Editor’s note: This article references body image issues and restrictive eating behaviors, which could be triggering for some readers.
“Watch Your (Body) Language” is a multipart series exploring issues of body image and the harmful messages we internalize from the world around us.
I jokingly texted my friend this summer that I was planning on not eating before our pool party that evening in order to look good in my swimsuit. In the same light-hearted tone, she replied that perhaps she should only drink water that day, for the same reason.
Both of us were joking, but only partly. I had no idea she even had the same body confidence issues as me until this interaction, but this solidarity was necessary. After we heard each other’s thoughts, it was easier to recognize how ridiculous our own preoccupations were, and we quickly convinced each other that we were beautiful and would look incredible in our swimsuits no matter our weight.
Many of us are individually fighting the same demons in our head, but since it is taboo to share these struggles, we often feel alone in our battles.
The gravity of the problem is apparent in the fact that a large portion of women in this country, even those who fit the standard, feel negatively about their body.
It is constantly reinforced that only one type of body is correct. Because of the way many of our bodies are built, we will not be able to attain a flat stomach and abs, but since this is the only representation of a healthy female body that we see, it feels like we are always lacking something — we are never fit enough.
But this single representation is just inaccurate.
UW nursing student Aaliyah Ismail is reshaping our shared knowledge about health through the new body positivity group she cofounded, Body Love in School Society (BLISS), which focuses on the idea of Health at Every Size (HAES), a radical new way to talk about health and nutrition that is body-neutral.
HAES emphasizes that we are born to be movers. This doesn't just mean going to the gym, but also encourages any activity that makes us happy, from biking to school to walking our dogs.
Their message is that any size body can be healthy, as long as we listen to our internal cues. Our body will tell us what it needs, and it is our job as eaters and movers to listen it.
Ismail explained the concept of body weight “set point,” which is the weight your body is predisposed to be at and can be a range of about 10 to 20 pounds. Your genetics and environment determine your set point.
The HAES movement supports intuitive eating, which keeps you at your own set point and rejects our harmful diet culture.
Diets fight against our natural tendencies. Ismail points out that for a lot of people, once they lose weight through a diet, they have an intense fear of gaining it all back. You have to go against your body’s internal cues to maintain your smaller weight.
“Not one study has ever shown that diets produce long-term weight loss for any but a tiny number of dieters,” Ismail quotes from Linda Bacon’s book, Health at Every Size.
What frustrates Ashley MacPherson, the director of ASUW Student Health Consortium who has been dealing with her own eating disorder for many years, is that there is so much information out there. Anyone can endorse their diets online.
Both Ismail and MacPherson are actively working to fight this culture.
Shame is what fuels our "health" industries, and Ismail wants to take this shame out of our relationships with our bodies through BLISS.
We deem foods as good or bad and put the “bad” foods in a box far away. The “last supper” mentality says that when we come across these forbidden foods, we are going to eat a lot more of them, since restricting things only makes them more rewarding.
"If you allow yourselves to have these fun foods throughout your week, it takes away the mental reward of them," Ismail said.
Some internalize the idea that missing workouts is going to change your body completely, and "the amount of self worth that people put onto those identities is hard to see," Ismail said.
She mentioned another cause of shame: the restrict-binge cycle, in which one restricts their diet all day and then eats excessively at night because of accumulated hunger.
Ismail wants to be a part of a change in the health care system and, and wants to work with her future patients to talk about realistic ways to bring HAES into their lives. She does not want them to feel like she is telling them to lose weight to be healthy, which is neither effective nor realistic.
“There is a large majority of nurses and health care professionals who are so fatphobic,” she said. They basically prescribe for people in larger bodies to over-exercise and starve themselves.
Weight is not 100% tied to chronic disease, as there are so many impactful external factors that can cause health problems — like stress, which is put on larger bodies from a young age.
“If you are prescribing those same things to someone in a smaller sized body, they would be promoting eating disorder behavior,” Ismail said.
MacPherson encourages healthy body relationships on campus through SHC events including the Everybody Every Body fashion show, an upcoming New Year's "Ditch the Diet" event with UW Livewell, and the upcoming "Love Yourself Campaign," in which students write positive messages to themselves around Valentine's Day.
Ismail and MacPherson both brought up that they practice body neutrality.
“You don’t have to love your body in order to be OK existing in it,” Ismail said.
How can something so strong and powerful, something that holds your beautiful soul, be seen as incorrect, wrong, not good enough? Every single inch of your powerhouse being is working to keep you alive, to sustain you. How can we reject these incredible forces of nature?
I hope that by being myself, wearing bikinis with my belly sticking out, speaking out against body shaming, and eating what makes me feel healthy, I will influence girls around me to love themselves and unapologetically take up space in this cruel world that is against them and tells them they are not worthy.
Reach writer Tiasha Datta at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @TiashaDatta2
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