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The “I just want to feel like I felt at my old weight” mistake
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I often hear from people who say something like “I just want to get back to the weight I was when I felt the best.” or “I know that when I’m a size x I’m healthier, my body is happiest at a size x.” When I ask them how they know that they will typically point to a time in their life when they were that size as proof.
Often in a conversation like this:
Me: When were you that weight?
Them: When I was 18
Me: How old are you now?
People don’t come to these conclusions out of nowhere. As we age, people who are any weight above “thin” are told, often by healthcare practitioners, to blame all of our aches and pains and discomforts on our body size (even though many thin people are experiencing the same things.)
But if we’re honest, differing body size is probably not the magic ticket to the fact that someone felt better in their body almost 40 years ago. And therein lies the problem with this method of “evidence.” It assumes that the only reason someone felt healthier or better in the past is that their body size was different, and that’s a seriously shaky assumption
Sometimes it’s not high school that they point to, but a specific time in their lives. Often when we ask questions (instead of just jumping into a weight loss recommendation) we’ll learn that their food or movement (or their entire relationship with food or movement) has changed since then, that they are under much more stress now than then, how they hate their body now, how they’ve had four kids since then, how they are treated poorly because of the weight they are at now, how they’ve been playing rec league soccer all this time. All of these things and more can impact health, especially when we are talking about how healthy we subjectively feel/felt. There’s also the tendency to romanticize the past and that can certainly come into play here. For those with multiple marginalized identities, the impact of a lifetime of oppression also adds up.
Healthcare practitioners often fall victim to this fallacy and end up focusing on trying to manipulate their patient’s body size rather than working to support their health and comfort in the bodies they have.
To be clear, I’m not saying that people didn’t feel differently in the past, I’m just pointing out the ways that living in a fatphobic culture can impact our understanding of our experience.
For example, this can also create a situation where someone’s body feels “different” because it has changed size/shape and they are interpreting that as feeling “bad.” I was recently working with a woman who had gained a bit of weight and said that she now felt so uncomfortable dancing that she had quit. As we discussed it more, we realized that she wasn’t feeling physical pain. Her discomfort stemmed from her internalized fatphobia and the way she processed the feeling of a body that jiggled a big more, and skin that now touches that didn’t previously. By processing through those feelings with her therapist and finding fat community to support her, she was able to return to the dancing that she loved. In cases like this, committing to a journey of discovery around our own internalized weight stigma, and getting to know our new body can be extremely helpful.
Regardless of where the feeling is coming from, the bottom line is that trying to attain a specific body size in an effort to be healthy/healthier or to feel like we once did is highly unlikely to be successful. The good news is, it’s putting a middle-man where no middle-man needs to be. The research is clear that, knowing that health is multi-dimensional and not entirely within our control, and not an obligation or barometer of worthiness, if we are interested in supporting our health, then healthy habits are the best way to increase our odds, rather than chasing a body size and hoping that we’ll find a bucket of health at the end of the weight loss rainbow. So we can work on things like strength, stamina, flexibility, balance, etc. at any size.
Aches and pains are often very normal, including as we age. And people of all sizes deserve support and treatment based on their priorities and on their terms. But for fat people, any kind of ache, pain, or health issue can end up being used, including by healthcare practitioners who are operating from a foundation of weight stigma, as a reason to attempt to manipulate our body size. Besides the fact that these attempt to make us thin fail the vast majority of the time, thin people experience the same aches and pains - so being thin can neither be a sure preventative or a sure cure.
Fat patients shouldn’t have to accept “maybe if you were in a different body you wouldn’t be in pain” as a treatment plan or prescription. Weight loss fails to meet the criteria as an evidence-based, ethical intervention. So fat patients should be given the same options for dealing with aches, pains, injuries etc. that thin people get, rather than having our pain used as a cudgel to enforce weight stigma and sell harmful weight loss interventions.
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*Note on language: I use “fat” as a neutral descriptor as used by the fat activist community, I use “ob*se” and “overw*ight” to acknowledge that these are terms that were created to medicalize and pathologize fat bodies, with roots in racism and specifically anti-Blackness. Please read Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body – the Racial Origins of Fat Phobia and Da’Shaun Harrison’s Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness for more on this.