I've been a diet culture devotee all my life, and for the last few years I've been super into the fitspo movement as well. Then I discovered body positivity and my whole mindset started to change. I'm at the point now where I want to be talking and posting about body image, fatphobia, Health At Every Size etc. but I'm so worried about what my fitspo-based following is going to say. I know most of them will think I've just given up on myself and my body, I've actually seen them making fun of people before for letting themselves go. How can I ignore their judgement?
Let's start by talking about this idea of 'giving up on your body' or 'letting yourself go'. I used to be someone who believed that a person who quit their diet, stopped their obsessive workouts or gained weight had let themselves go. And I would always use that accusation against them to make myself feel superior, and to justify continuing to punish my body the way I was. But let's unpack that.
Diet culture has convinced us that in order to successfully live in our bodies we must keep constant vigilance over them. Every pound. Every mark. Every calculation of calories in and calories out must be relentlessly monitored and outwardly performed for societal approval. Those are the rules of the game. And the rules don't change regardless of circumstance or whether playing by them harms our mental health. Diet culture doesn't care about mental health, that wouldn't be profitable.
The thing is, we all know deep down that playing by the rules doesn't actually feel very good. That the rules are filled with shame, obsession, feelings of failure and of never being able to perform them quite well enough. We never dare to voice this while we're still stuck in dietland though, why would we when we've been convinced that there's no other viable way to play? Why complain when it's simply the way things are? Better to just pull your shame up by the bootstraps and use all the emotional energy you have to force yourself forwards.
So when someone decides to not do that, to stop playing by the rules, to not force themselves forwards, we instantly resent them for it. How dare they tap out of the game when we sacrifice so much to keep playing? And if they have the audacity to stop playing and find the happiness that we've been told only comes from reaching the goal body, we're not only resentful, but angry. We're punishing ourselves day-in, day-out for this and here they are breaking every rule and still getting the end prize. What can we do to people like that to try and undermine them?
Say they've let themselves go. Say they've given up on themselves. Call them failures. That's what we've always been taught we are when we fall off the wagon, and we've internalised it so well that now we're willing to do diet culture's dirty work ourselves and pin that label on each other. It becomes us vs. them, and nobody would possibly want to be them. By doing this we reassure ourselves that playing by the rules is the only valid option, no matter how much it harms us.
But spending our lives playing by the rules only makes sense if the game is real. And it's not. The game of winning in dietland is the greatest illusion that's ever been crafted. One that's been fabricated and sold to us over decades as the only right way to exist in a body, when there's never actually been a wrong way to exist in a body. And the prize of happiness at the end of the game? We never get it. Because there's always a new rule, a new body part to monitor, or a new goal to hit.
The people who are the fastest to say that someone has let themselves go or given up on their body have no idea that the whole game is a lie. And if you try and tell them that it is, it's likely that their first reaction will be defending it with everything they have. Because they've pinned their whole life on it being real. Maybe some will be ready to start questioning the rules, but a lot of them won't. And you'll just have to accept that those aren't your people right now.
You can't force someone to let go of the thing that gives a sense of meaning to everything they do. You can only put out another option, and hope that one day they'll be willing to take a chance on it. Until then, let them call you whatever they want to call you, those labels lose their power over you as soon as you realise that you get to make the rules now.
Do you want to know something? I have given up on my body. I've given up on my body becoming something that it was never supposed to be. I've given up on my body being a measure of my value as a human being. I've given up on my body being the reason why I don't deserve happiness because I've always deserved it. And I've finally let myself go into the world without believing that fitting into a bullshit cultural standard of beauty is all I have to offer.
Here's to letting ourselves go, I hope it feels damn good.
Love & bopo,
P.S. If you like this column and want more advice like this, I wrote a whole book of it! You can find Body Positive Power here.