Q: I wanted to know if you’ve ever seen into this kind of attitude from the size acceptance community. Whether big or small, size acceptance is something I support, but– as someone who is trying to lose weight it hangs over my head when they don’t stop at “Diets don’t work” (because they do not, its true) and move to “Neither do Lifestyle Changes” and say if someone keeps their weight off for more than five years they are literally a lucky freak of nature.
Its a bit unsettling. Here’s an example:
Diets dont work, maintenance is difficult and I suppose even crazier to stay on for five years…but impossible? I dunno…seems a bit too nay-sayish.
A: Man, if there’s one topic I avoid like the plague, it’s this one. Not because I think there’s something wrong with women (and men too?) choosing their own goals and comfort levels with their bodies, but because fat acceptance as well as “health at every size” is lightweight wielded as a bludgeoning tool against anyone who brings up weight loss in certain environments on the Internet.
That being said, here’s the “example” that was presented in the question:
We often hear people on the Fatosphere mention “set point theory” or their set point when talking about why weight loss doesn’t work for most people. This can be a very confusing term. I thought I would explain MY understanding of set point theory, one I have come to after reading the experts, interviewing Fatosphere participants and my own experiences with weight loss and gain.
Set point theory suggests that our body has a particular range of weight that it is comfortable in, usually about 10% of a body’s weight. That means, if you weight 175, you have about an 18 pound range; if you weigh 325, you have about a 33 pound range. Most people lose and gain within this set point on a pretty regular basis. They may put on a little weight in the winter and lose it in the spring. Or get busy and drop a little weight. Or gain a little when stressed. Or lose a little during an illness. Or whatever. Movement within this range is normal. However, movement outside of that range is not. In fact the body seeks homeostasis – that is the body seeks to stay within that range. To move outside of that range something must go on, something must happen to the body.
This range appears to be set by a number of factors. The strongest factor seems to be genetic, as a number of studies have found. In fact, adoption and twin studies have determined that about 75% of us have the body size we do because of genetics. For that other 25%, a number of factors can mess with your set point, moving it either up or down. Disease is one of those factors. For instance, there exists a great deal of evidence suggesting diabetes causes individuals to get fat. Thyroid disease, Cushing’s Disease, PCOS and other diseases all cause weight gain. Medications can cause weight gain or loss. Depression can also cause the body to gain or lose weight. Stress can cause gain or loss. And, the kicker, DIETING can also mess with this homeostasis – increasing body weight the majority of the time.
When something tries to change the weight of an individual, the body fights back. This is true of both up and down. In the Vermot Prison study (1964) when researchers overfed prisoners, they found that the prisoners gained about 15%-25% of their body weight, then their metabolism shifted so that they could gain no more. One guy was eating 10,000 calories a day just to maintain that gain. When they quit eating so much, the majority returned to their original weight.
When we try to lose weight, the body will let it happen for a time, but then it starts fighting back. It starts adjusting the metabolism to hold onto weight. It starts an almost voracious desire for high carb and high fat foods. And the kicker, most bodies will increase the set point range, believing that it has experienced starvation and must protect against such danger again. [source]
Okay. Meet David Kessler:
We have presumed that the wisdom of the body is maintained through a feedback system known as homeostasis. Like temperature or blood pressure, which the body also tries to keep within relatively narrow ranges, energy is supposed to be regulated by a homeostatic process that keeps the body’s energy stores stable. By closely matching food intake and energy expenditure, this biological strategy has allowed us to consume hundreds of thousands of calories every year without losing or gaining much weight.
It’s a highly sophisticated system that can be explained simply: Many parts of the body talk to one another.
The brain is the command center of an elaborate communications network essential to energy regulation. This network involves the brain, the central and peripheral nervous systems, the gastrointestinal tract, the hormonal system, fat tissue, and more. The brain’s hypothalamus receives signals from all these sources, integrates that information, and decides what needs to be done to maintain the body at a steady weight.
But this homeostatic system, while relevant, turns out to be less powerful than many scientists have assumed. If we could maintain energy balance effectively, we wouldn’t be gaining so much weight. Our bodies would compensate, either by burning more calories or by shutting down our appetites. Obviously, that is not happening.
Over the past decade, scientists have tried to explain this failure by searching for defects in the homeostatic system. Their results have been disappointing. While some genetic and chemical defects have been identified, they seem to be rare and don’t adequately account for the most common forms of obesity.
Robert De Niro’s efforts to gain weight for the movie Raging Bull-and then lose it-demonstrate the limits of the homeostatic system. Hollywood celebrities may not seem to have much in common with the average American, but the extremes to which De Niro had to go for his role gave us experimental information it would have been hard to get another way.
First, he gained sixty pounds for the film by loading up on calories, and then he dropped most of that weight.
When I asked how he’d been able to do it, De Niro explained that it had been easy to lose the first thirty-five or forty pounds. “I stretched the rubber band and let it come back,” he said.
But the last twenty pounds had been much harder. His body seemed inclined to settle at a weight that was higher than it had been before his gain. Returning to his pre film weight, De Niro said, had required a vigilant mind-set. He likened the process he’d gone through to that of an alcoholic trying to stay sober.
