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Self-love and Weight Loss: Enemies or Bedfellows?

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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.

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Managing director of Paleo for Women and author of Sexy by Nature.

30 Comments

  1. I loved this post. I suffer from being unkind to my body but it does amazing things for me.I am really going to love it more for all it does for me.

    • It does so much this is awesome.

      I am glad, Debbie. So, enormously glad. Thank you. I think your body is amazing, too.

  2. Incredible. Beautiful. Hot.

    Great post, Stef. I used to be plagued with the notion that I could never change my body / situation / life if I became accepting of where I was. I thought that self-love = self-acceptance, and that I would have to comply with not being at my correct weight, with my emotional eating issues, and the struggles I had with food and body. Sure, I could lose 15 lbs with sheer force and restriction, but then I would be hating the vehicle I have to show the world love. I could rip myself apart for eating emotionally, but then I would feel ashamed to be, well, existing… Over the course of some time, I’ve learned that loving myself does NOT mean that I won’t make progress. It does NOT mean that I have to be uncomfortable or unhappy, it just means that my changes may take a little longer, but they’ll also LAST quite a bit longer too.

    Thanks for addressing the differences, similarities, distinctions and nuances of this subject.

    xo

    • Thank YOU for chiming in… it took me a while to find the steam and the angle I needed, but I think this spoke adequately to what you and I were on about. I couldn’t thank you enough for being inspirational in that way.

      Podcast going up in a couple hours! :)

  3. Thank you SO much for this post. I just printed the last paragraph, and I’m taping it on my wall, right over my computer.

  4. Thanks for this Stefani. After going paleo for about six months, I’ve realised recently that I’ve been obsessing about how I look and am slowly spiralling into disordered eating. You have reminded me that I’m already perfect the way I am and to focus on gaining strength and health, not a six pack! It’s hard to let go of the ideal version of me in my head, but I’m going to try my best.

  5. Thank you! I get bothered by those “bootcamp” fitness classes and now I understand better why. It doesn’t seem healthy to go to war with your body, to punish it into the shape/size you want. I’m also bothered by most of the personal trainers at my gym who seem to take a bootcamp approach to training people. You see them having clearly overweight people crawling on the floor or doing complicated sets of squats with a step up and a jump as they press weights above the head then back into a squat, etc. It looks abusive to me.

    • I remember I used to get up every morning at 6am to work out before high school, and then again after school. And it was so hard… but I also idolized people who woke up and made themselves run all of the time… it’s like: we idolize self-torture if it’s for the sake of being hot. Really, we do. We see it as ‘discipline.’ Which it is. But is that inherently, necessarily a good thing? What if with that discipline comes self-consciousness, fear, and a lack of internal self-worth?

      Not for me, not any more.

      • I know. I used to exercise way too much and felt tough and disciplined for it. Well, my discipline lead to some serious overtraining with, of course, a cascade of health problems I’m still working on. It was a brand new skill I had to learn to actually listen to my body instead of purposefully ignoring it. I still like to be active, but now my discipline looks different. Now it involves me holding back more to ensure I’ve had enough rest and recovery and proper nourishment.

        Also, your description of self love makes me think of parenting. Of course I love my kids for the unique creatures that they are, but a lot of my love is in the action of caring for them. We feed them yummy, nourishing food, help them pursue their interests, do our best to teach them how to be responsible, independent, and caring, etc. Same with loving yourself. Part of that is loving and accepting what you are. The other part is actively taking care of yourself.

  6. This is spot on! Have you ever checked out Karly Pittman’s website (http://www.firstourselves.org/)? She writes a lot on how we should love our bodies and that the best way to lose weight is through kindness and not hating our bodies. Her focus is more on treating sugar addiction but there are lots of great articles!

  7. Awesome once again!… I especially loved the last paragraph… The notion that weightloss is important but won’t always be is an incredible point that even I fail to remember… :) also the crucial notion that wl and self love must go hand in hand for success.

  8. You are a truly gifted writer and motivator. Thank you do much sharing this super important message!

  9. I am an actual overweight gal (seems rare in the paleo community, most people seem to be trying to lose the elusive “last 10 pounds”) and I have to say that there is really no way to truly change your life without compassion towards yourself. Many things have finally clicked for me, and when I do this, it’s because I want to be awesome, the best me I can be, and one way of taking care of myself is to eat this way. Weight loss is nice, but it’s more of a side effect. The real thing for me is the profound change in my state of mind.

    That being said, I become very frustrated when the ONLY success metric people discuss is weight loss, like it’s a failure if you don’t lose weight. There are soooo many other benefits.

  10. I adore this post, even being paleo we still are subjected to the same societal pressures to look a certain way, they are just shifted a bit towards looking like a crossfit coach or a female figure competitor. It takes a lot to embrace your body and be comfortable in your own skin. I think not only do we need to love ourselves, but we should stop judging others as well. Judging other people because they are bigger/smaller/fitter/fatter/prettier than you also comes from a place of hate and needs to end.

    • I wish my blog has a ‘like’ function. Like!

  11. Have you seen these web sites? They are super awesome resources for those seeking body acceptance.

    http://www.mybodygallery.com/

    http://www.007b.com/breast_gallery.php

  12. I love this. It resonates with me on so many levels. Thank you.

  13. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. It was exactly what I needed to read. I am finally coming to the realization after YEARS of binge eating and self-loathing that what I really need to do is learn to love and nourish my body. I have been doing the Paleo thing for about a month now, and have been eating healthfully according to conventional wisdom for my entire life, but my healthy diet has always been a means to an end: weight loss. My body has always been a work in progress. And you’re right, I have always associated “self-love” with “fat acceptance.” Not exactly appealing to a girl with a history of eating disorders.

