Weight Loss and Strange Emotional Stuff: The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Part 2

(This is Part 2 of a three-part series. You don’t have to read Part 1 to get this, but it helps.)

When I first announced that I was losing weight, I got a series of comments and private emails from people in the fat positive movement, either chiding me for betraying the fat positive vision, or concern trolling about how weight loss was going to ruin my physical and psychological health. Somehow, these people believed that incidental weight loss from a “healthy at every size” eating and exercise program would be acceptable, but that a deliberate weight loss program would be physically and mentally toxic… even if my eating and exercise in these two programs were identical in every way. (I know. It doesn’t make sense to me, either — and the research doesn’t back it up. For the record, I do think the fat positive movement has some good and important ideas; I just think they’ve run off the rails with them.) And somehow, they believed that the emotional damage I would incur from conscious weight loss would be so staggering that it would completely outweigh any other considerations… including the emotional damage I’d incur from my bad knee crippling my mobility and cutting off major areas of pleasure, from dancing to fucking to just walking around in the city that I love.

Which I found not only baffling, but offensive.

Broken plate
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve got no neuroses and weird psychological shit associated with weight loss. I’ve become a mild control freak about food, and situations where I can’t control what food is available are somewhat distressing. Ingrid and I spend more time talking about this — venting, strategizing, planning meals, managing emotions — than I’d like anyone to know. Compliments on how good I look now are a seriously mixed blessing: there’s a big part of me that enjoys it, and that can accept praise for the accomplishment as well as for my fit body… but when the compliments are particularly effusive, a part of me angrily thinks, “So what did you think I was before — chopped liver?” Plus I hate how gender-normative losing weight makes me feel: I loved being a fat woman saying “fuck you” to body fascism and rigidly sexist standards of female beauty, and I really don’t love being just another of the hordes of dieting American women. (I avoid the “d” word like the plague, for that exact reason.) And while I feel more connected and present in my body now than I can ever remember feeling in my life, I feel weirdly disconnected with my body of the past… like I was an entirely different person. (Weight loss has also had some interesting effects on my sexuality; overall good, some not so much. But that’s a whole other piece, to come soon.)

But you know what? I had neuroses and weird psychological shit about food and my body before I started losing weight. Some of it’s the same shit; some of it’s different. I fixated on food in a different way back then: using it for comfort, to relieve boredom, to distract myself from feelings I didn’t want to have. Yes, I’m hyper- conscious about my food choices now; when I was fat, I was whatever the opposite of hyper-conscious is, eating reflexively and mechanically and without thinking. (The way Ingrid puts it is, “I never eat mindlessly or joylessly any more” — and that’s true for me as well. I have some weird food neuroses now… but I always eat with consciousness and pleasure. And that was emphatically not true when I was fat.) When I was fat, I was just as fucked up about food at parties as I am now, if not more so: the difference between obsessively deciding which three hors d’oeuvres I’m going to eat, and obsessively making sure I got a taste of every single one, is less great than you might imagine. Social eating is complicated now… but it was complicated then, too, what with feeling self-conscious about what other people thought about how much I was eating, and then piling more onto my plate than I really wanted or needed, out of stupid, self-defeating, “Who cares what they think” defiance.

Cognitive dissonance
And I was in serious denial/ cognitive dissonance about how unhappy I was with my body, and how out of touch with it I felt. I’d tell myself that I was fine with how I looked; but I hated, hated, hated seeing pictures of myself. I couldn’t look at party or family photos without cringing… because looking at photos fucked with my cognitive dissonance about how big I really was, and how unhappy I really was about it. And getting dressed to go out was a minefield: I could never predict which evenings I was going to feel okay about how I looked, and which evenings I’d spend ripping through my closet for half an hour, near tears, because nothing I owned was going to make me feel beautiful, or even presentable.

So do I have some neuroses about food and my body now? Yes. Did I have neuroses about food and my body when I was fat? You betcha. And the overall effect of weight loss on my mental health has been enormously positive. I feel more present in my body; just walking around the city makes me feel exuberant and joyful and like I’m bursting out of my skin. I like looking at myself in mirrors. My energy and stamina are high. My libido is making me feel like I’ve been shot out of a cannon.

