I’ve been living a lie. Or, at least, it’s been really feeling like one lately.
I’m someone who identifies as body positive, openly rejects diet culture and regularly gasses up my friends to the nth degree about positive self-talk. I almost exclusively share anti-diet culture memes and promote self-love on my Instagram—just last week I shared a photo of my naked belly, something I never thought I’d do. And yet, some part of me still believes I can’t be beautiful until my waist is smaller and my legs are more toned. I’ve recently come to realize that a huge part of shaking this mindset comes from changing the way I think about exercise, food and the relationship between the two.
Less than a week ago, I deleted MyFitnessPal—a calorie-counting app that encourages weight loss through restrictive eating—for the millionth time, vowing to never use it again. But I still feel like a fraud. To this day, despite my body-positive essays and pseudo-Ted Talks to my friends, when general life anxiety creeps in, I turn towards control—controlling what I eat, how and when I move my body, and my weight.
This is in direct opposition to the philosophy behind body positivity, which asserts that all bodies are good bodies, regardless of race, weight, gender identity, sexuality and ability. Above all, it’s a practice to help people living in marginalized bodies feel entitled to self-love, something they’ve long been denied in favour of privileged (read: thin, white, able-bodied and cis-gendered) bodies.
I first became interested in body positivity almost a decade ago, when I discovered Nadia Aboulhosn, a plus-size fashion blogger who got her big break when someone from American Apparel saw a photo of her wearing a pair of the brand’s pants on her blog. It resulted in a photoshoot with the brand. Five years—and 600,000 Instagram followers—later, she has her own fashion line and is one of thousands of other models with bodies like hers. This planted the body-positive seed in my brain, but it wasn’t for another six years or so of yo-yo dieting, food restriction and punishing exercise that I really started to learn how to love my own body, at any size.
As part of this process, I was forced to confront my own inaccurate beliefs. Separating dieting and weight-loss motivated exercise from my overall health and well-being hasn’t been easy, nor has unlearning toxic conventional beauty standards based solely on weight and body shape. As I’ve gotten back into finding my groove in the workout world—with at-home workouts and regular spin classes—it’s been tough not falling back into my old habit of obsessive calorie counting. I know I’m not alone in this struggle. In fact, a few women have reached out to me on Instagram with a seemingly simple question: “Can I be body positive while wanting to lose weight?”
Good question. And unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. But here’s one thing I do know: I’ve been conditioned by diet companies and franchise gyms to believe that if I don’t have the perfect body, then I must keep aiming for it through rigorous exercise and restrictive eating. This prevalent way of viewing my relationship to exercise makes disconnecting movement—the preferred BoPo-approved alternative word to “exercise,” which disconnects it from the idea of traditional weight loss—from weight loss extremely difficult. And I’m not the only one. When body positive models like Ashley Graham post workout videos, they often get chastised for promoting weight loss and being anti-body positive. (And I’ll admit that even I felt a tinge of anger for a moment when Graham started sharing workout videos two years ago, eventually unpacking the fact that I felt betrayed.)
Somewhere along the line, I forgot how movement made me feel—and that it’s entirely possible to exercise without the goal of losing weight. I never would’ve called myself one at the time, but I was an athlete as a kid. I played soccer for eight years, competitively danced for three and horseback rode for a decade. Moving my body in these ways was about self-expression, stress relief and challenging my mind—it was healthy escapism and I learned how to trust what my body could do, and ignore what the world told me it couldn’t. I didn’t care how it moved, just that it did. But it wasn’t long before the magic went away. By grade six, I was being so horribly bullied that I was afraid to try out for the soccer team; scared of making myself an even bigger target for ridicule. Though I went on to play again after switching schools, that emotional wound, and fear of being laughed at, remained. Exercise as a form of punishment—for eating, for being fat, for hating myself—took the place of movement for the love of it, and it wasn’t until 2018 that I started to heal this.
But the real healing came after getting sober from drugs and alcohol nearly a year ago. The positive effects of sobriety—like anxiety management and healthier relationships—has naturally allowed my self-esteem to soar and led me to rediscover my love for movement through spinning. What started as an alternative to going out on weekends became the healthiest addiction I’ve ever had, but, if I’m being completely honest, I also couldn’t help but think that my new hobby would lead to weight loss. It hasn’t—and my frustration over that fact eventually forced me to look inside and appreciate everything else that had changed as a result of regular spinning—my muscles, my endurance and most of all, my self-confidence.
Even with this hard-earned perspective, not falling back into a toxic way of thinking is still a daily practice—and one that Toronto based body-positive fitness trainer Jenna Doak knows very well.
