Friday, November 20, 2009


I was chatting with my physical therapist, Sarah, a couple of days ago as she was working out a sore spot on my hip that's developed from a muscle imbalance. I had just returned from the Renfrew conference where Ellen and I presented a workshop based on The Diet Survivor's Handbook, and I was explaining my work to her.

Sarah is a kind and open person who understands that people naturally come in different shapes and sizes. Yet as she told me a story about a friend of hers, I could feel my body begin to tense up.

She talked about a friend who was "overweight" when he went to college, where he proceeded to gain even more weight. Eventually (I can't remember the trigger, but in the end, it doesn't really matter...) he decided that he needed to do something about his size. So, he began to exercise for the first time, stopped drinking massive amounts of beer and soda, and quit eating pizzas late at night. He lost weight and, seven years later, continues to feel great.

When I hear a story like that, I think about the weight loss as a side effect of new behaviors. Never exercised before? Lots of ignoring physical cues for hunger and satiation? Change these factors and your body may change in response to your new lifestyle. I was prepared to be pleased for him.

But then the story went on. He was so thrilled by what happened to him, he decided to become a personal trainer so that his story could inspire others. My relaxed hip now became tense. I reminded Sarah that only 2 - 5% of people who lose weight can keep it off - about 98% gain it back. So, lucky him - he gets to have the body type that our culture values. When I asked Sarah more about his history, she told me - as I expected - that he never had dieted before. If anyone is likely to keep the weight off, it's a male who has never dieted before...

Now I think about the people who come to him for personal training. He may be wonderful at teaching people how to use their bodies for fitness, strength and flexibility. But in my experience, many people who go to personal trainers want to lose weight, and their trainers are often ready to give advice. I couldn't help imagining his inspiring, supportive words like, "If I can do it, you can do it too." And then I couldn't help imagining the shame someone would feel once again as she tries to do what she's supposed to, but doesn't lose weight. She may be more fit, stronger and more flexible, but if the focus is on weight loss, does that count for her? For her trainer? For the culture at large? Or does she experience shame - that is so insidious - and consider herself a failure?

Last week, a woman that I've worked with sent me a beautiful letter she wrote to the person in charge of fitness at the facility where she exercises. I recognize that many fitness and other health professionals honestly believe that they are inspiring others with stories of "success" and don't understand how their words and actions create shame for their clients. With her permission, I am printing it here (using an initial instead of real names) - it speaks loudly and clearly for itself and shows the power of speaking out:

Dear J:
I'm F's trainee; you see me regularly at the JCC. I'm a fat person who is using movement in order to become fit, not in order to become thin. I want to be able to walk far, have good circulation, a lot of energy and good health overall. I am usually at the end of my day when I see you and don't have energy for anything other than working out with F.

What I want to do is open a discussion with you about the weight loss program you are involved with at the JCC which is named after or references tv's The Biggest Loser. Research has shown that a program focused on dieting with weight loss as a goal is unhealthy and does not work. F told me that you're very open to new information and I'd like to send you some information about the effects of dieting, about the Health At Every Size premise, and also to let you know that when I see that "success" board upon entering the gym, showing who is "winning" at losing weight fast, that it makes me feel terrible and NOT want to be in the gym.

I would like you to read a book by Linda Bacon called Health At Every Size: The Truth About Your Weight. If your office doesn't have a budget for it, I will lend you my copy. It is here, on Amazon:
and information on it is here at Linda Bacon's website:

Linda Bacon's site is here:

Another view of movement, health, and the myth of dieting is here:

I'm also attaching a piece on healthy living at any size.

I realize that the idea behind The Biggest Loser is a very popular one and that certainly you are satisfying the requests of a number of your clients by initiating and providing this contest. I propose that it is irresponsible to promote this perspective of eating and exercising. I will come say hello soon when I'm in the gym and to answer any questions you may have regarding my ideas on this topic. I truly do not mean to be stealthy or be on the attack by emailing you: I am drained when at the gym and talking about this is hard.

On Thursday as I was leaving the gym, a child of about 6 years old poked his friend and pointed at me, laughing. The idea that all people are different sizes and have different health spectra, and that there is no perfect weight is one that should be promoted to all of the JCC's members and especially children. It is too easy to demonize fat and fat people and suggest that there is one answer. My own general doctor told me on Friday that she sees a lot of fat people and a lot of thin people in her practice and that overall, the fat ones have better health. No child should be encouraged to treat fat people this way and besides my own issues (that allow me to feel hurt when a small child makes fun of me) I think contests like this support the belief that the only way is the thin way.

Please reconsider your programming choices in favor of your clientele's health rather than their investment in America's delusion that weight loss rather than fitness is a superior goal and that becoming thinner is the answer to everything. This is a myth and is an unhealthy mode of operation.

I would love to help in any way that I can. I'd love to see a Health At Every Size discussion group at the JCC. It is hard for fat people to believe that they (we) are allowed to be in the world and that health and fitness are reachable goals regardless of BMI or waistline, etc. There is no SUPPORT for us that shores up the ideas of movement, feeling good, and listening to our bodies when it comes to nourishment. There is only shame and the push toward weight loss as a "solution".

Thank you for reading this and I will see you soon. Please feel very free to show this email to anyone and everyone. I feel strongly about this issue and want to make change so that all fat people are respected and so that fitness, rather than dieting and weight loss, becomes the focus of every athletic facility. One of the reasons I signed up for the JCC, a significant expense for me, was that I met F, a trainer who is NOT pushing diet as a focus and because I felt that the environment would be more comfortable for me because there are all kinds of people who use the gym; all levels of physical strength, all races, all ages, people in wheelchairs, fat people and thin people. The sign facing me when I enter now does not agree with the vision I had of the JCC when I first started there.

All my best,

Here is the response she received:

Hi R,

Thank you so much for reaching out to me, I will truly take all of this to heart and would love a time to chat with you. I am very open about things, am always willing to listen, learn etc.

In the meanwhile, please accept my dearest apologies for any hurt, pain, etc. that our Biggest Melt Down results board has caused you – that was never my intent but honestly a perspective I hadn’t thought of or was openly expressed, up until now! I will work on finding a more appropriate way to display results and try to please everyone (you, the team, their trainers – perhaps something else we can discuss).

I will take a look at the resources you listed – thank you for the suggestions.

Take care,


Now that's what I call inspiration!

If you have your own stories of speaking out (or not speaking out) please leave a comment.

Eat well! Live well! Be well!


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