And very surprisingly, I find that I enjoy food more now. I pay more attention to it; I savor it; I take great relish in the occasional donuts and potato chips; I’m finding new pleasures in roasted vegetables and poached fish and Greek yogurt with warm fruit… and yes, even tofu. (The fact that Ingrid has always been a good cook and is becoming a spectacular one doesn’t hurt.) As Ingrid put it: It’s easier to enjoy your food when you’re not in a state of cognitive dissonance about it. Not to mention the overall effect on my physical health… which has been, as I described above, spectacular. And which can’t be divorced from my mental health.

Now, I can hear the fat-positive advocates already, saying that they don’t support neurotic, unconscious, joyless eating. They advocate being healthy at every size, which includes mental health and a sane relationship with food. Yeah. That’s a beautiful dream. I tried “healthy at every size.” It wasn’t healthy. There is no math in the world that makes a bad knee just as healthy at 200 pounds as it is at 150. And while some people might be capable of maintaining a healthy relationship with food without keeping track of what they eat, I am not one of them. Besides, this idea that eating “naturally” is all we need to do to eat healthy? Total bullshit. Our appetites evolved on the African savannah 100,000 years ago, in an environment of scarcity, and our bodies evolved to eat as much food as is available, whenever it’s available. A strategy that obviously doesn’t work so well in 21st century America. If counting calories and keeping a food diary is what I need to do to keep my diet healthy and stay conscious and sane about how I eat, I fail to see how that’s a bad thing.

There’s an old saying that courage doesn’t mean not having fear — it means not letting fear get in the way. I’m come to feel that way about sanity. Sanity doesn’t mean not having neuroses. It means not letting neuroses get in the way.

And that’s just as true for being sane about food and my body. Food and bodies are fraught, emotional, heavily loaded issues, with feelings that are deeply ingrained by evolution, and feelings that are profoundly twisted by modern Western society. It’s hard for me to imagine ever being completely nonchalant about them. My emotional rollercoaster about food and my body is smoothing out a lot, as time goes on and I get accustomed to my new habits… but I’m always going to have some degree of neuroses about this stuff. And me being me, I’m always going to overthink it. So since I’m going to be neurotic and overthinking about food and my body anyway, I may as well be neurotic and overthinking… and in good health, and basically happy with how I look and feel, and not in a state of denial and cognitive dissonance about it.

I’m not going to be an evangelist about weight loss. I still believe — passionately — that the cost-benefit analysis of weight loss is different for different people, and that while it’s right for me, it isn’t necessarily right for everyone.

Scale 2
What’s more, I know that weight loss is hard, and that for reasons we don’t even come close to understanding, it’s harder for some people than others. Different people have different hunger triggers, different metabolisms, different rates of becoming satiated, etc. And I know that many of the things that are making weight loss easier for me are privileges not everyone has: things like being able to afford a gym membership, and living in a city where fresh, healthy food is widely available, and having a supportive partner who’s going through this process with me. Which, again, makes the cost-benefit analysis different for everybody. The cost is worth it to me… but the cost isn’t the same for me as it is for everyone else.

So I’m not going to evangelize about weight loss. What I am going to evangelize for is:

(a) Doing an honest, non-denialist, reality-based assessment of the costs and benefits of weight loss (including, and especially, the health costs and benefits);

and (b) Pursuing weight loss in a reality-based way if you think it would be right for you.

So to that end, for anyone who’s interested, I want to talk about what exactly I’ve been doing to lose weight — what techniques have been successful, what techniques haven’t been so much, what practical strategies and psychological tricks have made this go smoother.

And if anyone else is dealing with this, I want to hear from you. I know that this process isn’t over: I still have another ten or fifteen pounds to go. And I know that the hardest part is yet to come. Everything I’ve read says that maintaining weight loss is tougher than losing the weight in the first place, and as good as I feel about all this, I’m not willing to call it a success until I’ve not only lost all the weight I want to, but have kept it off for at least a year. This is a work in progress, and it’s not like I have all the answers. I want to let you know what’s working and not working for me… and I want to find out what’s working and not working for you.

So let’s talk specifics. Let’s talk about how to do this.


