover from these kinds of struggles when they get enough support.

The Health At Every Size model criticizes promoting weight loss as an iatrogenic cause of ill health across the weight spectrum.  So it is clearly not consistent with the HAESSM model to link it to the promise of weight loss.  But weight stigma is quite real, and most people rightly want less weight stigma in their lives, which they expect to diminish with weight loss.  They are also being told by every conceivable source that they will be healthier if they weigh less, whether there is evidence for that promise or not.  So people wonder, “Am I practicing the HAES approach if I am trying to lose weight?”  Or maybe they even wonder, “Am I practicing the HAES approach if I am glad if I lose weight?” 

I would answer these two questions differently.  In the first situation, the overt goal of “trying to lose weight” conflicts with the focus on what you find sustainable on a day-to-day basis.  We help people look at what practices make sense in their individual lives with their individual preferences and limitations, and then ask them to trust their bodies to reveal the weight that their genetics dictate as the result of those practices.  This focus on the truth of what is possible for you to choose, on a long-term basis, is the exact opposite of organizing your life around the temporary attainment of a specific number on the scale, come hell or high water.  In this respect, the HAES model demands an ambitious degree of trust that your body really is in charge of regulating your weight, while you are in charge of regulating your acts of self-care, to whatever degree is possible and sustainable in your individual life. The HAES model is weight neutral: not for or against weight loss, but rather for a focus on the practices that support your well-being.

For the second question, the answer is more complicated.  It is hard to imagine someone who would not be relieved to face less weight stigma, less stereotyping, less medical profiling, or fewer experiences of not fitting, not belonging, not being considered in the design and size of the physical world.  It is hard to imagine someone who would not be relieved to have more social power.  All of these things are valuable changes that could make an individual’s life a little better even if the broad conditions of weight stigma did not change.

But it is also true that a part of us identifies with our fatness – regardless of how much that “fatness” exists in the real world.  Contrary to the diet industry rhetoric, that part never goes away – because it is connected to universal human feelings of vulnerability.  If you give yourself more value when you are thinner, it backfires, because that is exactly the same experience for your “fat self” as weight stigma was in the bigger world.  It’s like the internal version of being less valued in the world for being fat. So being glad about weight loss is tricky.  It is sometimes hard to be glad about an easier life without granting more value to your thinner body. 

Perhaps one reason it is hard to be glad about having an easier life without granting more value to your thinner body is that from the beginning, we are trained to see our bodies as the reason that we are treated well or poorly by other people, rather than holding the other people responsible for their actions.  It takes the awareness of weight stereotyping, stigma, discrimination, and of thin privilege, to begin challenging our body blame.  If we experience weight loss, it is seductive to give our bodies credit now for the friendlier reception we get; but it is really not about our bodies at all.  It is about stigma and privilege.  Stigma and privilege are not fair; they are not earned.  Moreover, we all have so much experience with weight cycling, we rightly feel wary about gaining thinness privilege when we could lose it so easily.  Better to solve the problem of weight stigma by fighting weight stigma than leaving the stigmatized group.

So it behooves us to be careful not to reproduce the external conditions of weight stigma in our internal life.  It also behooves us to remember that as long as we are trying to solve the problem of the way people treat each other by changing our bodies, we fail to address the actual problem of the way people treat each other.  This is another way that the HAES model is different from approaches that only focus on individual choices.  Individual choices are certainly part of it, but it is only the focus on changing weight stigma and all the environmental, economic, cultural, and social problems that affect our well-being that will make it possible for each person to achieve their potential and purpose.

So can you love your body and still want to lose weight?  You tell me.

This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day Blog Carnival

31 Comments to “the HAES files: can i love my body and still want to lose weight?”

  1. Would I want to lose weight? Yes. I don’t necesseraly want to be slim/skinny/thin, etc., but I do want to be at a weight that allows me to comfortably enjoy my body in a physical way – a weight at which I could pick up jogging again and not worry about my joints or a weight at which my stomach wouldn’t get in a way of some of the yoga poses I’d like to do.