Without knowing the biological explanation, De Niro had sensed that the homeostatic system was not acting alone.
Despite all the research focused on homeostasis, it is not the only influence on food intake. Researchers have shown that what we eat doesn’t depend solely on signals sent by the brain to maintain a stable weight. Another region of the brain, with different circuitry, is also involved, and often it’s in charge. This is known as the reward system.
And in America, in the fight between energy balance and reward, the reward system is winning.
That’s my philosophy on homeostasis. Oh, and “the reward system” is what encourages emotional eating – using the “temporary reward” that comes from eating a certain food as a means of escaping a painful or upsetting emotion. And, quite frankly, I’m of the mindframe that emotional eating is far more prevalent than we’d like to admit.
Now that that’s out of the way…
Don’t get me wrong – I have my general beefs with some of the logic the fat acceptance and size acceptance community uses, but I actually consider myself and this blog to be a part of those communities. I don’t tell anyone to diet- I’m a rabid non-dieter. I don’t tell anyone they’re insufficient as a human being because they’re overweight. I don’t discount the existence of food deserts, food scarcity or food availability issues. I don’t use shame or guilt to make people lose weight. I, now, have an understanding of the difference between losing weight and maintaining one’s weight, and those are both issues that affect all women, thick and thin. I write about being “fit”and “fat.” I tell women that the desire to lose weight should be borne of one’s love of self, not be borne of the thought process that they are less than. I write about body image. I write about self-compassion. I write about self-acceptance, self-esteem, and self-care. I think these are all important facets of size acceptance, because they are important facets of life.
And, really, I think it’s a little heinous the way people goad the SA/FA community simply because they don’t want to diet themselves to death, “get skinny” for a male-dominated society that likes its women “skinny,” or feel forced to succumb to those pressures in ways that create eating disorders. America’s culture is pretty easily manipulated by consumerism, and the way we let companies tell us that “we’re deficient and need their products to fix our deficiency” results in plenty women resorting to eating disorders to try to “get there” instead of simply developing a healthy relationship with both food and their bodies. It’s right – and sensible – to rally against that. And as a woman who is pursuing a body type that is not considered “acceptable” for women in this country (a fit, Black, female body is just as “unacceptable” as a fat one, generally), I understand that.
However… having said all that, I cannot understand why people treat “size/fat acceptance” (hereafter referred to as SAFA, because, quite frankly, I ain’t doin’ all that typing) as a last resort, because they’re looking for justification/acceptance regarding their decision to not diet or stress over weight. It’s like, “yeah, we should accept our size” but the part that’s left off sounds more like “yeah, we should accept our size… but that’s because losing weight is hopeless.” No, you should strive to love and accept your body because – as far as I know – it’s the only one you get. And if you choose to lose, that choice shouldn’t be because you’re surrounded by a bunch of jackasses who think you are “less than.” It should be done for you – no one else – and while your reasons for making that choice should be private, I can only hope that they’re healthy.
Taking it a step further, I question the logic behind demonizing weight loss and wonder if there isn’t a secondary motive behind it – a fear that if people start successfully and healthily losing weight, it’ll start to poke holes in their “weight loss doesn’t work so accept your size with us!” visage… which is why I don’t like how some connect acceptance with an inability to lose weight.
On this blog, I wrote how I originally used to go to the Bebe store with my girl (and bridesmaid!) Alyse and whine because I couldn’t fit anything in there. I wrote that I was “just trying to get skinny enough to fit into a Bebe skirt.” And I worked and worked my ass off… and while that Bebe skirt didn’t come as quickly as I’d hoped, I started experiencing things I could’ve never imagined long before I was anybody’s “skinny.” My feet stopped hurting and spreading so widely. My hips and knees stopped cracking and popping. I no longer needed to brace myself to lift up out of a car. I no longer struggled to tie my shoes (or, really, see my feet.) There are small bits and pieces of life that I overlooked as a size 28 – partly because I was growing more and more unaware, partly because I intentionally didn’t want to hold myself accountable for those pieces – that I value as a much smaller woman. Demonizing weight loss as if it brings “no good, so don’t even bother” denies the very real changes that come from working out, developing muscle. Demonizing “lifestyle changes” as if they don’t work denies the very real benefits that come from trying.
I will add a caveat, though… this “lifestyle change” thing. I am a firm believer that many people are simply emotional eaters, and either resent the idea that they don’t “have it all under control and use food to make themselves feel good” or outright have an addict’s perspective on it and say “I don’t have an addiction; I can curb it when I want.” If a “lifestyle change” doesn’t include addressing that – which many don’t – then you are bound to fail.
I understand a lot of the frustration that comes with being a woman in society; an overweight one, at that. I pursue the size I’ve got now because it helps me flip upside down on poles better, and because I’ve got an extremely energetic kindergartner (!) I enjoy racing. If someone in my position prefers to be larger, that’s her choice. If one prefers to be smaller, that’s her choice, as well. I’ll love and respect both as human beings and encourage my peers to do the same, as that’s what the “sisterhood” of size acceptance demands of me.