(Tomorrow: The actual diet. Part 3 of a three-part series.)

Weight Loss and Strange Emotional Stuff: The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Part 2
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20 thoughts on “Weight Loss and Strange Emotional Stuff: The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Part 2

  1. 1

    Wow, this really spoke to me. I’ve been fat for some time, and I’ve had many of the same psychological experiences you describe. I yo-yoed on Weight Watchers, and then swore off such plans, banning the word “diet.”
    Then in January I took a workshop on mindfulness, nutrition, and weight loss. I realized that the reason WW didn’t work is that it didn’t fix my problem (stress), only a symptom (weight). No wonder I got fatter than ever after trying it!
    In the past couple months, I’ve overhauled our family eating to be healthier. Not necessarily low calorie, but doing all the good stuff the Harvard School of Public Health says: whole grains, fruits and vegetables, very little animal fat, lower sugar, etc. Knowing more about the immediate bad effects of poor choices, and viewing it as a health issue, NOT an aesthetic one, helped me make changes.
    And now, finally, I am counting calories. Having gotten to this place by a different route this time, I’m having an easier go of it. As you say, it is logistically hard, and I never realized how many social food opportunities arrive in a week before. But it is doable. And going out for steak chimichurri and tres leches cake is still doable too – just less often and more savored.
    My new mindfulnesss practice is helping quell my stress before it becomes overeating. It is also, as you note, making me enjoy food more than when I was compulsively eating.
    Thanks for sharing your struggle. I think weight is more intimate than sex in some ways, so I appreciate your candor!

  2. Jay

    Just wanted to say that I’m amazed at your blogging breadth. Er, no pun. I don’t know much about the fat-positive movement, but it seems like you’ve done an admirable job of sketching the territory where being positive crosses over into delusion, while recognizing what that particular movement has to contribute. That’s hard work and I applaud you.

  3. 4

    Jay: “I don’t know much about the fat-positive movement”
    Neither do I, but I find her commentary fascinating. Or maybe I find it fascinating because it deals with something that I’m not familiar with.

  4. 5

    I really enjoy your take, Greta. I think its very important to be in a good state with your body but we shouldn’t throw health to the wind while doing so. The fat positive movement sometimes does seem to get carried away and miss part of the message.
    That said, I do know some heavier people who are healthier than thin people. Health isn’t always about being thin or losing weight, yet there definitely is a correlation. I was raised in an anti-fat type family. I used to have many body issues and am closer to 135/140. I think 150 was my heaviest ever. To think I had these issues drilled into me…its disturbing. And that’s not even counting media and other societal influences.
    Being healthy is very important but solely being thin is not. Finding the balance that works for one is key.
    As I’ve aged (I’m 28 now), I’ve become satisfied with who I am as I maintain a healthy weight while still being able to enjoy life. I refuse to always turn down the cupcake but pass it up sometimes, too.
    I think walking a lot is key. It works for me, anyway. I now live in an area in Vegas where walking to everything is simple. There’s an excellent walk score; I no longer own a car. I keep in shape mainly by walking everywhere.
    Anyway, I think its great to be conscious of what you eat. I wish you and Ingrid the best in your eating and cooking ventures. 🙂

  5. 6

    I am enjoying this series. I am right there with you, having lost 50 pounds since last July, following an ACL reconstruction. My goal was never to lose weight, only to resume exercising and reduce my risk for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke (three things that are rampant in my family).
    I never use the word diet, for me it is a total life change. I ride bikes and walk wherever possible, i eat as much food from farmers’ markets as i can, HFCS is verboten in the house, i avoid restaurants… and when i do go i split a meal. Most importantly, i treat my scale like my blood pressure cuff: it is a tool that is used to monitor one aspect of my health. The number on the scale does not affect my self esteem any more than getting a 125/75 BP reading.
    Congratulations on improving your health and best wishes for many more years of healthy living.

  6. 7

    I find perimeter shopping really helps me buy the right sorts of foods. All the processed (aka “bad-for-you” foods) are on the shelves in the grocery store but the fruits, veggies and meat are on the perimeter of the store. Minimizing the consumption of processed foods really seems to make a huge difference in my overall health, not to mention what it does for my waistline.