    Do I love my body? I think so, althout it is a work in progress, I’m quite new to HAES and there’s a lot of room for improvement. But I’ve started to treat it well and eat healthy and exercise and try to follow the principles of HAES as best as I can. I have lost some weight already just by doing that. So perhaps loving my body also means allowing it to be the weight it wants to be when I treat it well? I don’t think that losing weight is a betrayal to HAES, maybe for some it is its natural outcome. I’ll never be slim, but if by following HAES I will lose some weight, I won’t miss it.

    • I think HAES can help our bodies find their own equilibrium, which could mean more or less pounds. My understanding of HAES is that it is not ‘fat pride’ per se, but rather a way of living a health-supporting life without worrying about what the scale says.

  2. exactly what i needed today. i am a lifelong fattie, a recovering bulimic, around 330lbs, and am now dropping weight due to a side effect of some new meds. its so triggering! for so long my head was obsessed with the number on a scale and i have just in the past few years learned to let go of that. but now, with the keppera im simply never hungry and am losing and its triggering the hell out of me. FA has been my new paradigm and my healing and i felt like i was betraying it somehow by losing weight and feeling a bit relieved by it.

  3. Thank you for this affirmation. I appreciate this message on my 8th day of a crash diet which reminds me of how crazy dieting behavior is, and how it creates unnatural cravings for food, as well as feeding some illusion that keeping this up will bring me to the perfect weight forever. Yes…alas…magical thinking. I’ve been here before.

    I am doing this Herculean dieting because I am in a state where individual buyers of health insurance can (and are) denied coverage automatically on the basis of BMI alone. I am 10 lbs. out of their ‘acceptable range’ and so I must hustle to get those pounds off, yet again. The consequence of NOT doing it means going into the high risk pool where premiums are exorbitantly high, or going without insurance. I am doing this under duress, but it’s amazing how all the ‘makeover magic dust’ clouds my vision.

    Thank you for reminding me why this is crazy.

    • Achh, I hate it when my dark imaginings are actually true! I have been there – Kaiser once told me to “just take some diuretics” to get my weight within range for the individual plan. Great “health” advice, huh?

      • Yes. You know….I’m even contemplating taking a couple of my mother’s lasix pills to play this numbers game. This necessary evil is truly messing with my mind. Amazing that Kaiser would actually encourage you to take diuretics. That echoes back to when I was in my teens in the ’70’s before eating disorders were in the public consciousness. My MD’s office nurse–a nice, super slim woman–whispered her ‘secret’ to me: daily laxatives, diuretics and vomiting. Glad I didn’t listen to her.

  4. Best HAES(sm) clarification EVER!! And bonus points for using the word behooves! 😉
    Seriously, this is such an important message. How do we get the post to migrate to sites like W.W. and J.C.? Warmly, Dr. Deah,

  5. I needed to hear this message today! I’m dealing with some misunderstandings over weight and health with my family and it’s very emotionally difficult.

    I want to add one more non-weight-related thing and that is – kudos on the proper use of “less” and “fewer!” They are so rarely used well these days, so it’s music to my ears to hear it done right!

  6. Hm. A lot jumped out for me here. Still, I sit here puzzled by your question of whether it’s actually possibly (and healthy) to practice self-love and self-care and still want to lose weight.

    For me — it’s not possible right now. God, I wish it were. After living with an eating disorder for many years I finally turned a corner within the past few months and decided (with my therapist and nutritionist) that I could start to focus on weight loss. And it seems most of what you’ve written here is true. Everything I’ve been doing to lose weight was not really in the interest of caring for my body. Still. After years of therapy — I only wanted to lose weight.

    Eating right, exercising, giving up alcohol, forcing vegetables at practically every meal, making non-negotiable ultimatums so that I would eat breakfast and lunch — all to lose weight (and not be disordered) but really just to lose weight.

    It didn’t yield the kind of results I anticipated. It backfired. I binged. I purged. After MONTHS — more months than I’d ever gone before and so it made it easier to stop after that one slip up but I knew I couldn’t go back to dieting anymore. Not when my heart is still so invested in the belief that there’s something wrong with my body and I need to fix it because it’s my fault.

