How I Felt Gaslit by the Body Positive Community
In the past five years as a dietitian, I have told thousands of clients “weight loss can’t make you happy… you have to find happiness on your own first.” I still think that’s true for a lot of people, but if the only driver for weight loss is to be happier, it doesn’t usually work.
In fact, in my private practice, I repeatedly work with women who feel less satisfied with their bodies after attempting weight loss. And there is a good amount of research to support this. When you spend so long criticizing your body and working to make it smaller, you don’t learn how to appreciate your body day-to-day.
In a world where the focus is almost always on weight loss and becoming skinnier, so many women benefit from learning how to simply exist in their bodies without wanting to change them. This is the essence of the body positive movement. And for years, I firmly stood behind this message — until I got really sick.
My body needed to be taken care of.
In 2020, during a stressful life period, I developed severe IBS symptoms. As time went on, my weight started to climb. Everything I used to say and believe about body image felt challenged. At first, I told myself “it’s time to put your beliefs to the test; can you truly walk the walk?”
Over time, my health issues worsened: I couldn’t go longer than an hour or two without feeling painfully hungry. I felt lightheaded if I walked for too long. My hormones were all over the place. I lost my menstrual cycle. I gained about 35 pounds. It felt like my body wasn’t my own.
At some point, it became really hard to ignore these symptoms and dismiss my body changes. In fact, I would argue that trying to love my body through these changes blinded me from getting the help I needed sooner.
Eventually, after a lot of inner turmoil, I finally found the right treatment for my symptoms. Truly, within a few days, nearly all of my symptoms had improved. And within a few months, my weight naturally re-calibrated back to where it used to be.
It’s obviously not just weight loss, but that I got my health back and my previous symptoms cleared. So, weight loss was a byproduct of figuring out my health.
For me, weight gain was a symptom that something was really, really wrong. If I had listened to the body-positive voice in my head that told me to just keep buying another pant size, my health would have continued to worsen.
I have not intentionally lost weight during this time, but I was aware that it was happening. I was finally able to resume healthy habits that make me feel my best like walking, running, weight training, eating my favorite foods again, and sleeping through the night. Naturally, these habits promote a weight that is healthy for me.
I needed to shift away from being “body positive” and focus on my health.
This experience has continued to teach me how nuanced nutrition science and body image are. Cookie-cutter plans are out. We know deprivation diets don’t work. People need totally different approaches and individualized care.
As a dietitian, this has helped me be less dismissive of clients’ weight changes. Drastic weight changes are a symptom. Something else is going on. And when we dismiss that, people feel unheard and unsupported.
I’ve also changed my terminology quite a bit. Rather than labeling myself body-positive, I feel more body-neutral or even body-curious. I am not a weight-loss-at-any-costs dietitian, but I am also not a weight-loss-is-evil dietitian.
It’s more important to find the right way to support each client as an individual — and that looks different for everyone.