“Objectively, cupcakes are not a moral issue. I think we should all get that tattooed somewhere.” - Kara Loewentheil
Despite the pressure around New Year’s to set yet another weight loss resolution, you’re not morally obligated to lose weight in 2018. Or to make a hollow promise in that direction, only to be left with feelings of shame and self-loathing when we get to this point next year and you still haven’t lost the weight.
“I don’t think of weight loss as a moral issue,” you might be thinking. But the truth about your own beliefs may surprise you.
“If you feel guilty about something you eat, you think there’s a moral dimension to it,” says Kara Loewentheil, J.D. Master Certified Coach. Kara specializes in teaching women how to "unfuck their brains," and I asked her to weigh in on weight obsession surrounding the holidays.
“Guilt comes from believing that an action has a moral status, that you’re a better person or a worse person depending on whether you do it or not. If you feel guilty about taking or not taking an action, it’s not neutral - you’ve assigned a moral value to you it,” Kara says.
And let’s be real: That’s most of you reading this.
Now that we’ve established you actually do assign a moral dimension to your weight, let’s talk about three reasons you’re not obligated to lose weight in the New Year. Or why you shouldn’t be feeling guilty about your weight, in general.
1. Holiday Feasts Are a Normal Social Phenomenon, Not A Personal Failing
“Humans have always had feasts to celebrate. Historically, almost all societies have had periods of feasting and celebration. There’s an intense cultural and social structure to do it, and yet we’re also told these days that we should feel guilty about it,” says Kara.
We ought to be thinking critically about why there is so much emphasis on “keeping off those holiday pounds” while at the same time people are shoving cupcakes into our hands and pushing us to attend food-centric holiday gatherings.
“Whether it’s genetic or cultural or social, there’s a long history of this behavior. So why would I be making myself feel so guilty about that? Why does society encourage me to take something that is a social phenomenon and turn it into a personal moral failing? These are the questions to ask yourself,” Kara says.
You don’t have to buy into the phenomenon. It’s fine to set boundaries around your holiday consumption of baked goods, or to abstain from activities where you feel like you’re just going to get pressured into doing a bunch of eating that you’re not interested in doing. But if you do buy in and decide to eat the cupcake, it doesn’t make you weak, and it’s not a reflection of your lack of discipline. You’re just doing what humans do, so relax and enjoy it!
2. Pleasure is a Human Right
“Pleasure is a human right,” says Kara. “So many women think they have to deserve or earn pleasure. I have to have done x, y, z before I can do something pleasurable.”
Side note: this is me, so hard. For so long.
“If you turn pleasure into something you have to deserve, you will never feel like you deserve it. Eating things that taste a certain way is pleasurable, and there's nothing wrong with that, and I don’t have to earn that pleasure, and I don’t owe anyone anything for that pleasure. I can experience that pleasure because I am physically designed to experience it,” Kara says.
Want to put this into perspective? Kara advises that when you catch yourself beating yourself up for eating cupcakes, ask yourself: “Would I say this to my pet?”
“Your cat or your dog isn’t like, ‘I don’t know if I deserve this nap in the sunshine, or this treat, because I haven’t gone to the gym today.’ They don’t do that, but we do,” says Kara.
“Eat the cupcake. Or take the nap, or have an orgasm, or get a massage. And don’t do those other things because you’re trying to avoid the cupcake, but because if you allow yourself your right to pleasure, you broaden your idea of what is pleasurable, which is just nice because there’s other fun things to do in life,” Kara says.
3. The Patriarchy Wants You to Diet
“We’re in the middle of this enormous explosion of fat-phobia, so more men are probably getting swept up in it. But women are encouraged way more to care about what they eat, and for their food and eating to be given a moral status,” says Kara. “Women are encouraged to see their food choices as having a morality in a way that men aren’t.”
“It’s one of the ways that patriarchy keeps women down. Encourage women to obsess about how they look as objects and they will be too distracted for the revolution,” says Kara.
So how do you start to unfuck your brain of the patriarchal programming to lose weight?
Kara’s advice: “Just start by being open to the idea that social conditioning has something to do with the enormous amount of energy you spend thinking about your eating and your body. Maybe the reason you’re thinking constantly about the size of your thighs is not because they’re objectively too big.”
Maintain your skepticism at the messages that you’re being inundated with about weight loss. All you have to do is look back at an old soft drink ad from the 1960’s to see that we’re still circulating the same fundamental narrative about women’s bodies, just under the guise of “health.”
“You need to start being suspicious. [The moralizing language around women’s bodies] used to be about getting a man, and then it used to be about being thin, and now it’s about getting healthy. If the story, the packaging, the wrapping keeps changing, but the essential story is that women need to control their bodies and spend all their time thinking about them, it’s time to maybe question our current wrapping paper and not take it at face value,” says Kara.
Bottom Line: Being “Healthy” is Great. But it’s Not a Moral Obligation.
“Health is not a moral obligation. That health moralizing is so deeply ingrained, and it’s so easy to take all of your body image issues and just transfer them to being about ‘health.’ But really, it blew my mind when I started thinking, ‘Why do I have to be healthy in order to feel ok about myself?’ I mean if I want to, I should try to achieve whatever level of health is available to me (which depends on a lot of genetics and environmental factors), but culturally, we act like getting diabetes is like murdering children,” Kara says.
Our working definition of “health” as a society is also heavily conflated with ideas about vanity and body shape. And whether we realize it or not, many of us have taken on this social programming and behave as though we are fundamentally “bad” when we are not thin, or “healthy-looking.”
When speaking about true physical health, as opposed to the compromised, vanity-infused definition many of us operate under, it’s important to note that weight is only one dimension of your overall health. Depending on your history, there are many other mental and physiological factors that can play into decisions you make about your health.
“If you’re in recovery from an eating disorder, for instance, it might be healthier to eat in a way that increases the likelihood of metabolic dysregulation than it is to restrict your carbs because your emotional and mental health are part of the picture,” says Kara.
Even if you’re at risk for certain health problems, you have to find a space where you can make the right choices for you. Focusing on the risk factors doesn’t help most people get there.
“For me, it didn’t help to scare myself with the thought, ‘What if I get diabetes?!,” says Kara. In fact, she says, for people who struggle with emotional eating, trying to scare themselves into a certain diet usually backfires, because their normal response to fear and shame is to cope by comfort-eating the very foods they are trying to avoid!
“Sure, for some people, who are predisposed to insulin resistance and blood sugar dysregulation anyway, eating a certain way can make that somewhat more likely. But even then, just because a thought is true doesn’t mean you have to think it all the time. If it’s causing bad results for you, stop thinking it,” says Kara.
In other words, if obsessing about the results of your last blood panel is wigging you out and causing you to engage in reckless, crash-dieting behavior that is bad for your mental and physical health, maybe ease up on the fear-based thoughts and find a better headspace.
“Crash dieting actually increases your metabolic dysregulation, and screws with your blood sugar and your insulin, so it’s totally counterproductive,” Kara says.
“You don’t actually have to spend all your time thinking about what you ate today and feeling guilty. You don’t actually have to hate it when you look in a mirror. You don’t actually have to untag yourself from every photo on Facebook. This actually is not normal,” says Kara.
To hear more of my conversation with Kara and learn about how you can start to change these thought patterns, check out the latest episode of the Healthy at Any Size podcast. You can hear more from Kara on her own podcast, UnF*ck Your Brain.