Thinness and Fitness Are Not the Same Thing
Diet culture might be a new term to you, or it might be a phrase that you’ve heard over and over as you began unpacking all of the damage it’s caused you over your lifetime. Regardless, it’s a big part of our society, and a lot of the time we don’t even realize its presence until we are trying to escape it, just to find it everywhere we look. Which is fucked-up and infuriating.
Christy Harrison, an anti-diet registered dietitian, nutritionist, certified intuitive-eating counselor, and author of Anti-Diet, defines diet culture as “a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue.”
It encourages weight loss and the pursuit of thinness and societal beauty standards—at all costs. Which usually leaves you with a lifetime of pursuing an impossible thin “ideal” with feelings of failure. Diet culture forces us to become extremely aware of food choices and then filled with shame about meeting one of our most basic human needs. It oppresses bodies that do not meet the “ideal” standards and pictures of “health,” which damages the physical and mental well-being of women, those with disabilities, people of color, people in larger bodies, and all other marginalized groups.
Diet culture believes that it’s okay to risk the life of a fat person. It’s a do-whatever-it-takes mentality. This tends to lead to eating disorders, disordered eating, broken relationships with food, body dysmorphia, and even, in some cases, death. The same eating disorders being diagnosed in thin bodies are being ascribed to those in fat bodies with active denial of any difference.
In short, diet culture prefers fat people to either shrink their bodies into thinness or die trying.
Registered dietitian Evelyn Tribole is the coauthor of the foremost book on the subject, Intuitive Eating, and creator of the ten key principles of intuitive eating, which describes intuitive eating as “a self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought.”11
There are no guidelines about specific foods to avoid. Instead, intuitive eating focuses on trusting our bodies and their natural intuition. Here are the ten key principles of intuitive eating:
#1 Rejecting the diet mentality
Quit little destructive habits, first hourly, then daily, weekly, and eventually altogether. This meant saying goodbye to:
- exercises and food intake
- Participating in weight-loss discussions
#2 Honor your hunger
Feeling hungry does not mean that your body is failing. There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed about for feeling hungry. It’s what our bodies are designed to feel to, you know, stay alive. Somehow, diet culture often has us pairing the sensation of hunger with feelings of shame and guilt. When you think about this logically, and not through the lens of diet culture, it’s just absurd.
#3 Make peace with food
Give yourself permission to eat. Food is not evil and is certainly not here to ruin your life. We spend so much time being deprived of the foods we love that any chance we get to consume them turns into a moment of guilt and shame. This is pretty crazy, considering we need food to survive. But maybe if we weren’t so deprived all the time, we would actually have moments to enjoy fueling our bodies with any of the foods we love.
#4 Challenge the food police
by remembering that eating certain foods does not make you a bad person. This can feel confusing when this idea of judging yourself or another person for eating has so outrageously been normalized by Western society. There is no reason to feel like a terrible person for eating the foods you prefer.
#5 Discover the satisfaction factor
Eat what you actually want to eat. Feel your fullness by paying attention to signs from your body that let you know that you are full. And not the kind of full where you’re feeling sick and incredibly uncomfortable.
#6 Listen to your body and trust it
#7 Cope with your emotions with kindness
food does not magically resolve our internal emotional discomfort. Now, food might numb it for a few minutes or hours. Food might create a distraction for us to focus on instead of facing the struggles we face emotionally. But when the dust settles and the numbing fades, we are right back to where we started: face-to-face with the source of our discomfort.
#8 Respect your body
We aren’t genetically made to all look exactly the same. Some of us have larger feet and smaller hands. Some of us are tall and some of us are short. Some of us have square butts and some of us have round butts. That’s just basic human DNA. And even with that, it’s okay for your body to change and evolve over time. Because, news flash, all bodies are damn good ones.
#9 Feel the difference when you move your body.
Rather than focus on the number of calories you need to burn to make up for the food you ate, allow yourself to feel the sensation of movement and notice how these sensations make you feel. Movement is a primal instinct. Maybe we enjoy the quick bursts of movement and maybe that brings us the most joy. Or maybe picking up a ton of weights brings us the most joy. Whatever kind of movement is providing that for us, the last thing it should bring us is shame and punishment.
#10 Honor your health with gentle nutrition
Choose foods that make you feel physically well. If it’s making me feel so terrible physically, do I really like the food? Enough to be this miserable? Are there foods that make me feel the opposite? Strong and fulfilled? Which foods offer me both physical fulfillment and make my taste buds smile?
