The way we talk about weight loss has to change

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  • Lizzy Dening on the fetishisation of celebrity BMIs and why it has an impact on disordered eating

    Adele has performed a ‘dramatic transformation’ with ‘amazing results’. It’s ‘stunning’, ‘incredible’ and ‘dedicated’. No, the multi-award-winning singer-songwriter hasn’t created another No1 album. She’s lost weight.

    She is, apparently, unrecognisable (although the tabloids seem to be able to pick her out.) Beyoncé herself has reportedly supported the singer, helping her to really ‘enjoy the work that she’s putting in’. Personally, not even Queen Bey could help me enjoy crippling hunger, but each to their own, I guess.

    Anyone else find it depressing that it’s 2020 and we’re still glorifying women’s shrinking bodies in this way? I mean – Beyoncé and Adele, people. Surely a fly on the wall of these two powerful, influential and creative women would find more worthy eavesdropping than diets.

    And as if the salivating language around her weight loss wasn’t irresponsible enough, I’ve lost count of the number of articles explaining her daily 1,000 calorie regimen – as a suggestion, rather than a warning. Let’s be clear, 1,200 is generally the tipping point that nutritionists call ‘starvation mode’. So how is it ok for professional adults to not only condone, but glorify self-starving?

    talk about weight loss

    Adele at the Grammy’s in 2017, where she won five awards (Getty Images)

    Language is powerful

    Until March 8 it’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week and the way we talk and what we read about weight really does matter. It’s the pervasive nature of the language around weight loss that we forget. It seeps into us, like slimming powders into skimmed milk. It poisons how we feel about our own bodies, as well as making us judgemental of others. And while it affects men, it is ultimately a feminist issue.

    “There is an unconscious implication that being thin is good, and that to be larger is shame-worthy,” says psychologist Natasha Tiwari. “Women especially, have been conditioned for generations to believe their worth is in their appearance and this feeds into that. For those with eating disorders, weight loss related compliments (or even just compliments commenting on body shape) can be very damaging. Complimenting weight loss will reinforce the sufferers belief that smaller is better, and the thinner they become, the bigger their accomplishment.”

    And let’s be clear – this is having a tangible effect on many of us. While it may seem harmless to cobble together another celebrity weight-loss article on a slow news day, it adds fuel to the fire in those with disordered eating. “I feel I’m constantly being bombarded with images of celebrities’ ‘perfect’ bodies alongside the continual rhetoric that these body types should be aspired to,” says Natalie Haken, who is in recovery from an eating disorder. “Seeing celebrities, who millions of people idolise, spout these claims makes me feel guilty and ashamed for eating more during my recovery; it’s then tempting to follow their lead, which could have disastrous results for me and others with eating disorder.”

    “In my clinics I am regularly dealing with the cumulative effects of how we glorify celebrity weight loss as well as weight loss in those around us,” agrees Sophie Medlin, Director of City Dietitians.

    That the media has f**ked up attitudes when it comes to talking about how people look isn’t exactly a new observation. As well as the body positive community, there’s the I Weigh campaign by Jameela Jamil designed to champion women’s achievements over their appearance. And yet despite so much progress being made, celebrity bodies – in particular women’s – are still constantly dissected on a global platform. It seems strange, that during a period of intense scrutiny for the tabloid press (especially in the wake of Caroline Flack’s death), this same old bullshit is being allowed to fly. But then there’s also the impact of social media to take into account.

    The problem with social media

    While there are a handful of individuals who don’t fit the traditional mould, influencing is generally based on looking a certain way: simultaneously skinny and strong. And there’s no quicker way to provoke a response across all channels than to share your ‘before’ and ‘after’ snaps. “Many people post their weight loss to social media leading to more praise and reward from others,” says Sophie. “This can easily make the weight loss get out of control and on the flip side, it can make people who struggle with their weight feel inadequate and unworthy of praise.”

    That’s without mentioning the spurious #spon advice that’s peddled by high profile figures claiming to have lost pounds by following a branded diet. “I sometimes find posts triggering, particularly when specifics are mentioned, such as very low-calorie intakes (e.g. 1,000 calories, which is less than a toddler’s RDA),” says Natalie. “Or when speaking about food as ‘clean’, which implies there are ‘dirty’ foods, which in turn reinforces my eating disorder’s belief that eating makes me disgusting and dirty.”

    Do we need to talk about weight loss?

    So should we be commenting on weight loss at all? Is it a subject best ignored, or are there ways of talking about it without re-enforcing old-fashioned, damaging stereotypes?

    “Compliments are wonderful, and we should absolutely celebrate people who have worked hard to achieve weight loss. But the subtleties of, ‘you look amazing, so skinny!’, perpetuates the belief that bodies are to be objectified and are up for discussion,” says Natasha. “I think the best way is to offer compliments mindfully. Think about who you’re offering your compliment to, who is within earshot and may also be impacted by your words. Consider why you want to give the compliment, and if you’re being impacted by stereotypes and bias.”

    “I don’t think it is appropriate to comment on someone’s weight unless you know them very well or they have brought it up with you,” says Sophie. “Weight changes are often a symptom of an underlying problem and the reason to embark on weight loss may be due to a medical problem or scare that is it unlikely someone will want to discuss with someone who isn’t a close friend or relative.”

    And as for the press? “Clearly, health is a useful topic for the media to talk about and report on,” says Jenny Haken, mum to Natalie. “So when it comes to weight, if there has to be any mention of it then it should be using the ‘everything in moderation’ message alongside the ‘Health at Every Size (HAES)’ principle.” HAES is a movement dedicated to championing body diversity, and challenging scientific and cultural assumptions about what healthy bodies ought to look like.“My thoughts are that weight loss should not be discussed at all. It’s private and very individual. Everybody has different body shapes and sizes and different dietary requirements. Even prior to my daughter’s eating disorder hitting us and making me highly sensitive to this sort of thing, I found conversations about weight loss and diets tedious and boring. Surely people have better things to talk about?”

    And ultimately, when it comes to the singer herself, as Sophie says: “Adele’s weight had no impact on her value as a singer when she was heavier and it has no impact now.”

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