    But maybe one day, I could love my body and still want to lose weight the way someone loves their curly hair and still wants to straighten it. Or, maybe a better example would be the way a woman loves her body and still gets her upper lip waxed once a month. It’s hard to find a parallel.

    (Maybe that means I should stop looking).

    • Erin, your post moves me because – and tell me if I am understanding correctly – you are thinking there is something wrong with you because you can’t want to be thinner without messing up your recovery. You are wishing you could comply with the demand (from yourself and others) to lose weight while still loving your body?

      I think your experience is exactly what I am trying to write about, which is that it’s really tough – perhaps impossible – to participate in the “eating right” and “agenda to lose weight” process without crossing over to the dark side, as far as your “fat self” is concerned.

      Others have commented above that even just random weight loss can be very triggering (thank you folks for your wonderful comments!). I hope your therapist and nutritionist are watching what is happening and helping you to understand that this is not you, it’s the process of pursuing weight loss. You are not a failure. You have beat back bulimia, which is an incredible achievement.

      I hope it is clear from the post that I am not imagining that people should be able to love their body and pursue weight loss if they just do it right. I really am hoping that people can just prioritize a way of living that works for them, just like you are saying works when you are not trying to pursue weight loss, and let their bodies be in charge of choosing the number on the scale. I realize that puts most people well above where they think is “acceptable,” or above where others think is “acceptable.” And because of those wishes and pressures and outright discrimination, it is not unthinkable that people would still fantasize about an easier life at a lower weight – and this is not something to feel guilty about – but something to understand in the context of the world we live in. I am saying, we need to be able to talk about the wanting and deconstruct it, rather than letting it trigger us to pursue weight loss when those practices harm us.

  7. I think it’s possible to believe in HAES and still want to lose weight. The reality for me is I’m just too physically uncomfortable at this size despite being physically active and in good health, and there are some things about being bigger that are annoying, like when my thighs rub together. This has nothing to do with thinness and weight stigma, this has to do with thighs rubbing together and friction being really painful and annoying.

  8. I love your analysis of the (apparent) conflict between HAES and wanting to weigh less. I don’t see anything odd about being of two minds about a topic. For example, when I weigh more, I am actually more comfortable about my personal body image. When I weigh less, I can walk a little faster and tire less quickly. Either is a good state to be in, and my weight cycles of its own accord, so I maintain three different pants sizes. I think I am healthy at each of my sizes (HAES) but when thinner I miss being fatter, and when fatter, I miss being thinner. Such is life.

    If someone tells me they advocate for HAES, but would prefer to weigh less, it doesn’t make me respect them less. Only if you walk in someone’s moccasins can you really know what they have to face in their lives.

  9. You know obviously that many people who claim to be advocates of Size Acceptance (but only in sizes staying fat and gaining) are using the HAES movement to shame anyone who expresses a desire to lose weight for any reason. It makes it really hard for me to look at HAES as anything more than another tool to BS people into the false belief that serious obesity isn’t threatening their health. I say that not as someone who will ever be (or want to be) anywhere near fashionably thin, but as someone who has been soundly berated on numerous occasions for choosing a healthier way of eating (heaven forbid anyone be allowed to use the word ‘diet’ in the way it was originally intended, merely as a catch all word for what a person actually eats rather than a weight loss regimen) to control serious health issues with less medication and to alleviate joint stress. Even as you try to spread the word that that is NOT what HAES is about, there are literally hundreds of people out there insisting that HAES proves that losing weight is both unnecessary and solid proof of self hatred.

    • I think there are so many ways that people misread each other on this issue. I guess that is why I am trying to make a plea for slowing down the conversation and really trying to understand what we are feeling, yearning for, trying to achieve.

      To me there is a difference between weight loss and pursuing weight loss.

