About a decade ago, I made the decision to “break up” with diet culture. That meant: no more Spanx budget, no more calling potato chips “evil,” no more “skinny jeans” taking up precious space in my (tiny) closet. It meant no more off-limits foods, no more calorie counting, no more hating my belly or my double chin. Most importantly, no more weight-loss goals. Period. I would not attempt to control my body size anymore. I would move and eat for the sake of pleasure. I would focus on feeling good. And I would just let my body be.
I use the metaphor of “breaking up” because diet culture felt like a toxic partner who had been stealing money, food, brain power, important life experiences, and dignity from me for years. I felt the intoxicating, giddy sense of freedom that comes with finally leaving a bad relationship.
But there’s another way that this experience was like a breakup. We all know that leaving a relationship—yes, even the toxic ones; sometimes, especially the toxic ones—comes with a sense of loss. With loss, comes grief.
When I walked away from diet culture, I didn’t entirely realize I was walking away from a lot of things to which I felt an unexpected level of attachment. I want to focus on three of them because I’ve found in my work with others that they are common sources of grief when undertaking the work of body positivity, fat positivity, or body liberation:
1. Grieving the idea of a perfect (thin) future
When people tell me they want to lose weight, I know that usually what they mean is: “I want to be loved. I want to be respected. I want to be seen as worthy.” In our culture, we are taught that committing ourselves to becoming thin (or thinner) is the key to getting access to those things. Our imagined “thin future” becomes a perpetual destination. It feels good to be able to invest in that imagined tomorrow: where we won’t have to deal with the imperfections of the bodies (and lives) we have today. When we make the decision to become body positive, we lose that. We accept that this is our body. We stop investing in an imaginary world where there are no problems, and we are placed squarely into this moment filled with cultural and personal realities that are painful: fatphobia, sexism, racism, ableism, financial problems, relationship dissatisfaction, etc. Further, when you’re a naturally big person (like me!) thinness represents finally gaining acceptance from your society and maybe even your family. That acceptance is so alluring that we will do almost anything to hold on to the dream of it.
However, as long as we keep chasing a self-negating and conditional form of acceptance, we will not be able to stand up for who we are, begin to require unconditional love, and defend the body we have.
2. Grieving the loss of being on the self-hatred bandwagon
In our culture, commiserating about weight dissatisfaction is a way we’ve been taught to bond and connect with one another. This is one the reasons there’s been an uptick in public expressions of weight anxiety online during the pandemic. That’s why this kind of language is so common at work and at social gatherings. When we refuse to participate in this ritual, we lose access to that kind of problematic acceptance. And, in fact, we may find ourselves on the receiving end of hostility, annoyance, or ostracization. This experience can be scary for some who fear rejection acutely.
Because our culture hasn’t quite caught up to the fact that diet culture deeply harms people, we may be seen as rocking the boat. In reality, we are meaningfully resisting a harmful and bigoted ideology, and thus paving the way for a new paradigm.
3. Grieving gender roles
Regardless of your gender, there are typically strict rules around the body size you feel you are “supposed” to have based on your gender. When we stop attempting to control our weight, for many of us that means deviating from those gender expectations. I work primarily with straight women, and a big part of the fear of leaving diet culture is the fear that they will not be desirable to straight men anymore (which straight women have been socialized to believe is the same as not having access to intimacy and love). The belief that we have to give up the joy of eating or the freedom of being our natural size in order to get love is a myth that is a product of sexism. Dieting is a major part of performing feminine gender roles because smallness is considered a very important part of being a woman successfully. Sociologist Sander Gilman writes, “Dieting is a process by which the individual claims control over her body and thus shows her ability to understand her role.” For women, leaving behind the self-hatred and self-policing of diet culture in favor of the self-acceptance and self-love of body positivity means choosing yourself in a culture that sees anything beyond obedience and smallness as gender treason.
When we refuse to play along with dehumanizing gender roles, we create space to truly find ourselves and like-minded others.
Grief is a very important part of human existence. Though the idea of grief can feel intimidating, we can actually welcome it in as a teacher and a healer. Diet culture is not merely a collection of ideas that lead to body dysmorphia or disordered eating. It is a system that wounds people. Those wounds, which manifest as body shame or dissatisfaction, are traumas that need tending. When we stop being terrified of our bodies and recognize that NOTHING IS WRONG WITH US, then we open the path to full humanity, with all its emotions and experiences: joy, surprise, sadness, love, realization, and, yes, grief.
Meditation for Being in Your Body:
Listen to the audio meditation.
I want you to get comfortable. Close your eyes. Relax your shoulders. Relax your belly. If you’re clenching your thighs to keep them close together, just let them go. If you’re clenching your stomach muscles, unclench them. Wiggle your toes to relax your feet. Now wiggle your fingers to relax your hands.
Begin to slow down your breathing.
Now slowly move your head from side to side, side to side, side to side. Let your hands fall to your sides or on your lap or whatever feels most comfortable. We’re going to breathe in and fill up our belly as much as we can. Breathe into your belly and make it as big as you can. Then we’re going to breathe out. Breathe in, then breathe out. Just keep breathing. It’s okay if your mind wanders; you can bring yourself back into your body by touching your index finger to your thumb, or touching the ground.
Just breathe on your own time. We’ll breathe in silence for a little bit.
Now let’s bring focus to our whole bodies—these precious entities that take us through life. The elements in our bodies are the same elements that make up the magical and vast universe. The same material that makes up the stars and the planet, the deserts, the oceans, the most wonderful and weird animals, the rain forest, and even our favorite snack…those same elements make up our bodies.
Our body connects us to everything in the universe.
Every single day, our bodies process light, sound, and sensation without effort. Every day, our bodies turn food into fuel—all without conscious effort. Our skin feels light and the touch of our loved ones. Our ears can discern who we’re talking to and how they’re feeling. Our eyes process the colors all around us—the green of the grass, the blue of the ocean. All without effort. Your body is magic. There is nothing wrong with your body. No matter what kind of pain you have, no matter what your body looks like, no matter if you have a chronic condition or illness, there is nothing wrong with your body.
Right now, we’re going to take a few seconds to bask in gratitude and awe over what our bodies are doing right now. Feel your heart beating. Feel your lungs filling up and allowing you to breathe. Feel your skin allowing you to gauge the temperature in the room. A series of very complex muscles, bones, nerves and tiny hairs in your ears are allowing you to hear my voice right now.
As we close, I want you to try and let yourself be completely IN YOUR BODY for the duration of our final five breaths. Take them on your own time.
And on your final breath, open your eyes slowly. Let the light in. Wiggle your toes. Wiggle your fingers. Wiggle your magical body.
Virgie Tovar, MA, is one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She holds a master’s degree in sexuality studies with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. She is the founder of Babecamp, a four-week online course designed to help people who are ready to break up with diet culture, and creator of the hashtag campaign #LoseHateNotWeight. Tovar edited the anthology, Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion; and is author of You Have the Right to Remain Fat, which was placed on the American Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer List. She is a contributor for ForbesWomen and Bedsider, and was named one of the top fifty most influential feminists by Bitch Magazine. She is a recipient of the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism at Yale University. Tovar has been featured in The New York Times and Tech Insider, and on MTV, Al Jazeera, and Yahoo Health. She lives in San Francisco, CA.