Suffocated By Numbers: Weight Loss, Body Image & Mental Health
by Jake Gifford
Weight loss is a titanic industry which has been a common, desirable pursuit amongst men and women. Whilst there's some evidence to demonstrate tracking weight can lead to short-term success, engaging in weight loss behaviour is often met with feelings of shame, frustration, guilt and anxiety. Consequently for many, weight loss has resulted in poorer mental and physical health as well as wellbeing in the long-term despite it being framed as a way to improve outcomes in these areas. This suggests that weight loss as an indicator of progress may not be considered a sensible suggestion anymore and alternative approach may be wiser.
Our Obsession With Weight Loss
The weight loss industry is a financial titan, generating billions of pounds each year. Scores of millions of people from all over the World embark on journeys to lose the pounds and do whatever it takes to shrink the number on the scale. Attached to those numbers come a plethora of different diets, supplements exercise modalities and support groups promising to help achieve this universal goal irrespective of your background, experience, medical history or failures in the past.
The heavy focus on our body image and weight is not a new phenomenon, rather society's obsession with criticising celebrity bodies, size zero models and airbrushed images has distorted reality and left us picking holes at the way we look, our size and our arbitrary weight attached to us.
Evidently we have developed a phobia of fat. We pass judgement at large bodies and viciously scrutinise our own even if the scale creeps up by half a pound. We frequently compliment people based on their appearance, "wow, you've lost so much weight you look great!", "you look so thin!", "I wish I had a body like yours". Consequently and unbeknownst to us, by engaging in conversations such as these, even towards ourselves, we're reinforcing the narrative that our self-worth is a reflection of what appears in the mirror and that there is something wrong with our bodies which needs fixing.
Ultimately, we've fostered the growth of a culture where we attach labels to bodies; we deem the 'thinner ideal' to be a depiction of health, wealth and hard work and therefore of high-value, comparatively larger bodies can be unfairly judged as unhealthy, lazy and gluttonous and undesirable. Whilst much of this may go unnoticed or is at least subtle to some, the everyday bombardment of confusing messages and digs at our own bodies, whether it's through campaigns or social media can make undoing the obsession with weight loss a challenging concept.
Unless something changes, then it's only going to get worse.
Our desire to change our bodies has always subconsciously been about extrinsic factors such as social acceptance or comparison, which is why most people fail. It's become less about health or fitness, rather our existential desire to feel part of something bigger than ourselves, accepted and not shamed for the way we look.
The Limitations Of Measuring Weight Loss
Weight loss has been commonly used by doctors, nutritionists, personal trainers and other professionals as a measure of progress, to encourage favourable behaviours and achieve improved health outcomes. Consequently over the years, weight loss has received widespread acceptance as something many should strive for to tackle the obesity 'epidemic'.
We've become conditioned to believing that a smaller number on the scale is a robust indicator of progress suggesting that a number on the scale equates to better health, increased productivity and even attractiveness. As a consequence we often believe if we fail to reach this arbitrary number then our efforts have been thwarted and unsuccessful.
The pursuit of weight loss often results in many people whom dread weigh-in day and experience thoughts of worry, guilt and shame ensue. You're often left wondering if that number is going to drop as much as you hope because you've tried really hard that week and believed you've done everything in your power to tip the scales in your favour. In some circumstances, extreme measures that promote restriction and punishment are indulged which often leave people feeling lethargic, depressed and anxious.
Like many indicators, weight is an imperfect measurement that can vary on a daily basis. Factors such as hydration, muscle mass, menstrual cycles & food in your stomach can all impact your weight. This means that some days your weight may increase or may decrease, it's largely unpredictable to some extent and it certainly isn't a reflection of how your week has gone or your self-worth.
Contrary to popular belief, weight loss does not always equate to better health. The link between better health and weight loss is based on poor correlations rather than hard science, however it is one of the biggest limitations of a weight-centered approach in efforts to improve health outcomes.
Many people often lose weight when they fall ill whether it's suffering from eating disorders or cancer which aren't exclusive to a certain shape or size. There are also people who gain weight when they start meeting the nutritional requirements or are within recovery as a consequence of illness. Changes in weight may be a side-effect of positive health improvement such as increasing physical activity or increasing vegetable intake, however it is not an accurate measurement of progress especially when you're attempting to measure physical or mental health.