      I know this may seem like a trivial or semantic difference, but it is not at all. Weight neutrality is the idea that the practices you do are the focus, and finding practices that work for the long term is the only viable way to live. Then your body is in charge of determining your weight when you are living that way. And there will people of all sizes when we are doing that. And there will be people with lots of health, and lots of illnesses, and everything in between – because we come in all sizes and all degrees of health, and we are still all worthy.

      So I am guessing that some of the pushback you are encountering, Chubbahona, is against the idea of pursuing weight loss, because those practices are generally not sustainable for people, and people are protesting being “assigned” those practices just because they are at a certain weight. They are protesting being assigned practices that actually in real life in real research make people sicker, not healthier, in the long run.

      But I think you are also right to object to people criticizing weight loss occurring for any reason, if that is what they are doing, or criticizing your good faith effort to figure out what kind of food is the best fuel for your individual body and is pleasurable enough to be a way you can continue to eat for the long run.

      Our bodies are really unhappy with extremes. They don’t like to be uncomfortable. They don’t like going hungry for too long or getting too full. Our bodies are the great moderating force here, and what we are told is that they are out of control and dangerous and in need of policing by our “rational” minds. But our minds are actually the source of the extremes.

      So my advice is to love your body and its modest demands, and let it be your partner, and try to sift out the contributions of your mind and deal with them the best way you can, preferably without making your body the middleman or the boogeyman.

  10. I actually agree with Chubbahona’s first sentence. That being said, I do not think HAES is BS or teaches BS but I do think that there are multiple ways to shame. I have often felt that individuals who talk of wanting to lose weight for medical reasons, etc in the FA community are shamed and spoken to in a negative fashion. If I say that my weight makes me knees hurt, and that the only way that they will get better is for my weight to go down (which is the case, I was not born with faulty knees, they were fine before I gained a lot of weight) then I should not be told that this is horrible. You can not on one hand say that individuals have the right to live in their bodies unshamed and then say but people who ever try to change their bodies should. That is just counterproductive to me.. I teach HAES and I believe in it but I also believe that people’s bodies do indeed tell them what they need.

    • Jeanntta, thank you for your thoughts.

      The whole shaming process is horrible, we can all agree. We are trying to eliminate shaming people who do not take on the assignment to solve every problem by pursuing weight loss, and we of course need to keep from shaming people who are wanting to solve their problems through weight loss. But we have to be able to have the discussion about the pitfalls of the practice of pursuing weight loss for most people, not to shame anyone, but to be honest about the usual course of events that are not anyone’s fault.

      As you know from teaching HAES, if you are working on the question of knee pain from a HAES perspective, the question is, is there a practice that you are able and willing to do, indefinitely, that would help with the knee pain?

      You are arguing that pursuing weight loss is “the only way [my knees] will get better” but even if being at a higher weight is the cause, weighing less may not be the only solution. Which is good because if there is not a set of practices you are willing or able to do for the rest of your life that your body translates into a lower weight, you might still be willing or able to do something else to help with the pain. If someone who is already thin starts experiencing knee pain, and they would be compromising their health to weigh less, they would probably do resistance exercise and balance exercises to strengthen and stabilize their knee joints, avoid certain movements or try to be aware of their knees getting fatigued, etc.

      There are lots more practices people are willing and able to do that support their health than the specific practices organized around temporarily losing weight that have the ultimate consequence of leaving them in worse health. We have evidence that if we can widen the discussion to include all those practices, we support people in making lasting improvements to their health.

  11. And let me just be clear, no, no one is saying “so and so SHOULD be shamed” but that it is allowable to shame someone in the name of body acceptance..

  12. Wonderfully written post, thanks so much Deb.

  13. Thanks for this post – I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this question for a while now and it’s great to have a bit of help. *Very* much appreciated!

    And I apologize for being a bit off-topic, but I also wanted to mention something in regard to Trenia’s comment about chafing (which made summers miserable for me until very recently): I can also recommend Bodyglide (a sports product not to be confused with the lube of the same name), Monistat Anti-Chafing Powder Gel, and Band-Aid Friction Block (an anti-blister product).