    One thing I would love to read is how you came to a place of self-love. In theory, it sounds like the answer, but in practice, I’m not sure how to get there. How do you change the mindset that you will be perfect when you reach X weight (and inevitably, X-10 weight after that)? I’m new to your blog so perhaps you’ve written about this already, but if not, it might be a helpful post for people like me who are struggling to get to a place of self-acceptance, and ultimately, self-love.

  14. I think of it this way. If I didn’t get fat, I’d be dead. Because extra fat storage was my body’s way of saving me from myself. I’d rather be fat and have the chance to learn how to be healthy and thin, than die and never have that chance. I love my fat body and it loves me! That being said, 43 lbs down, 25 or so to go (at least!).

  15. I just found your other blog by just searching for paleo and taiwan, and I was literally stunned to find a blog that touched on paleo/vegetarian/disordered eating/taiwan things! I have never read a blog that more completely resonated with me. Like you, I’m an early 20s, former vegetarian with a whole host of past eating issues and a love of Taiwan (I’m working in Taipei right now!). I started a quasi-paleo (haven’t quite been able to start eating meat yet as I think the veg is pretty strongly engrained, but I do eat a ton of fish now) diet a couple months ago and have found myself struggling since I got to Taiwan. Anyways, I just wanted to say thank you, your blog is so inspiring and more helpful to others than you probably know!!

  16. I’m so glad I found this blog! I sometimes feel like I have no idea what a healthy weight/size/shape is due to long-term disordered eating/eating disorders/social pressures/sporting ideals. Hopefully checking up in here more often will help me learn to treat my body right and not abuse it to stay a size six. Keep up the great work and thank you!

  17. I am thrilled to find your blog and can’t wait to get caught up… I am a former vegetarian trying to find the right paleo-like balance for me in the Caribbean, so lots of fish + veg but also traditionally lots of heavy starch.
    Anyway, I am really struggling with the statement “For that reason, I advocate weight loss” because I love this article and I am totally on the self love bandwagon but what I would have really loved was if this bold type statement said “For that reason, I advocate weight loss IF / WHEN NECESSARY”… the emphatic wording of weight loss ‘of course’ just grated a little in the broader context of such a positive and powerful article.

  18. Stefani, this article really hit home for me!

    I’ve been overweight my whole life, tried dieting so many times, Weight Watchers, etc. and it never stuck. Finally I decided to STOP beating myself up over the food I was putting in my mouth and the exercise I wasn’t doing and start practicing loving myself. I may have gained even more weight during this period, but one day something clicked for me, and I could not put one more McDonalds hamburger or bite of ice cream into my body. I just couldn’t do it.

    That was the day I started eating Paleo.

    That was 3 months ago, and since then I have lost 35 pounds, started running (I’m training for a 5K!), lost 2 dress sizes, and can sit up in bed without using my arms (abdominal muscles!).

    I have a long way to go – my goal is to release 100 lbs of extra, unnecessary fat by May 2013 so that I will be at a healthier weight and ready to have my first baby! But in this short time, I feel so SO much better! And there is no doubt in my mind that I never would have made it this far if I had not learned to love and value myself and my body for what it is. My body is an amazing machine and as much as I love the numbers on the scale getting lower, I am having even more fun learning what my body can do. It can run! It loves to ride a bike! Last night it learned that it can roller skate!

    I share your blog with everyone who asks me about my weight loss and how I eat Paleo, and I am passing on the super important message that you have to love yourself first in order to heal your body.

    Thank you for writing such an amazing blog. I look forward to your articles every day!

    ♥ Christine

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  21. Hey Stef, Pleased to meet you. What a wonderful post! I found it through Dr Clarissa Hughes of Getting Lean and Curvy. This is my philosophy too. I TOTALLY advocate weight loss through self-love and nourishment on every level. In my practice as a mind coach I see women all the time who hate themselves and beat themselves up, over their “flaws” often this stems from a past trauma or conditioned self-abuse. Being overweight chronically is a form of subconscious protection and also a method of self-punishment, which is totally tied into your beliefs about your worth and value as a human being. Every woman needs to know that regardless of her size, shape, and past experiences that she is lovable, worthy and deserving of treating herself with respect and love.

    Wonderful post, I can’t wait to read more of your stuff now.

    Oh and I see your blog is in wordpress, you can add a social plug in really easily through your back end that would allow people to share this on facebook etc more easily.. All the best! Kylie

  22. Our bodies are not just visual instruments. They are complicated, thrumming, vibrant organisms.

    Uhm, how has this never occurred to me?

    My body has allowed me to run thousands of miles, hike the Appalachian Trail, climb Yosemite-caliber rocks. It’s agreed to learning stupid things like telemark skiing and didn’t flinch when asked to keep me on the back of a horse for 75 mile races, all in the name of this thing called endurance.

    My body didn’t complain (much) when its 13 year old caretaker decided 90 pounds was a perfectly ok weight for someone 5′ 10″, or grumble at the semi-disordered eating parade that followed for many of the 25 years since. It let me believe I was in charge and pretended I really did know what I was doing.

    But somehow – and this is extraordinarily f’ed up, now that I think about it – this perfectly willing and able body of mine generally gets boiled down to nothing more than what I see staring back at me every morning in a mirror.

    Wow.

    You rock :)

    • Welcome, Abby!! Congratulations, hooray! :)

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