  7. 8

    Greta, Thank you. Those two words are inadequate for how much I appreciate your words, how you’ve put so much of my own thoughts and feelings into words. I am 44 and have struggled with my weight since I was old enough to be aware of my body. That’s a damn long time.
    I’ve done everything except surgically altering my body to lose weight, never reaching a final goal and never keeping it off. I am 5’10” and weigh (as of yesterday) 344.8 lbs, the highest I can remember. I’ve been on a search for THE answer as to what is wrong with me, why I’m not “normal” and have reached the conclusion there is no such thing as “normal”.
    My weight has hampered my life…every aspect of my life. I consider myself a food addict unfortunately though unlike other addicts I must have my addiction daily to live.
    I am disconnected from my body. The picture I carry in my mind is so out of touch with reality such that when I see pictures (which is rare) I am in total shock. I avoid all reflective surfaces.
    This is difficult at every stage, imo. And I look forward to reading more about your journey and incorporating some of it into my own.
    Again, thank you.

  8. sav

    This series is great, Greta. It’s so honest and real, letting emotions play their part but not letting them run the show. In terms of discussions on weight loss, that is a refreshing tack indeed. And I think it’s the crux of your argument.
    Anything hard in life is full of emotion, and anything worth doing takes work. I keep that in mind all the time. I’ve done the work with other things in my life, but never when it comes to physically taking care of myself. I’m not willing to do that anymore.
    I count calories. I give myself one day a week where I can eat a little more than the others. I don’t tell myself I can never have a certain food again–I just limit having that kind of food in my diet. I found exercises I love to do (very important). I keep in mind the fact that I want to be healthy so I can be around for my kids and play with them instead of sitting on the sidelines. I work out at least three times a week. I find an excuse to just stand up instead of sitting on the couch. I don’t think about food obsessively–I free my mind up to think about other things. I don’t eat past 7 or 7:30 at night (this helps a lot).

  9. HGH

    It very useful stuff! Anything hard in life is full of sensitivity, and any kind worth doing takes work. I retain that in psyche all the time. I’ve wrapped up the work with other things in my life, but not ever when it draws close to strongly taking care of myself. I’m not keen to do that anymore.

  10. 12

    I haven’t really struggled with my weight but I have struggled BIG TIME with maintaining a normal relationship with food and felt alienated from my own body. In the last six months I joined a triathlon club and it has done wonders for my body love. I used to look at my thighs and think “Look at you stupid fat thighs, you with all your biggness and wrong shape and blubbery uselessness- you could be so much smaller. I. HATE. YOU. THIGHS.”. Now I’m part of a club where we are all different shapes and sizes and we all focus on our health and performance I am starting to appreciate what my body is capable of. My inner dialogue is now “Wow my lovely leggies, look at how far you just carried me. Look at the millions of muscle contractions you just did thighs. I’m really proud of you guys!”. Suddenly I own my thighs. And suddenly I want to take care of them. So think that is an important aspect. I think we all get a little cart-before-the-horse. We think “If I just lose may 10kg I would love my body…” but it’s hard to do that when you are alienated from it and hate it. I think that may be why some people have so much trouble losing weight. How are you meant to properly take care of a body you loath and despise? I think that is maybe why it gets easier as you get into a diet because as the love of your body grows you really WANT to take care of it from a more sincere place instead of being motivated by a superficial reason. My body does a lot of crap for me and it deserves love, care and recognition. Go team!

  11. JL

    I have not lost such a large amount of weight as you, Greta, or some of the commenters – I am in awe of your ability to do so – but I have lost 10-15 lbs at a time, which is what you apparently have left.
    I like taking the “performance mentality” toward my body – assessing it based on the things it can do rather than on how it looks. My body can do multiple consecutive dead-hang pull-ups! It can run several miles at a time! Many of the things that I like my body to be able to do, are things where it helps to be relatively thin. But the performance mentality keeps the focus on functionality rather than on how I look or what societal standards are. It’s also a mental buffer against unhealthy levels of thinness – my body won’t have the functionality that I want if I’m too thin, or starve myself!
    I found that the most helpful factor in losing weight was being accountable to myself – writing down everything I ate, and all the exercise that I did. If I didn’t do that, it was too easy to pretend that a snack here or there didn’t count, and put it out of my mind.