Embrace Fitness as We Are: THE BIG WHY
A question for you: If working out, exercising, or any other term you prefer to use for moving your body didn’t do anything to alter your appearance… would you still do it? Think about that for a moment. Because exercising should be about more than your physical appearance. Sure, exercising might physically change your body in some ways. But it also might not, and that’s okay. The benefits of movement extend far beyond an aesthetic.
The “in shape,” fit ideal that is constantly advertised or praised isn’t necessarily a physical shape. So you shouldn’t look toward it as an end goal or the source of your drive. The motivation you’re constantly searching for can only be found after you get going, and getting going has to stem from an intention rooted in self-respect, self-worth, confidence, and empowerment. Exercise should be something you enjoy, not an intense, grueling punishment for the food you ate.
Shift Your Fitness Focus From Appearance Based To Body Positive
Choose forms of movement that are fun and enjoyable for you.
If you don’t like running, then don’t go for a run! There are so many different ways to move our bodies. From group sports to pole dancing to dog walks to swimming to strength training, the list is essentially endless. If you’re not sure what you’ll like, give a few different things a try and see what makes you smile. If something isn’t enjoyable for you, it’s not something you should feel bad about! There’s nothing wrong with you for not liking an activity that many others do, and it shouldn’t discourage you from exploring other options.
remind yourself that you’re more than your body and choose a form of movement that brings you joy and health of the mind, body, and soul. You can’t photograph the transformation of what happens inside
Work out in clothes that are comfortable
If you’re constantly adjusting your clothes and worried about how you’ll look in them, your experience will be less enjoyable. Not only that, but you’ll constantly be fixated on how you look, rather than how you feel.
Think about how you feel while you’re working out, not about how you hope working out will make you look.
it’s damn near impossible to contemplate anything other than the big secret hidden deep down about why you’re even moving your body in the first place (especially when it’s something you don’t even enjoy doing). But instead of calculating the number of calories you have left to burn in the next ten minutes, try thinking about how your heart is pumping. It’s kind of incredible how your body knows exactly what to do when you’re exercising, and that it is doing everything possible to help you achieve your goals.
Don’t overdo it.
Whether it’s because you rely on working out to relieve stress, or because you’re feeling that you can never miss a workout for fear of gaining weight, don’t overexercise. Our bodies need rest and time to recover from any type of movement.
Listen to your body and stop if you’re in pain or fatigued. There’s nothing to be ashamed of for needing a moment of rest or ending the session for the day. Fitness isn’t “all or nothing,” and you know your body better than anyone else.
Explore fitness intuitively without a focus on weight loss, especially if you’re trying to focus on your health.
Weight loss isn’t a magic gateway to achieving peak health. Weight loss can stem from numerous other factors—including genetics, weight stigma, eating disorders, chronic illnesses—that aren’t healthy. Even if you’re aiming to achieve certain aesthetics, think realistically about where your motivation or “body goals” are coming from. Consider any previous body-obsession patterns you’ve experienced and how they may have impacted you. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a six-pack, but it might be something to tread carefully around if you have experience with any type of body-dysmorphic thoughts.
Choose goals that have nothing to do with how you look.
Measuring your progress and setting goals can be about so much more than pounds or inches lost. There are a lot of different ways to set goals and measure progress, from strength (dead-lift PR, anyone?); to endurance (5K fun run, anyone?); to flexibility (toe touching for easier shoe tying, anyone?); to speed (spin class sprints, anyone?); to just straight-up creating joy. Taking the focus away from a constant pressure to appear different will create room for growth in other areas just as meaningful.
Choose a trainer and/or fitness studio that is body positive and weight inclusive, rather than weight-centric.
If you choose to engage a personal trainer, you have some options and should talk to multiple people. Here are some examples of a few body-positive questions to ask when interviewing a potential trainer:
- Will you be prioritizing my well-being over my weight loss?
- Will there be a requirement to measure my body or take photos?
- If I’m not comfortable working out in front of a mirror yet, will I have the option to avoid it until I’m ready?
- Will we be able to set goals that are more focused on how I’m feeling rather than how my body looks?
Read reviews and testimonials from some of the trainer’s previous clients. Trainers’ websites should clearly state their body-positive values. Their social media content should celebrate movement beyond how it can alter appearance. But above all else, in choosing trainers, whether they claim to be body positive or not, ask yourself if you feel welcome in their facility.
Unfollow all social media accounts that are triggering for you and do a full social media cleanse.
Even if it’s friends or family that you’re uncomfortable unfollowing, hit the mute button for a while if their posts are currently triggering. Fill your feed with people of all shapes and sizes, living and thriving and empowered as they are. Think of it this way: if it’s constantly making you feel like shit about yourself, it sure as hell doesn’t deserve to live rent-free on your feed.