Doak starting training others when she was 18, but even as an expert in her field and someone who strongly believed in the principles of body positivity—in other words, putting inner health and happiness over outer appearance—she was still waging war on her own body through restrictive eating and excessive exercise. “I was constantly fighting it to portray what a fitness trainer is supposed to look like, and that was a really unhealthy and twisted way of thinking,” Doak says. “I realized there isn’t really a safe place for bigger people or people of different abilities… The gym was a really intimidating place if you weren’t really trying to lose weight.” And for many people, the idea of working out without that goal is puzzling.
As she stopped focusing on weight loss and dieting, Doak started naturally gaining weight, and was inspired to create a gym for those for whom weight loss wasn’t the goal. “[I wanted to] teach people how to move for reasons other than just to change their body,” she said. No weight assessments are required. Instead, she talks to clients about the benefits of exercise that have little to do with weight loss. “If somebody comes to me with specific goals that they want body-wise, I talk to them about it … I help them understand that losing inches or changing your body fat drastically isn’t actually as attainable as everybody makes it out to be,” Jenna says.
It’s now widely established that the way traditional gyms measure health—by weight, body fat percentage and inches—isn’t necessarily an indicator of overall well-being. Instead, Dr. Valerie Taylor, head of psychiatry at University of Calgary, believes long-lasting health starts on the inside. “It’s gradual behaviour change that improves the quality of life, and sometimes weight loss is inevitable with that. Sometimes it’s not,” she explains. “Then, a person can become healthier and happier at whatever weight they are … It’s not about a particular BMI.” Taylor’s research centres around the intersection of mental health and obesity, and developing approaches to weight management with compassion by removing societal pressures to look a certain way and focusing on personal happiness. “There’s no such thing as a diet, good food or bad food, or the right way to lose weight,” she says. “It’s really working with an individual for the outcome that is positive self-esteem and an overall health profile, not a number on a scale.”
That’s exactly how it happened for Cleo Ellis. After moving to Toronto from Edmonton, and finding it far more walkable, she noticed how out of shape she was—and decided to make herself stronger. As a result, she unintentionally lost 40 pounds. “I didn’t do it because I hated myself or my bigger body. It was actually a consequence of me trying to make my body stronger and giving it all that I could,” explains Ellis, who believes body positivity means accepting bodies of all sizes. “My journey has never been focused on a particular number on the scale.”
But for some, like body positive blogger Jude Valentin of New York, intentional weight loss signifies a fear of fatness. “Weight loss is you trying to get away from fatness. Fat bodies and voices are why the body positivity movement was created,” the 22-year-old says. “You don’t have to lose weight to be healthy, and if your goal is to be healthy, then you shouldn’t be thinking about losing weight … Having thinness be an accomplishment is damaging.”
So, can you be truly be body positive while still wanting to lose weight? The answer, to me, is a tentative “yes”—tentative, because the true answer relies on getting rid of body shame and completely transforming how I view beauty and my relation to it. “I think that you need to start with the question, ‘Why do you want to lose weight?’ If you want to lose weight to be prettier or sexier , that is not body positive,” Doak said. “If you’re doing it for reasons [like improved movement or health] that don’t have anything to do with what you look like, then yes, that is body positive. Being body positive is also taking care of yourself in a positive way.”
The answer lies in intention, and it requires a constant examination of the culture we live in—a culture that tells us we need to be smaller to be beautiful, and that reinforces restrictive eating and exercise for penance, not pleasure—and the way that culture influences our thoughts and actions. Rejecting these beliefs is daily practice for me. Every day, I must wake up and decide to be my teammate and not my enemy.
Growing up, I had a lot of enemies: my peers, my bullies, the gym, food, scales, my doctor, the list goes on. There were few areas of my life, few places I could go, that didn’t remind me how unworthy I was because of my weight. Re-entering these once-scary spaces, as I did to get to my first spin class, is easier said than done. And continuing with a form of movement that lets me reconnect with my body, unwind and relieve stress—without the intention of losing weight—is hard when I’ve believed that, until now, exercise only serves the purpose of getting smaller.
The shame I sometimes feel as a body-positive activist who sometimes still feels the pressure to lose weight serves no purpose. Pretending I didn’t grow up in a society that wanted me to shrink doesn’t help; judging women who are at a different point in their self-love journeys does nothing to change the culture of unattainable perfection we’re still mired in. Sometimes I find my mind drifting off to a fantasy life in which I’m thin, conventionally beautiful and thus, living the perfect life. But I ultimately don’t dwell in that hypothetical world anymore. None of us belong there.