I used to hate the term “cognitive dissonance.” That’s because I had a guy one time use it as the reason to quit seeing me when it was very clear to me at the time that the only dissonance was that I was smart and fun to be with, but I was also fat and the woman he had the hots for looked like a magazine model.
I’m starting to come to terms with the phrase, though, since I’m now going through it. I find
myself trying to hold conflicting thoughts (or at least ones that seem conflicting) about body image and relationships with food. I’m coming to understand just how frustrating a true cognitive dissonance can be as I try to tease out the layers involved.
It started when I read an article about a video blogger who had made the statement that you’re not body positive if you’re on Weight Watchers. I dived into the rabbit hole of the internet, and ended up watching videos and reading articles from people in the body positivity movement for hours. The vlogger that started it all for me had clarified that she was aiming that statement at people who are positioning themselves as leaders or examples in the body positive movement yet promoting ideas and products that are body shaming. The statement made more sense in that context. I agree that there is nothing body positive about the way WW does business or the messages they send. That the WW program is healthier than most other commercial diet programs is not saying much, given that the evidence is pretty clear that diets make us fatter.
But I started wondering how she would see me and my choice to have weight loss surgery. Can that choice mesh with a body positive mindset? I brought the subject up with my therapist, and it started a very interesting and thoughtful conversation. I’m still processing all of it, but want to share where I’m at in the hopes it helps someone else.
Some body positive activists clearly state that if you are trying to change your body shape, size, etc. that you are obviously not accepting it and that you are not espousing body positivity. That was troubling to me because I do believe very firmly in many of the things the body positive movement is trying to promote. I believe there needs to be a place in the movement for people who for whatever reasons want to change their size and shape, but know that it doesn’t mean anyone else’s shape or size is wrong or bad.
I can honestly say that my size and shape had little to do with my decision to have WLS. Even though I’ve suffered bullying and a certain amount of discrimination over the years because of my weight, I had mostly come to terms with it. I haven’t looked in the mirror and hated what I saw for many years. I don’t feel pain when someone refers to me as “fat”, because I am. I’m also a strong, intelligent, sexy woman and my size doesn’t alter that at all.
My decision was based on my health, which was in a decline for reasons not directly because of my weight, but certainly exacerbated by it. The decision was made when Dr. B told me that the stomach tissue to be removed is directly responsible for a large part of the inflammatory factors that are driving my disease, and any weight loss after surgery would only serve to decrease the inflammation further. The weight loss would remove significant stress from my screaming joints and could even render my medications more effective. It wouldn’t cure my auto-immune, but it held a great deal of hope for improving the condition.
Even clarifying this makes it sound like I’m bashing people who choose WLS because of aesthetic reasons. I do not want to put forth that message. Everyone has different priorities, and makes decisions based on them. Those reasons are just as valid as others. It’s just not where I was coming from.
To make it even more complicated though, as I’ve lost weight I’ve found myself thrilled to be giving away clothes that are now too big for me and seeing some of the changes in my physical appearance. Does that mean I didn’t really love myself to start with? Or that I cannot have a place in the movement because I’m liking the changes I’m seeing? Or is that just playing into the societal expectation that only thin is pretty? And since I’m trying to improve my health that I’m redeemed as a “good fat person”?
Health is a touchy subject in relation to body positivity. One of the concepts that is hard for people to grasp, but is central to body positivity is that thin does not equal healthy. That is very true. Thin people get illnesses and fat people can be healthy. You cannot tell by looking at someone whether they are healthy or not regardless of their size. Did I have any guarantee that the surgery and weight loss would improve my health? No. However, other than reducing the stress on the joints, the weight loss itself isn’t what’s impacting my health. It’s the inflammation caused by the tissue that was cut away and the fat cells I’m losing. It’s a fine distinction, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. What about people for whom the weight itself has been shown to cause health problems, and losing it has improved their health dramatically?
I struggle with the health aspects of the body positivity movement. I do believe there is a point – which is different for each person – at which the weight simply cannot be healthy. When the weight itself prevents a patient from being able to move adequately to perform what medical professionals refer to as “activities of daily living” or ADLs (bathing, dressing, grooming, feeding are examples), then as a medical professional I simply cannot agree that the person is healthy at that weight. I fear that the “health at every size” movement can go too far and give some people an incorrect belief that they are healthy when they clearly are not.
But even that definition – which I’ve been working on for months, by the way – fails when I properly expand body positivity to include more than just weight/size/shape issues. Body positivity is also about people who are differently abled. If a person is not able to do some ADLs because of a medical condition or injury, are they then “unhealthy” because their condition keeps them from meeting my definition?
If a person who is unable to perform ADLs due to weight (or any other cause) is unhealthy, what does that even mean? Here’s where I converge again with the movement. Because honestly, if I’m not their caretaker or on their medical team, absolutely nothing. It is none of my business what anyone does in relation to their health if I’m not invited into that situation as a medical professional. Doesn’t matter if they’re my best friend, my spouse, my child, or a stranger on the street. It’s not my business, nor is it my place to offer comments or advice. Society treats fatness as a moral failing, and people seem to think it’s their business to shame or confront people “because it’s not healthy.” I think that’s completely unacceptable.
Weight is a measurement of mass and gravity. It is not a moral failing. Our society needs to quit treating it like it is. Our media needs to show many different kinds of bodies as “normal”. Our healthcare providers need to quit treating weight as the cause of every medical problem and shaming people who don’t fit the “ideal” size and shape. I read an account of a woman who went to her doctor with an ear infection and was told to lose weight and was not prescribed an antibiotic. Another whose abdominal pain was dismissed for years because she needed to “be compliant” with weight loss and no testing done to reveal the invasive cancer actually causing the pain. Absolutely unacceptable. I’m on board with the movement about changing these things.
But then, I also participate in online support groups for WLS. The people in these groups tend to be very focused on weight and BMI. We gleefully post how many pounds or inches or clothing sizes we’ve lost. We commiserate with people who are losing more slowly than others, congratulate the ones who are having “success”, and share tips about our lifestyle changes. We talk about caloric intake and carbs and “good” foods and “bad” foods. How does that fit with the idea of body positivity? It doesn’t feel like it fits at all. I can’t (and shouldn’t try to) change what other people are using as goals and benchmarks. But perhaps I should take the advice I read today, and find different numbers than those on the scale and tape measure to gauge my success by. I knew my health was declining when my heart rate was near 100 at rest and would jump to 150 walking from the parking lot to my physician’s office. Or when I couldn’t even complete a cardiac stress test because I was too out of breath after 3 minutes on the treadmill. I can judge the improvements in my health with numbers like these instead of my weight and my jean size. I wonder how changing the language I’m using for myself would affect those around me?
So where’s my place in the body positivity movement? I don’t know, but I found an article today that gives me hope that I have one. The author talked about body positivity being about loving your body as it is right now, and taking responsibility for its care. That can mean (but doesn’t have to) making different choices about food and exercise and changing the size or shape, if it’s coming from a place of caring for your body instead of hating it.
Perhaps, like most things in life, it’s about the process and not the results. I’m not trying to be a role model for anyone, or a leader in the body positivity movement. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether anyone in the movement accepts me and my thoughts and choices or not. My actions are all I control. I offer my thoughts and feelings with a small hope that it helps someone who’s struggling, even if it’s just knowing they’re not alone. My therapist (need a cute online name for her I guess) says that lots of people never even think about these things, and by examining my thoughts (even the dissonant ones) about it, I’m ahead of the game.
I’ll have to think about that.