Monday, April 09, 2012

Why I Am A Body Image Warrior (and how you can be one too!)

A colleague recently came to me with a personal issue and she prefaced her words to me by saying   “I just need to talk about this with someone who is a body image warrior”. I was excited and intrigued by her assessment of me and I have been giving a lot of thought to that phrase “body image warrior” and what that means for me.

I certainly wasn’t always a body image warrior.  In fact I spent all of my adolescence and early adulthood very much at war with my body. The reasons for this are many and not particularly unique; more important is how I got free of body hatred and learned to make peace.   There were not a lot of books written on the topic.  In fact when I wrote a college essay in my early 20’s that explored my own journey, my professor wrote “this must be published” in her notes.   When I read it over now, it is not a particularly brilliant piece of writing. It was just deeply personal and it had some fresh ideas that were original at the time. I now recognise  that almost no one was saying those things a couple of decades ago. There were no blogs or on line communities for women to explore their wellness.  There were only a few educational programs dedicated to eating disorder prevention in Canada.  Naomi Wolf had just written The Beauty Myth and for the first time, the topic of body image was slowly becoming part of the feminist discourse.  

In my college paper I made links between the experience of early trauma (in my case: several significant deaths in the family) and plummeting self-esteem and how this become internalised as negative body image for girls.  I made connections between the rapid body changes that occur at puberty and how this sometimes led to girls feeling out of control in every aspect of their lives; trying to regain control through control of the body.    I criticised the media messages that tell girls they are never good enough and the diet industry that makes promises that your entire life will be better and changed for the good when you lose weight.  Back then, I had no idea that diets actually don’t work and in fact cause permanent physiological changes to the body that lead to increased weight gain over time and a host of other health problems.[i][ii] I had no idea that 80 to 90% of all girls and women struggle with body image issues.[iii] I didn’t know that eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness in adolescent girls.[iv]

Now I know these things - I live them and breath them in my work and as a parent every day.  I know that girls are taught through magazine articles, the actions of characters in movies and books and sometimes through their family members to diet, over eat or hate their bodies in response to feelings of sadness, anger or conflict.  With skills to express or resolves these feelings, girls do not have to blame or hate their bodies. No one makes healthy or positive changes in their life from a place of self-loathing.  When girls and women learn to love and respect themselves and their body,  or at the very least learn to accept their natural body… they are most likely to nurture their body with enough sleep, better nutritional choices and balanced, fun activity.  They are less likely to do harm to a body they respect through alcohol, drugs, disordered eating and risky sexual choices.

The media is meaner, the models are leaner and the world is far more fat-phobic than it was 30 years ago when I was muddling my way through adolescence.  The dieting and anti-fat messages come at us thousands of times a day via the radio, social networks, billboards, television ads and shows, websites and magazines.   For these reasons and more… I have become a body image warrior. 

How to Be A Body Image Warrior 

  • Treat people with dignity and respect regardless of their body size.
  • Work to heal you own body disassatisfaction and buld a peaceful relationship with your apperance.
  • Speak up when you hear someone equate fatness with laziness, stupidity or moral inferiority.
  • Speak up when other adults focus all their energy and anger on the “social problem” of childhood obesity; this is adult sanctioned bullying and translates to fat bullying on the playground and in the classroom.
  • There may be real problems in your school or community pertaining to lack of activity and/or appropriate and diverse nutritional options for children and youth; speak up for ALL children of ALL body sizes.  Everyone needs activity because it is fun, builds community and builds skills. It  increases strength and heart and lung capacity. This is about good physical and mental health - not body size. Changing children's body shape and size should not be the goal. 
  • Stop bonding with other women over the things your dislike about yourself (Thighs! Cellulite!) and try bonding over the your joys, interests, values and achievements.
  • Avoid commenting on your children’s weight, your own weight or other people’s weight. Surely there are any number of things to notice and comment on when you greet someone you haven’t seen for a long time other than “you look like you’ve lost weight!”
  • Do not participate in “fat talk” which is the language women are taught to use from a young age.   Fat is not a feeling* so when you hear someone talk about feeling fat, get curious and find out what is going on for them.  Perhaps they are experiencing anger, frustration, loneliness or grief or just got reprimanded by a coworker. Offer some compassionate support for the real issue but don’t engage in the fat talk.
  • Do not participate in diet talk or critique your food or other’s food  – especially when people are eating.  Allow people to enjoy a peaceful, shame-free meal.
  • Believe that all bodies are good bodies! Coach your family & friends to accept and care for their bodies as it is the first step in making positive change to any unhealthy habits.

* With thanks and admiration to body image warrior Sandra Friedman for her ground breaking analysis and identification of the role of "fat talk" in women's lives.

[i] Gaesser, Glen. (2002) Big Fat Lies. California: Gurze Books
[ii] Campos, Paul (2004) The Obesity Myth: Why America's Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health. New York: Gotham Books.
[iii] Health Canada (1999), Women's Health Strategy


  1. What an awesome post, Lisa. I remember you from when you interviewed me years ago about my book, Health at Every Size, and figured you'd be doing more inspirational stuff. So glad to see you now blogging on your own. For more follow up on, interested readers may want to join the (free) Health at Every Size community:
    Linda Bacon

  2. thanks for your lovely comment Linda! You are an important inspiration & source of wisdom & empirical evidence for the HAES movement - I'm thrilled you checked out my blog!


Comments are reviewed before being posted. Disagreement & constructive debate is welcome. I will not provide a forum for comments that are sexist, racist, homophobic or stigmatize a particular body type.