Before you read this, let me state a couple of points.
- The meaning of this post is not to say, “Don’t diet” or “Don’t lift weights.” Both of these activities, when practiced in constructive ways, can be integral parts of positive mental and physical well-being.
- The content of this post is centered on weight-loss, because I’ve never been concerned about not appearing tall enough or muscular enough. My hope, though, is that the message can translate to whatever it is that you’re feeling you “need” to change about yourself—height, muscle mass, wrinkles, ears, etc.
Anyhow, let me get to it.
A couple weeks ago, I was chatting with a girlfriend, and I expressed a desire to lose a few pounds (“pounds” is actually a pretty arbitrary measure to me, as I don’t own a scale or weigh myself). Years spent recovering from disordered eating, traveling, healing, transitioning, and growing (literally and figuratively) made me sometimes feel as though I might be heavier than I should be.
My wise, supportive friend listened calmly. She didn’t respond with one of those stock phrases like “Don’t be ridiculous” or “Omggggg Megan, you DON’T need to lose weight.” She paused, then said cautiously, “Okay, Meg. That’s fine. But WHY do you want to lose weight?”
Now would have normally been the time for a well-rehearsed response. One that I’ve said to myself and others countless times. I have stock answers for that question. I have ten years of stock answers for that question. For my health. My BMI is too high. I want to fit into my favorite jeans. I want to be able to run faster. It’s hard on my knees right now. I feel better when I’m a few pounds lighter. This isn’t my normal weight. I want to get rid of my cellulite. I want to be more confident in a bikini. I have a trip coming up. I went on a trip and overindulged. The holidays happened and I overindulged. Life happened and I overindulged. It’s my New Year’s resolution. I need to detox. I’ll be more attractive to others. I’ll be more confident. I’ll be happier.
But this time, I actually thought about her question before filling the silence with my most convincing answer. Why did I want to lose weight? Why, as someone whose spare time generally consists of playing sports, practicing yoga, and hitting the gym–as someone who finally enjoys the freedom to eat what she wants, generally without guilt or deprivation–did I want to lose weight? If my body, the product of an incredibly fulfilling lifestyle, was “heavier than it should be” right now, then what would life look like to make my body “how it should be”—at least according to Instagram and Hollywood.
I chuckled in response. I told her she was right. I told her it was an excellent question. I told her I knew exactly why I wanted to lose weight, and it wasn’t for any of the stock reasons. The reason I wanted to lose weight was because I had been recently dumped by a person I had been dating, and I was feeling vulnerable, disposed, discouraged, and powerless. Anxious and desperate for comfort, I searched for one of the old habits I knew that made me feel better—restricting and controlling what I put in my body, followed by the anticipated and fleeting “reward” of feeling myself getting thinner. A goal on the progress of which I could evaluate my self-worth. A way of managing anxiety, uncertainty, and powerlessness. But I know that road. You might, too. For me, that road is cruel, isolating, and unforgiving. I decided perhaps I don’t need to diet. Perhaps this is exactly how my body “should be”—the byproduct of an amazing life.
And so I decided not to diet for now.
So the next time you decide you want to lose weight, or bulk up, or tone or tighten (or get plastic surgery, or change your appearance in some way), just ask yourself why. There are many positive and healthy reasons to make changes to one’s lifestyle, and diet and exercise are large parts of that. Even cosmetic surgery can be healthy and positive, depending on one’s motivation. But if you’re using these aspects of your appearance and lifestyle as a controllable measure of your self-worth, consider taking pause; and, instead of using it as an avenue to build self-esteem for today, explore what else (expectations, career, connectedness, relationship to self) might be worth changing.