  14. Jeanntta, when I encounter thin people who have knee pain that they can’t get rid of, I hear them blaming their knees or the aging process or an injury. I have neighbors who loved to waterski when they were young. They blame their bad knees and shoulders on that repeated stress. (They have really bad knees and shoulders.) I sympathize with the desire to reduce pain and increase mobility. I want those things for myself and others! At the same time, I disagree with blaming health problems on weight and with looking to weight loss as the only option for improving a situation. It’s part of how I try to love my body that I prefer not to get involved in a lot of blaming about how something that I think of as a problem came to happen. I prefer instead to focus on best practices.

  15. What a beautifully well articulated analysis of those complicated factors that exist like variables in economics: so many it’s hard to sort it all out in a way that makes sense. You get at a reasoning that backs up my (ahem) gut on ambivalence and shame and, as I now see it a little better than I did before reading, stigma and privilege. And you express it so well! Thanks much.

  16. Thanks for this great post – – – I will definitely want to share it on my show. These kinds of tricky conversations are so important for us to have, especially as so many feel alienated or pushed out of FA/fat liberation because of issues of weight loss and WLS. I tried to work through this on my blog a few months ago:
    Cat Pause
    Friend of Marilyn

  17. Ms Wann is actually a prime example of those who try to discourage anyone from losing weight for any reason (even if she does it without overt shaming). ‘Surely it can’t be carrying 300+ pounds on my small 5’4″ frame that makes my knees hurt, it has to be an old sports injury. Yeah, that’s the ticket! Skinny people get diabetes too, so therefore, it couldn’t be obesity contributing to the problem so I needn’t worry about how my weight is affecting my diabetes.’. This is exactly the mindset that makes me roll my eyes in disgust. Some problems CAN only be addressed by weight loss but people like Marilyn will deny it until Hell freezes over. I see little difference between the ‘weight loss solves nothing’ and the ‘weight loss solves everything’ crowds. They are just flip sides of the same coin.

    • Chubbahona, we still come back to the vexing issue of the practices that any given person is willing and able to do in order to address a particular problem. Our bodies regulate our weight based on all sorts of parameters, some of which we understand and some we don’t; but it is very clear that the majority of people who try to change their weight through the practices associated with trying to lose weight find themselves frustrated and in worse health in the long run. This is why we talk about trying to settle on the practices that work for you personally in supporting your health, and then understanding that your body regulates your weight in response to that. What if, given the practices that work for you, your body weight is still higher than your knees would prefer? Well, that’s a good question, and one that you yourself might be feeling frustrated about.

      I find Marilyn’s work incredibly helpful in widening the sense of what is possible. If the practices you are willing and able to do do not result in a body that is free from knee pain or diabetes, then what should a person do? The discussion of how to strengthen your knees or how to avoid shaming yourself is then very important for making the situation as good as it can be.

      There may be people who are in a defensive stance on the assignment to lose weight who are also kind of paralyzed about doing anything if it isn’t pursuing weight loss. I would argue that this defensive stance would not be necessary if not for the tremendous pressure to diet (and the tremendous stigma and moralizing about health), and I agree that need to defend is not good for anyone’s health. But I don’t think that the absence of the “pursue weight loss” advice is equivalent to “do nothing for your health.” For people who are trying to address health issues, we are trying to find a way out of the “either/or” obey/rebel dynamic, so that instead of reacting to “the authorities,” we are able to act in partnership with our own bodies, without interference.

  18. How do I have a HAES approach when I have diabetes and am told left, right and centre to lose weight? I have lost 30lb in the last 6 months and am trying to be kind to my body and not obsess with the scale but counting calories and exercise makes it rather the focus. I would rather go for a HAES approach but I don’t want to die any younger than necessary. I feel caught in a bind between (a) weight loss is impossible and (b) if I don’t do the impossible I will die and will be roundly blamed for it.

    • Jackie…It is a great question and I hope you are following our blog to have seen our most recent post on diabetes. It includes our HAES How To…. on living with diabetes and I hope it is helpful to you.

      Deb Lemire, President

  19. You could definitely see your enthusiasm in the paintings you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to say how they believe. All the time follow your heart.

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