  12. 14

    I don’t really know how to respond to the first paragraph of this post.
    It seems to me like you are ascribing the opinions of some people who identify as fat positive with the opinions of all people who are fat positive. We are a continuum, and to say “I just think they’ve run off the rails with them” is to imply that there’s some organized political or social movement with an organized platform.
    Many influential thinkers in the fat positive movement are radically anti-diet. In my experience, the majority of “us” are struggling just like you are – struggling with cultural messages about our body. Struggling with cultural and in-group messages about the “right” behavior. And so on.
    It really sucks that people are attacking you for behavior that you feel is necessary to keep you healthy and fit. Those people are trolls. Fat positive trolls, of course, and I would never make the mistake of saying “THEY’RE not part of the HAES movement!” But I WILL say that their opinions do not sufficiently define even the majority opinion of the fatosphere.

  13. 15

    Most of the time the important points about health, weight, and body image are drowned out by both prejudiced bullshit and wishful thinking; it’s always encouraging to see someone write about weight issues with sanity. Congratulations on consciously determining what works for you and pursuing your goals! My experience with this territory is recognizing for years that my eating habits were unhealthy and educating myself about changing them but failing to successfully do so because overeating is my form of stress management. I managed to stop gaining weight, which was an accomplishment in itself. When I felt really low a couple years ago I joined a program and lost about twenty pounds but the novelty soon wore off. I have kept the weight off but my progress has stalled (there’s more to lose till I’m where I need to be), so I claim a small success and hope to inch my way closer with renewed efforts. I am seriously considering the possibility of counseling for support and accountability because the basis of the problem is emotional for me. What works for me is continually reminding myself of what I can accomplish or look forward to, and dealing with stress right away instead of avoiding unpleasant tasks. Also, dancing and walking/jogging outdoors strengthen good feelings about my body and relieve stress in a healthy way.

  14. 16

    While I am not surprised that the fat positive movement exists, I was somewhat surprised to find that it has some elements that say weight loss is harmful. Ever since you started blogging about weight loss and health, I think you’ve given a balanced and fact based view of the matter.
    Your line ‘Sanity doesn’t mean not having neuroses. It means not letting neuroses get in the way.’ spoke to me a bit, but in a different way. I have OCD, but I do the best I can to not let it rule my life. In the past several years, I’ve come to accept it as part of my personality.

  15. 17

    But I WILL say that their opinions do not sufficiently define even the majority opinion of the fatosphere.

    Maybe not, Sarah TX. But they sure defined the majority — the vast majority — of fat-positive advocates who wrote to me or commented on my blog when I first started writing about this issue. And they sure seem like the most public representatives of the movement.
    If the fat-positive movement is moving back towards a more sane, nuanced, evidence- based position on fatness, then excellent. We need a sane, nuanced, evidence-based fat-positive movement like crazy. (Or maybe “body-positive,” the term some people have been using in the discussion of this on Facebook, would be a better word — since these issues affect more than just fat people.) And if there are fat-positive blogs and forums and whatnot that aren’t fixated on the idea that weight loss is a hideous evil that must be stamped out and is never right for anybody ever ever ever, I would love to see them.
    But what I saw when I first started writing about this last year was a whole lot of people bringing the denialist crazy… and not a lot else. And I heard a whole lot of other people seeing the same thing… and feeling alienated, disinformed, and poorly represented by a movement that they wanted and needed.

  16. 18

    Thank you! I have just started my own blog about being a feminist and losing weight. I definitely have the same core beliefs about how fat-feminism has its positive attributes BUT there’s a limit when it comes to health. Making a life style change has been brutal but neccessary.
    I look forward to reading more of your posts.
    My blog: http://healthyfeminist.blogspot.com/
    PS GO TOFU! (It can be yummy!)

  17. 19

    This series is great, Greta. Neither do I, but I find her commentary fascinating, I am agreed with paul that people should just not eat anything that wasn’t a food 100 years ago.
    I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  18. 20

    Why did they chide you for losing weight?Losing weight to become healthier is an achievement! It takes a lot self discipline and determination to achieve this goal. Good job Greta!

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