There are a lot of bad reasons to lose weight. And there are a lot of good reasons to lose weight. Unfortunately the two categories aren’t as sharply delineated as we’d like them to be. In writing this post, I spent a good hour trying to come up with examples for each category and what I finally had to realize was that there are very, very few reasons that fall firmly in either camp. In fact, I hate to use any examples at all. Weight loss is such a personal thing; what’s a good idea for one person may be very unhealthy for another. Take, for instance, the idea of losing weight because someone else told you to or because you think if you lose weight someone else would like you better.
At first read, it seems like a no brainer: bad plan, right? The conventional wisdom is that unless you are doing it for yourself then any changes you make won’t last and you’ll end up sad. And I believe that. Doing stuff to please the fickle Others is often a losing battle. But. I also don’t want to discount the myriad stories of people being inspired by a loved one to make healthy changes* and ended up happier in the end – not just because their loved one was happier but because they themselves were too. Sometimes those outside of us can see things in us that we don’t.
Which is why I was so conflicted when I got this e-mail from a teenage reader. It broke my heart and I wanted desperately to be able to give her some good advice… but I’m not sure exactly what that is. So I do what I always do when I’m stymied: turn it over to my smart, kind and thoughtful readers. Here’s E’s e-mail:
I have been trying to lose weight since I was 12 years old. I am now 19. That’s 8 years of thinking about losing weight pretty much every single day (I can’t remember perfectly when I was 12 and 13 but I am pretty sure after that, ever single day of my life, losing weight has been on my mind) and it gets really frustrating, but I have never given up. I can’t. I know I want this, I know I need to do this for me and I am finally making progress after failing and falling down SO many times. I feel happy right now because I can see changed in myself and I’m motivated.
The problem is, though, that even when I know I want to do this for me, there’s always that part telling me that boys will like me better if I lose weight. I know it’s ridiculous, I know they shouldn’t be worth it if they don’t like me because I’m fat, I know my value is not measured on the way I look. I know all of this, yet I cannot stop that thought in my head. That if I lose weight, my ex-boyfriend would be amazed and regretful, that my former crush would have stayed with me, and that my current crush will surely want me. I like my personality, I try to be myself around all of them, they all know me pretty well and seem to like me but the feeling that they will like me totally and completely if I were thinner is something I can’t stop and I know it’s unhealthy so that’s why I’m coming to you.
How do I stop this unhealthy, destructive behaviour that concerns me every day? Or, is it really as unhealthy as it seems? Maybe is not so bad if I use it as a motivation to keep going and make my journey easier? I don’t feel like I could EVER be completely comfortable in this body if I don’t lose weight, and that part is not about the boys, is about me and who I am and my happiness, but the thought that everything would be better if I lost weight is a part of me I can’t seem able to shake off. How do you learn this kins of lesson? I am sure you’ve felt something like this before.
Thank you SO SO SO much Charlotte, for reading all our silly emails and spending your time with us and writing amazing posts that really, truly help people in ways you can’t imagine. Thanks, thanks, thanks.
Here are my thoughts:
1. “The thought that everything would be better if I lost weight is a part of me I can’t seem able to shake off” is a thought so many women have had and still have. You know that I struggled with this immensely for most of my life (I too started dieting in earnest at 12 – what is it about 12 that is so vulnerable?). And I’m not going to lie: on bad days this thought still comes into my mind. But I think this is one of those situations where you have to look at real results. Look at people around you who have lost weight. Is everything perfect for them? Of course not. That’s ridiculous. If that were true Lindsay Lohan would have the perfect-est life ever. (And your e-mail is not silly!)
Point 1: We’ll always have problems, no matter what we weigh. Life is for learning and we can’t learn if we don’t struggle.
2. “I don’t feel like I could EVER be completely comfortable in this body if I don’t lose weight, and that part is not about the boys, is about me and who I am and my happiness.” Your happiness is the most important thing to me about this e-mail. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about you and your situation. I will tell you that a lot of feeling comfortable in your own skin seems to come with age and maturity. (I know, the media tells us that we only get uglier as we get older and that every year we should hate ourselves more – and then buy more products to fix all the things “wrong” with us.) But, as crazy as I am sometimes, I feel 100 times better about myself than I did in my 20’s and 200 times better than I did in my teens. That said, would you feel more comfortable if you lost weight? Possibly. Only you can say that and since you have, I’m inclined to believe you.
Point 2: Feeling comfortable in your body is about so much more than what you weigh. Confidence, intelligence, kindness and beauty are possible at any weight – because these come from your soul, not the stuff it’s wrapped in.
3. “That if I lose weight, my ex-boyfriend would be amazed and regretful, that my former crush would have stayed with me, and that my current crush will surely want me.” This one made me smile. Because this thought is so, so, so normal. Ah the hot-body revenge fantasy! I have so totally wanted to be in that chick flick. Really though, we all wonder what we could do to re-write the past, especially when it comes to relationships. But E, even if your weight was “perfect” (whatever that means anyhow), some boys would still break your heart, some crushes wouldn’t return your affection and some would be jerks. Then you’d wonder if it would have been different if you’d had bigger boobs or a rounder butt or a more comprehensive knowledge of college sports teams.
Point 3: You can’t make someone love you. But there is someone (or someones) who will love you for who you are. Concentrate on making yourself the kind of person you are looking for rather than making yourself the person you think “they” want.
4. “I know I want this, I know I need to do this for me and I am finally making progress after failing and falling down SO many times. I feel happy right now because I can see change in myself and I’m motivated.” While I don’t think you have to lose weight to be healthy (see note below), I do think that making healthy choices – eating whole foods, exercising in a way that feels good, meditating, serving others – absolutely makes all people feel better. Junk food is a poison that clouds our ability to think and makes our moods volatile. Hormones and pesticides in the food chain disrupt our own natural functions making our bodies short circuit. Over- or under-exercising make us tired, weak and sad. And sometimes weight gain is a symptom of these things.
Point 4: I would encourage you to keep making healthy choices in your life. Whether or not you lose weight – and there’s a good chance you will – you’ll still feel better.
How’s that for your fortune cookie answers? Reading over this, it feels trite but sometimes things are said often because they’re true. My gut instinct, E, is to tell you to go find your happiness wherever it lies. Try every good thing, love a lot, cry a lot and when you look back over all that living I think you’ll find very little of it had anything to do with your weight. Use your body to help you get the life that you want. (Okay that sounds like I’m telling you to be a hooker. Don’t be a hooker.) Don’t lose the life that you want in pursuit of the perfect body. And you know as I’m telling you all this, I’m also telling myself – so thank you for that, E!
Readers: What say you? Is losing weight for someone else – whether they are real or just a hope – a good idea? What advice would you give E?
*Let me be perfectly clear: I firmly believe that women can be healthy through a large range of weights. Individual bodies are so unique and you cannot tell how healthy someone is just by looking at them. Do I think that all overweight women are perfectly healthy? No. Do I think all thin women are perfectly healthy? No. I do think that someone else’s health or weight is none of my business unless they specifically seek my advice, as is the case here. (Okay or sometimes when celebrities make a big deal about their weight and I feel inclined to comment on it because they influence so many people and someone needs to answer their crazy sometimes.)