Taking a Break from Body Positivity Advocacy
Quite a few years ago, I started writing about body positivity. I talked about not focusing on weight, eating disorder recovery, and mindful eating. Deciding that I would never think about my weight again or never consciously eat in a way that might change my body size was just what I needed. I needed to get out of the mindset that weight was a moral issue and that my worth was based on my size. The research that says weight is not related to health was liberating for me and helpful in recovering from a binge eating disorder, especially the research on BMI.
At the same time, I have also been living with chronic mental and physical illnesses. I have been on more medications than I can keep track of, none of which worked. I started finding other ways to treat my illnesses, and I found that lifestyle changes worked. Eating a diet pretty close to ketogenic autoimmune Paleo, changing my sleep, and exercise manages many of my illnesses. Yes, even my bipolar disorder. There are may reasons why these lifestyle changes work for me, and one is that they decrease brain and body inflammation which contributes to my anxiety disorder, ADHD, brain fog, and increasing memory issues that are early signs of dementia (we now know we can see symptoms of dementia very early in life.) I also find the research about how excess visceral fat (the fat around your belly and organs) increases inflammation in your body and brain also compelling. I feel it is worth it to see if losing visceral fat will improve these illnesses. This means I do things to decrease fat, i.e. change my body composition, which may or may not change my weight. If I am honest though, it probably will change my overall weight.
To be honest, the things I want to do (lots of fun stuff at CrossFit and sports with my family) and the health I want to have (mental stability, no IBS, and brain health) comes from a certain way of eating (i.e. diet) and from losing fat, which at this point that will probably mean losing some weight.
The body positivity movement defines itself as inherently anti-diet. You can not intentionally lose weight and be body positive. (Watch a few videos on this here, and here.) Many activists define that body positivity comes out of the fat acceptance movement, which is really about ending fat discrimination and promoting acceptance of fat bodies. The body positivity movement clarifies that they believe if we promote intentional weight loss, we are saying that fat bodies are not okay.
It has been very hard for me to be in a place where I eat a certain diet due to food sensitivities and inflammation as well as eating certain macronutrient amounts at each meal so that I can keep my energy and brain functioning levels constant, and be part of the body positivity movement. The fact is, no matter how I try and describe this, I sound like I am dieting to lose weight. What I am doing, I believe, is eating in a way that supports my body and brain functioning and that will change my body composition (i.e. lose visceral body fat.) My weight may or may not change, but I do want to know if my percentage of visceral fat goes down, and to me that sounds like intentional weight loss, or at least intentional visceral fat loss. I have not found a body positive stance on intentional fat loss, but right now it seems like intentional fat loss (regardless of total weight loss) would also be considered anti-body positive and fatphobic. This has been hard for me because in order to honor the body positivity movement and not contribute to fatphobia, I feel like I have to not eat the way I do and not work on losing visceral body fat. The rules of the bopo movement have led me to disordered eating patterns, just like diet culture also led me to disordered eating. Not only did the disordered eating become a problem, but I was also creating flairs of my illnesses. Clearly I do not do well in a community that has pretty strict rules as to what is allowed.
I think I am having a “body positivity identity crisis,” as Sarah Vance describes in this post and if I am struggling in that space, it is not a good time to be an advocate. That post is very much about you being you and finding what works for you, but it still says:
“This isn’t about saying dieting is body positive, because it sure as hell isn’t and I will call bullshit on that before anyone finishes that sentence. This isn’t saying health concerns – which is masked fatphobia – is body positive, because it isn’t. That is where this all gets tricky. When I am discussing body positivity, I am talking about the true definition of body positivity. Something of which mainstream BoPo has moved further and further from.”
In my life coaching work, I do coach people who have fat or general weight loss goals. I coach people who have certain diets to treat chronic illnesses. Plus, I am intentionally losing fat myself. If I want to help people like me, and if I live my life this way, I don’t feel like I can also be a body positivity advocate, because intentional weight loss is inherently anti-body positive. I did not start the body positivity movement, and while I have been plus sized most of my adult life, I have still always been on the smaller side of plus sized. I need to listen to the voices of those who started this movement and the marginalized voices within the movement. My message and work does not fit fully with theirs, so I should not try and be an advocate, a spokesperson, in that movement.
In particular, this message from fat activist Virgie Tovar was compelling to me:
“Since you are pursuing a normative goal in a weight-loss congratulatory culture, go to OTHER less-tapped resources and communities before you head into fat positive spaces where people are trying to heal from the very thing that you are doing. There are relatively more places you can find support in your weight loss journey, and many people are willing to give you the high-fives and applause you need for your pursuit. So put forth a good faith effort and stop taking up resources and space from people in the fat movement who are not pursuing weight loss. You can read fat positive resources, be part of listening in fat poz communities (if they are ok with that), or fostering relationships with folks who are in the same head space as you. A lot of us don’t have myriad options for support because most people are hostile to fat folks who are not pursuing weight loss. So, take a deep breath, own your soon-to-be-former assholery, and make the change.”
As someone who understands social justice, I understand that I can not be an advocate if I can not completely follow the message of the advocacy group I claim to be a part of. It is their movement, and I need to respect that and not muddy the waters.
I am sharing my struggle with this because I know there are many people in body positive communities who have chronic illness that are in a similar place as me. They are unsure if they can be body positive and have food restrictions or want to lose visceral fat or weight at all. For all of you, I would say that you as a person can make the decisions you want about your body. Even the body positivity movement says that. You personally can love the messages from the body positivity community and you can find them very healing. There is a difference between a public advocate and following the movement though. This is why I am taking a break from advocacy, I do not feel like a responsible public advocate if I can not follow everything that the movement believes. That is not my place and it takes away from the voices who need to be heard.
What can I do?
I can still share body positive resources with people and be sure to include people of different races, class, ability, gender, sexual orientation, and sizes bigger than an 18. The message is important, and just because I am not a perfect fit for advocacy, that does not mean I can not share resources from those who are the experts, particularly from marginalized voices within that movement.
I can keep learning more. This blog is a reflection of where I am right now, in July 2017. As I learn more I may change and may be able to come back to advocacy. I may come to a different understanding. A lot can change, which is why I am saying I am taking a break. I may be able to be an advocate in this important work again, one day.
I admit, this is a really hard post for me to write. I have had it written, in various forms, for three months. I so badly want to continue to be a public body positivity advocate, but I do not feel that is a responsible choice right now. I am also terrified of contributing to fatphobia and fat oppression. At the same time I have to do what keeps me mentally and physically stable so that I can literally live. This way of life treats my mental illness enough that I am not suicidal anymore. I can work and take care of my son and be a stable wife. I am no longer severely mentally unstable or in so much physical pain that I live on my bathroom floor some days. I have worked extremely hard. I have fought for my life and this is what keeps me alive. I also fight for people who need similar help to what I needed help with. I would not be where I am, I would not be alive, if there were not people who coached me and counseled me.
I am not sure what exactly is the right thing to do here, but I am doing my best, and right now the best option seems to be to take a break from being a body positivity advocate.
P.S.: The goal of this post is for me to be responsible in my public advocacy and let my readers know of this change in my direction. It is not to open up bashing on any sides of the body positivity or self care movements, so please refrain from name-calling, shaming, or any other types of comments that are not in line with respectful and open-minded discussion.
(Quick note: Just because certain lifestyle changes work for me to treat my chronic illnesses and mental disabilities, that does not mean I think all people with similar issues will benefit from the same treatment plan. For some people, this won’t work at all. Everyone needs to find the treatment plan that works for them and there should be no shame around any treatment that works for you. I am not a doctor. I am not giving you medical advice.)