The before and after picture.
We’ve seen it time and time again.
The slimmer body, the happier smile, the reams of celebratory comments. The claim that a person’s life is better now that they have lost weight. The gut-wrenching, guilty feeling that you (yes, you) should be doing the same thing.
A person making a positive change in their life is always worth celebrating, but when does the fanfare become toxic, and why is it worth finding new achievements to be inspired by?
Nutritional therapist and co-founder of Intuitive Eating Ireland, Sinead Crowe, says that without fail, the New Year will simultaneously make people change their diets while also making them feel bad about themselves.
“It’s pervasive, it’s every single January, and it’s cranked up big time,” she tells Her. “It’s almost like we think at Christmas we’ve a license to let loose, that the diet culture gods have given us permission. And then the New Year rolls around and you’re told to get your ass back in gear, this is your punishment.
“It’s a constant reminder that your body is not good enough, and you better make sure that you’re the smallest version of yourself next year.”
The normalisation of diets has been internalised, but it also exists externally too. After all, how could our minds possibly be trained to think any different when January is populated with weight loss programmes, fad diets, and a reminder that larger bodies are not good enough?
In 2004, The Biggest Loser debuted on US television. With an average of 10 million viewers per episode, the series pitted a group of contestants against each other, taunting them with cakes and fast food and weighing them topless in a concerning race to see who would lose the most weight in the quickest time.
Ryan Benson was crowned the series’ first winner, losing a staggering 122 pounds – 37%of his body weight. He later told the New York Times that his fasting and exercise regime had been so intense that he had started urinating blood.
Other transformation shows are thankfully not so bleak – these days, they’re more likely to incorporate mental health and be less focused on competition – but one factor tends to remain the same: the focus on weight loss.
Sinead points to programmes like RTÉ’s Operation Transformation as another problematic facet of society’s issue with weight and the importance we place on smaller bodies.
“I love the community aspect of the show,” she says. “People getting together, doing their 5ks with their high vis on. That sort of thing is fantastic for your health, mentally and physically. But there’s so much focus on weight loss, and that’s how it becomes toxic.”
But just what is it about these kind of programmes that the world enjoys so much? “We invest in the people’s stories,” says Sinead. “A lot of the time we’re watching vulnerable people with an upsetting, dramatic backstory that the public will relate to.
“Weight stigma is still a huge problem. It’s a blame game. A lot of people who have larger bodies don’t go to health screenings or check ups because of what the message is: it’s your fault.”
Research has shown that people labeled by the medical community as ‘obese’ on average spend less time with their doctors – not just because they don’t make the appointments, but because all of their health issues are reduced to their weight.
A US study found that many doctors reported seeing obese patients as “a waste of time the heavier they were, that physicians would like their jobs less as their patients increased in size, that heavier patients were viewed to be more annoying, and that physicians felt less patience the heavier the patient was.”
“It feeds all these distorted beliefs about people with bigger bodies,” says Sinead, “that they’re lazy, that they don’t care, that they’ve let themselves go.
“These beliefs can be really harmful not just for these people, but for those of us in smaller bodies. We fear becoming fat and we want to avoid it at any cost.”
But what about those among us who want to get fitter and leaner in a healthy way?
Is there any universal way to discuss weight loss in a manner that is positive? Can we congratulate a person for getting fit without immediately feeling like we should be doing the same thing, or triggering someone else?
Many body positive and intuitive eating resources point to language as a key aspect in this discussion. Rather than saying someone “looks skinny,” say they “look good.” Don’t say someone “has lost a lot of weight,” say… well, perhaps it’s not your place to comment on their body at all.
Portraying weight loss as something positive reinforces the damaging notion that ‘skinny = good’ and ‘fat = bad.’ It also negates the possibility that a person might not be trying to lose weight at all.
Nutritionist Abby Langer puts it eloquently in her 2020 blog post on the subject, writing: “Bodies are private property. Stay off, don’t trespass.”
She goes on: “By taking the step to compliment someone on their weight loss, what are you implying about the way they looked before? What if they gain the weight back, do you take the compliment back?
“It’s sort of like telling your friend that you always hated her ex-boyfriend, and then they get back together. Awkward.”