I never said I wasn’t hot. What I told my online PCOS support group is that I’d gained weight, and it was making me physically miserable. All I wanted was to figure out how to lose weight with a hormonal disorder that makes it difficult to do so. Minutes after posting, I was inundated with replies telling me I was both hot and horrible for believing in diet culture. Either way, commenters agreed on one thing: I shouldn’t ever, ever, ever talk about wanting to lose weight.
Diet culture teaches us to value thinness above all else, including health; it’s led so many people, and particularly women, to believe that our happiness should be tied to our jeans size. What a relief that, over the past few decades, this pervasive, toxic force has been taken over by body positivity, right? The idea that your relationship with your body doesn’t have to center on achieving and maintaining thinness, where instead you accept and love your body no matter what, is a revelation. But while this massive unlearning has helped so many of us who grew up enmeshed in diet culture, it’s also prompted an opposite taboo, where speaking frankly about how our bodies feel — or wanting that to change — is grounds for immediate cancellation. What if there was a way to talk about weight loss not because we hate our bodies, but because we just don’t feel good in them right now?
If there’s ever been a time to find a better way to have this conversation, it’s this weird interregnum between pandemic life and returning to society. A March survey from the American Psychological Association showed that 42% of adults gained more weight than “intended” over the past year; a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published the same month found that on average, people gained 1.5 pounds for every month of quarantine. (I know I did.) A deluge of marketing campaigns from diet brands followed: ads on buses driving by my house scream, “This doctor can help you lose those lockdown pounds!”
Like so many others, I don’t want anything about the pandemic to be my “new normal” — and that includes my weight.
Wanting to be healthy without lionizing a specific body type is a delicate line to walk. I live with the consequences of taking extreme measures to lose weight: I was one of the first people I knew to get gastric bypass surgery in 2005, when I was only 21; my primary doctor and my OB-GYN suggested it to make my periods more regular. It was a major surgery, and not without risks: now, I can’t eat dairy, eat meat, or poop without taking 1,000 milligrams of magnesium before bed. I don’t want anyone else to feel like dissecting their colon is the default solution for people living in larger bodies. But now, in my mid-30s — between a 2019 spinal injury and my pandemic hobby of Netflix and kettle chips — I’ve gained weight, which makes my PCOS worse, which, for me, means my periods are heavier and more painful. If I want to stop bleeding eight days a month, I need to go down to what I weighed two years ago.
Just before the pandemic, I’d been making progress with how my body felt. I was doing things I loved, like taking long walks through Brooklyn with my iced coffee, eating vegetables, and even occasionally drinking water. The pounds from the previous year were starting to slowly come off. My periods were becoming more regular, and the cramps were limited to three days of my cycle. But a year and change later, I am exhausted, my body hurts, and my depression, PTSD, and periods have never been worse. The pounds came back and then some. Like so many others, I don’t want anything about the pandemic to be my “new normal” — and that includes my weight.
Clinical nutritionist Robin Werner, RD, believes that any conversation about size and body image needs to be grounded in a simple fact: that health and weight are not mutually exclusive. “You can be heavier or lighter and that may not have any impact on your overall health,” she tells Bustle. “Thin does not equal healthy.”
While a higher weight is often associated with health problems — having a BMI over 30, for example, tracks along with increased risk of death from COVID — the connection isn’t one to one. Going to the doctor while overweight often means being told that your size is the root of all your problems, but losing weight won’t heal a broken ankle. Still, the link between health and weight does exist for some people and some conditions, like mine. But because people (understandably!) don’t want doctors to dismiss their problems as being solely size-related, it’s almost anathema to talk about the possibility that they may be associated.
My 21-year-old self would never in a million years have believed that people might accept the radical notion that you can be healthy at any size.
When I got messages dismissing my request for help with losing weight and saying that I was “so hot,” I was confused and a little insulted. I hadn’t spoken about how my body looked, but how it felt. (At my age, I’m not mad at a little extra padding around the eyes.) Yet here were all these women commenting on my appearance, assuming that was the only reason I’d want to shed a few pounds. To me, this is where the body-positive movement approaches ouroboros territory: circling back on itself by perpetuating standards about how women should feel about their bodies. What if you were allowed to have some negative feelings not related to appearance?
Werner says that one way to talk about weight loss in a self-acceptance context is to understand that our bodies should be celebrated for what they do rather than what they look like, but acknowledge that sometimes, they’re not functioning to the best of their abilities. Diet culture’s emphasis on size is flawed for a million reasons — chief among them being that for many people, it’s really hard, bordering on impossible, to lose weight, and no supplement or meal plan will change that. My 21-year-old self would never in a million years have believed that people might accept the radical notion that you can be healthy at any size. But the fact is, I’m not healthy at this size, and it doesn’t feel right to tell me that I am.
I don’t want a diet program that tells me how long I have to run to burn off a scoop of ice cream, and I don’t want me talking about my issues to set someone else off. I just want to feel well again. But that has nothing to do with how hot I know I am.
Robin Werner, RD, clinical nutritionist
American Psychological Association. (2021, March 11). One year later, a new wave of pandemic health concerns. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2021/one-year-pandemic-stress
Lin AL, Vittinghoff E, Olgin JE, Pletcher MJ, Marcus GM. Body Weight Changes During Pandemic-Related Shelter-in-Place in a Longitudinal Cohort Study. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(3):e212536. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.2536