Utilising weight loss as an indicator of progress has been a long accepted method of both tracking progress and encouraging short-term behaviour change. For chronic dieters, it may no longer be a suitable option and consequently indirectly damage health long-term.
Weight Loss & Body Dissatisfaction
This weight-centric system that's been indoctrinated has often been masked as empowering, inspirational and even body-positive with websites and social media plaguing us with transformation photos, presenting one's flaws and even glorifying balance. Whilst there is no denying that content such as this may be beneficial to some people, it is also important to recognise who this content can harm and whether long-term it is beneficial to the people that need it most.
Transformation photos, "Instagram versus reality" and balance posts are presented by a very narrow demographic (usually middle class, white girls in their mid-20s) and are only a single representation of a person's experience. Therefore it can be particularly hard for a person in a larger body or any other demographic who may experience confidence issues, oppression or not subject to diversity, to be able to relate or positively appreciate them, particularly when when they clog up your feed. Instead it just reinforces the idea that you body isn't good or worthy enough because you may feel like an influencer's flaws are better than where you are currently at now.
The dark truth is that the consequences of our actions are very rarely discussed. Instead a minority group appears to have the largest voice and perceive what they are doing is only positive, when in reality a large demographic is continually undermined and silently criticised. This is why I feel transformation photos and "reality" photos no matter how you look at it can be both damaging and misleading, not because of photoshop or clever lighting, rather they reinforce the idea that you are not good enough as a person and that you can achieve happiness and confidence in a thinner body.
It further creates body dissatisfaction.
I see it all the time. The comments and conversations between people who feel incredibly deflated by both their actions and body image. Their voices drowned out because as a society we're in such denial of deep, meaningful issues that we don't personally experience or witness.
And that's why so many pursue weight loss, despite the attrition rate for long term weight loss being ridiculously high, meaning that the majority of people who focus on weight loss as a long term or primary goal, often regain the weight they lose. For the small number who do buck the trend and achieve a preconceived number that's been set, they're often met with a sense of emptiness and confusion, wondering why all their expectations aren't fulfilled. It doesn't matter who you are or where you are from, your insecurities are deep rooted issues that can't be fixed by a number on a scale and the sooner you appreciate that and focus on the things that matter, the more likely you can work towards self-care.
People have this expectancy that losing weight will immediately solve all their problems and make them happy. This often leads to frustration when they fail to obtain a goal weight or disappointment when they achieve their goal but aren't any happier.
Whilst I think it's important to respect another person's goals, I also feel it's imperative that we have a clear view on the potential pitfalls and help realise that a particular goal may not be suitable for everyone at this moment in time. It's also important that we challenge current social norms that perpetuates the idea that weight loss equals improved health and instead focus on other aspects that grant a wider demographic safe access to improved health and wellness.
Examples of this could be getting stronger, improving your running time, mastering a new skill/sport you've never tried before or feeling more energised and at peace with your body.
This also means that we need to make sure there are appropriate facilities, professionals and communities which promote inclusivity, rather than create barriers for the most vulnerable people.
I am not knocking weighing yourself completely as it can be a useful tool to some people (although I wouldn't recommend once a week), the key point to take away from this is a better understanding of its limitations so that you can fix the relationships you have with both the scale and your weight. This in turn may help preserve your mental health and allow you to focus on more important factors such as physical activity to better health, without vilifying yourself for something that isn't completely in your control.
Let's start to challenge the conversation around our weight and approach goals from a different perspective. It's quite liberating.
- Emphasising weight loss is unlikely to lead to long-term changes and may result in weight-cycling.
- Weight loss is often perceived to increase happiness, confidence and health, however it's not often guaranteed and can enhance body dissatisfaction an low self-esteem.
- Setting goals and achieving outcomes beyond the scale such as improving fitness or increasing strength are much more favourable practices with fewer negative outcomes.
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About the Author
Jake Gifford, MSc is a personal trainer based in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. Jake encourages people to reject diet culture and discover the benefits of exercise beyond the way you look. You can also find him on Instagram @thephitcoach