Carolyn Cruse, MSW, LCSW
It’s January again—but January of 2021 is hitting differently than many of its predecessors. Last year saw a global pandemic sweep the world, lockdowns and school closures create upheaval in the lives of many, social justice movements rise up in response to racism and police brutality, and a political climate characterized by fear and anger. The start to this new year feels very different and there’s a lot riding on it.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same.
For a couple hundred years, January has come along with a tradition of setting resolutions and goals for self-improvement. For decades, this tradition has been accompanied by a slew of advertising specifically focused on weight loss, dieting, and lifestyle changes. This year is no different. In fact, 2021 carries the added component of “losing the quarantine weight.” Social and traditional media spent a lot of time last year discussing and joking about the weight gain that some people have experienced as their schedules and lives shifted radically to adapt to the realities of surviving a pandemic.
So, with new year resolutions and goals returning as a hot topic of conversation, it makes absolute sense that people would feel a desire to add weight loss to their own yearly to-do lists—this year especially. For many, this is a familiar (maybe even traditional) journey that begins with restriction and ends (when that restriction proves unsustainable) with a sense of having failed or lacking willpower and needing to start over again. It’s exhausting.
But here’s the good news: you don’t have to go on that journey.
Intentional weight loss doesn’t work. Dieting has roughly a 95% failure rate within 5 years. People typically do lose weight when attempting intentional weight loss, but this is temporary. The diet industry thrives on this high failure rate (to be clear, the diet fails—not the dieter) to maintain clients and its $72 billion dollar value. Those who do manage to maintain weight loss for long periods of time often do so through a chronic disordered relationship with food and exercise. Dieting can also have long-term negative effects on physical and mental health, not least of which is an increased risk for eating disorders.
Bodies are not meant to conform to arbitrary ideals of weight that shift over time. Just as diversity exists in height, skin color, hair color and texture, and ability, there is also an incredible amount of size diversity among the human population. Our bodies are meant to exist at different weights and shapes, and they have evolved to protect these sizes against famine. In fact, our bodies actually don’t know the difference between a diet and a famine—and they will respond in ways that promote survival (such as increasing fixation on food, slowing down body processes not integral to immediate survival, and reducing metabolism to maximize energy gained from what food is coming in).
Given the risks of dieting and the poor sustainability rates, a more effective and kinder foundation to build goals upon may be exploring the “why” behind the desire for weight loss.
Often, and perhaps especially this year, people hope to improve their health by losing weight. With so much focus on physical and medical health in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and with the claim that higher weight is a risk factor for more serious symptoms, of course this would be the case. Conventional wisdom tells us that being fat is inherently unhealthy—this is the culture we have all grown up in. And yet, while higher weight is associated with some health conditions, a sufficient causal link has not been established. Weight cycling and weight stigma, however, are independent risk factors for negative health impacts.
Health is also a difficult thing to define. In a holistic sense, it includes physical, mental, emotional, social, economic, and cultural health—all areas where dieting often has negative effects. While health is a value for many people, it is certainly not an obligation. You don’t owe anyone good health to justify your worth or value. For those with disabilities or chronic illnesses, “health” as a destination may not even be attainable. It should also be noted that health has fewer individually controlled determinants than it is portrayed to have. Genetics, race, socioeconomic status, experience of stigma and oppression, and access to healthcare account for the majority of health-related outcomes.
So, the key here is to think about what health means to you (if that’s even something you want to prioritize), and what behaviors can be added to your routine that might work in service of this value. Moving your body, taking medication, getting sufficient sleep, drinking enough water, maintaining social connections, eating enough food that is satisfying and nourishing—these are all behaviors that can have positive impacts on health. These are also all things that can be done without placing an emphasis on weight loss or marking that as the end goal.
I’ve also often heard that one “why” behind a desire for weight loss is that recent weight gain serves as a visual reminder that things have changed drastically within the last year. Wanting things “to go back to normal” includes returning to a body that existed in The Before. Of course—this makes so much sense. It can be so hard to adjust to body changes when those changes are not culturally sanctioned and may even be openly criticized. It can also be hard to consider the idea that your body has changed at a time when the rug has been pulled out from under you so many times already. These things are all true and understandable; and it is also true that restricting, over-exercising, self-punishment, and self-blame may be harder still.
2021 is a new year, but it’s not going to be a year in which things return to a pre-2020 state. Just as we can’t go back in time to change decisions that we’ve made or events in our own lives, we can’t go back to a social or cultural time that no longer exists. Look at the momentum that has built around caring for the health of vulnerable populations, around activism to fight oppression in its many forms, and around connection with others in light of drastic changes in what it means to socialize.
Your body has worked so hard to keep you going throughout all that has happened in the last year (and throughout your entire life, really). What might it be like to reward that body with trust, rather than punishment?