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I propose in a number of blog posts that the most important thing for a woman’s health is to love herself. Maybe I never came out and said it that explicitly, but I do believe that that is the truth. And I do hope that is apparent in my writing. From self-love (and being reasonable!) I believe follow nourishment, healthy diets, emotionally healthy eating, reduced stress, and increased well-being and happiness. Self-love is at the top of the hierarchy. From there filters the whole cascade of holistically healthful and beautiful practices and beliefs.
In my opinion.
One of the most powerful–or at least vocal–responses I have gotten to this viewpoint is that it is discouraging to women trying to lose weight. Am I just telling them to give up? Am I telling them their goals are unworthy or even immoral? Am I trying to create a happy-go-lucky fantasy land in which all people at all sizes walk around in equal health and equal sex appeal?
Well, that’d be nice.
But I’m not.
Self-love and contemporary notions of overweight
In our society, we have this funny idea that self-love and weight loss are exclusive. Or maybe a better way to put it is that we associate the promotion of self-love and body acceptance with being overweight. There are a fair number of people out there who advocate body acceptance at any size, and who disparage the effort to lose weight (whether they do this because they failed to or refuse to lose weight is irrelevant). Many of these people advocate self-love. They advocate accepting their bodies as they are, and feeling sexy and empowered no matter what their size. This is powerful stuff. It’s not ideal for holistic health, since there are real health concerns with being overweight, but it remains powerful stuff.
But somehow the idea of self-love then got inexplicably and monogamoulsy married to this notion of being overweight and proud. If I advocate loving one’s self and one’s body, I must necessarily, at least in some people’s eyes, be telling them that weight loss is irrelevant, that it’s unnecessary, and that they should accept whatever skin they are in regardless of what is healthy or how they feel about it because that’s just how their natural bodies are built. I must, in this view, be telling women not only that it’s impossible to be lean and healthy, but also that it’s wrong to try to lose weight in order to be lean and healthy.
That could not be further from the truth.
I have zero desire to keep people from healthy bodies. I want them to get healthy bodies. That is in fact my primary aim! But what I mean when I advocate self-love is not an excuse or an apology for being over weight, but rather a tool to help women achieve weight loss. Among other things.
My idea of self-love
Self-love is about loving the body as a body. I don’t believe that this has anything, at the outset, to do with how it looks. Love is not an issues of aesthetics. Your body does not have to look a certain way in order for you to love it. It only has to be.
And to be you.
Self-love is in my opinion loving the whole self first and foremost, regardless of it’s appearance. Loving the body, in my view, is about loving ourselves as physical creatures, absent of how we might look to others or in a mirror. Our bodies are not just visual instruments. They are complicated, thrumming, vibrant organisms. They provide the physical basis of our existences, and as such they enable us to perform all of the physical functions available to us– they enable us to run, to leap, to sleep, to feel the wind in our hair… to bleed, to cry, to pray, to heal, to live, to die. And they enable our internal lives as well, providing the means for us to feel joy, sorrow, exaltation, pain, freedom, peace, and love. Our bodies are physical, first and foremost. And not visual. So when I advocate that people love their bodies, what I really want for them is to love themselves and their relationship with their physical existence.
This physical existence may be complicated. Maybe it looks better to a woman some days than others. Maybe it feels better some days or others. Those things are all well and good and deserve attention in their own ways. But the looks and the feeling, these things follow from being a physical body first and foremost. They derive from it. Which is why I advocate loving and nurturing that physical existence above all other things. The body cannot look healthy (not without significant monetary investments, in any case) if it is not actually healthy, and the body will not achieve true holistic health without a woman working in harmony with that body. In order to have a truly glorious body, a woman must feed it what it needs, and therefore she must listen, and nourish, and care for it.
Loving a body leads to wanting a healthy body, and a body within the normal body fat percentage range is generally the healthiest body. For that reason, I advocate weight loss. Of course I do. I want everyone to be functional and springy and radiant. So when I say “love and accept yourself” I am not advocating that women accept a body that is uncomfortable or unhealthy. Not a chance in hell. Instead, I am asking them to have sympathy for their bodies. To give their bodies a hug, and walk off into the sunset together, hand in hand.
Bodies that have endured stress and metabolic abuse look unhealthy because they have been hurt. And currently, they are actually trying desperately to heal themselves. What then is a better solution than getting on board and helping the body do what it is already trying so hard to achieve? Why fight it, why hate it, why go to war, when it is already trying to get the job done, and probably better than we as body-dictators could ever force it to? Healing leads to both metabolic and psychological fitness, for both overweight and for normal weight women. Without healing in mind, a woman can literally drive her body into the ground, and can do both it and her spirit worlds worth of damage. Gentle restriction has its place in health and weight loss. Militant restriction does not. Warfare is not good for anybody, nor is it ever going to achieve a weight loss that is simultaneously healthy, happy, and sustainable over the long term.
I have also told women that they will not look like Cameron Diaz or Jilian Michaels and be healthy. Generally, I stand by this. If a woman is born into, and develops throughout puberty in, a super thin body, then she will maintain this level of thinness possibly for the rest of her life. And many women get down to super low weights without much hormonal disruption. But sometimes if a woman developed through puberty at a higher weight, and then once an adult overshoots her weight-loss needs into the sub-20 range, her body might identify this as starving. This isn’t to say that her body wants to be overweight. It does not. Not. But having more fat on her than a skeleton once she reaches a healthy weight, which may, for example, fluctuate between 20 and 25 percent body fat, just means that this woman has been programmed to operate optimally with different levels of hormones than sticky women. And that’s okay. She is still healthy, and she is still hot. So this is what I mean when I say “normal weight.” Not overweight. But healthy. Lean, active, capable, radiant… but not poking at her hips, not grinding her teeth in the mirror if she’s got “stubborn” fat on their thighs. Lean. Active. Capable. Radiant.
Fat loss is healthy, but up to a point. Self-love is healthy all of the time.
Self-love is not antagonistic to weight loss. Nor is self-love antagonistic to those of us who need to gain weight. Instead, self-love is about working in partnership with our bodies to achieve a holistically healthy and beautiful existence, for all of us. Self-love is about providing the body with the tools it needs to get healthy and vibrant and radiant, while never hating it for looking or behaving a certain way. It is about troubleshooting problems and forgiving imperfections or missteps. It is about moving forward with peace and equanimity. And it is about becoming over time an increasingly empowered, increasingly sure, and increasingly bad-ass embodiment of healthy, exaltant, beautiful womanhood.