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Is Giving Up on Dieting Giving Up on Yourself?
The results of this study may surprise you
By Debby Burgard, Ph.D.

From Radiance Fall 1991

"I'm at a confusing point in my life. I'm trying to come to terms with how I feel about myself and not how I think others believe I should feel. . . . I've been told it's "behavior modification" I need. Overeaters Anonymous tells me I eat to 'stuff my feelings' and I probably have deep-seated emotional problems. . . . I've been told I'm demon-possessed! . . .

Then I read Big Beautiful Woman magazine and . . . am told I'm worthwhile the way I am. What to believe?"

Large women are bombarded daily by the message to lose weight. But we are also beginning to hear that diets don't work. There is a growing battle between the forces that have an economic interest in keeping us on the yo-yo diet merry-go-round and the forces like NAAFA that encourage us to "do something about your weight: accept it." The medical community cannot come to a consensus about whether permanent weight loss is even possible, and new research suggests that the 95 percent of dieters who regain weight do so because genetic factors determine a "setpoint" weight that our bodies defend. Still, our culture urges us to "slim down."

How do women exposed to both these currents of opinion make sense of what they need to do for themselves? Do they view the attempt to lose weight as a loving act that leads to increased self-esteem, as the diet industry (and many therapists) would have them believe? Or are they beginning to regard their common experience of failed weight-loss attempts as a misguided strategy? And if they are beginning to reject weight loss as a solution, what do they face with the decision to "accept" their weight? What does this "acceptance" look like, and is it even possible? Because the cultural demand is so strong to demonstrate self-control by controlling one's weight, what does giving up the Idea that you can control your weight do to your feeling of self-control?

I became interested in finding out how large women were dealing with these questions at this particular moment in our cultural history, so I made them the focus of my Ph.D. research in psychology. I designed an anonymous questionnaire for women weighing at least 200 pounds, asking about background characteristics, weight history, body image history, any perceived need for (and practice of) restrained eating, beliefs about control over weight, social supports, day-to-day life as a large woman, feelings about the basic acceptability of one's weight, and any intention to try to lose weight. I also included measures of belief in the "setpoint" model, various aspects of self-esteem and perceived self-control, and personality characteristics.

The questionnaire was available to Radiance readers, NAAFA conference attendees, and large-size clothing store shoppers in the San Francisco Bay Area during the summer and fall of 1990. It is important to understand that the hundred-plus women who responded may not represent large women as a whole: the "typical" respondent was single, white, college-educated, heterosexual, in her late thirties, living in the western U.S., and explicitly in favor of "size acceptance." There were, howe'ver, smaller numbers of respondents with a broad variety of background characteristics and attitudes. The findings are best regarded as a documentation of the views of this particular group at this particular moment in history.

Finding #1: It is possible to "accept" your body size regardless of weight. About half the women in the study said that as far as weight was concerned, their bodies were basically acceptable as they were. Recall that the respondents were all at least 200 pounds; respondents' weights ranged up to 485, with an average of 287. There was no relationship between a person's weight and her degree of acceptance: it was just as likely for a woman weighing 450 to accept her body size as a woman weighing 235.

But what does "accepting one's weight" mean? Many people feel skeptical about the Idea that a fat woman can genuinely enjoy and be content with her body. Indeed, a minority of respondents expressed despair about ever finding a solution:
"I am heavier now than I have ever been. . . . The years have not been particularly kind. Being fat only makes me more unattractive. That, coupled with physical pain, fatigue, and awkwardness, makes me feel trapped.
It's so very difficult to undo the early negative programming which has permeated my life, and still the same messages are forthcoming from every TV, situation, magazine, ad, etc."

"My hat is off to those who didn't "buy it"-I'm one of those who did, and I fear I'll spend the rest of my life pursuing self-acceptance."

"I feel defeated. I don't think anymore that things will get better."

These poignant descriptions of the pain of feeling unattractive and without hope stand in contrast to the following remarks:
"I'm tired of being Sisyphus and rolling the weight-loss boulder up the hill over and over. I'm accepting my body having been the innocent victim of society's torment."

"I want to love it, not hate it."

"I have finally grown to love my body and respect it."

"What's changed is a shift from knowing I 'should' like it to internalizing that belief and truly believing it."

"Years of affirmations, therapy, massage, dancing, moving my body, and doing other positive things to improve my self-esteem have helped."

"I gave up the false belief that I was a victim, not fitting in anywhere. My body is beautiful in its curves, softness, and roundness and has the right to fit in all kinds of spaces. I used to think I didn't have that right."

The fact that there are large women who seem to truly accept their bodies challenges the conventional assumptions, made by women of all body sizes, that one could not possibly "accept oneself" without being slender, or that the degree of fatness determines the degree of "unacceptability" of one's body. Respondents spoke about the difficulty, and value, of making the effort to accept their bodies:

"I think it takes courage to go against the norm established by society. I think the effort that goes into dieting and self-abuse over being fat should be converted into frank self-examination. Fat can provide a convenient excuse not to be or do all you want. Deciding to accept yourself as a fat woman frees you to find out who and what else you are. It isn't easy to reach self- acceptance. Everything in our society is aimed at women being discontented with their bodies. Without the help of supportive friends and/or family and help from the size acceptance movement, it's very difficult to be objective about our weights. . . . It's important to do all the things you say about which, "I can't do that until I lose weight." You'll discover that you can do many of them without weight loss. You've got to take risks. . . . Not accepting your body is the craziest form of self-denial I can think of."

Finding #2: Higher self-esteem was associated with giving up the attempt to lose weight.

The belief that women who "give up" dieting are "giving up" on themselves was strongly challenged by this finding. Almost all of the personality and self-esteem measures were significan'tly healthier for the women who claimed they would not try to lose weight again.

It is not clear from the statistical relationships (correlations) whether dieting lowers self-esteem, whether people with lower self-esteem are more likely to diet, or whether some other factor determines both of these. But the respondents' remarks suggest there is a common process that women go through in grappling with the issue. There seems to be a stage when women alternate strategies of dieting and self-acceptance:
"You have to accept yourself before others will accept you. I haven't accepted the fact that I'm fat and probably never will. I'm constantly trying to lose weight, but by lunch, forget it. I've decided . . . I'm going to be the best me I can be and stop putting my life on hold. But my sense of self-esteem fluctuates . . . even one unkind remark can set me back."

One respondent described the "chicken-versus-egg" dilemma about body size and self-acceptance as follows:

"I know so many people who want to be "perfect" and [think that] when they are "perfect" then they'll love themselves. They think that if they accept themselves as they are, they'll never change. . . . I can't think of anything that I accomplished that was real, lasting, and healthy that was motivated by self-hatred. . . . I suspect the whole thing is backwards, i.e., if you are truly self- accepting, weight is not an issue. If you are not self-accepting, you'll find lots of things to be unhappy about and weight is likely to be one of them."

Despite an acute awareness of the social stigma of being fat, 73 percent of all the respondents reported feeling generally better about their bodies over time, and a number of factors seemed to be associated with this change, including feeling less shame, less of a need to please others, less willingness to postpone life, a greater tolerance for conflict, and increased self-control.

"There's a lifetime of conditioning that's gone into [our] being told we're ugly, lazy, worthless, etc., which, of course, we believe until we start the reverse conditioning . . . [which is] to work on the theory that the negativity is from outside sources and to let go of the importance [we] place on others' opinions of [our] size. I have lost the guilt feelings I used to have . . . [about] eating the food I want [and] about what people must think about me because I'm fat. I only worry about pleasing myself, not others. I always have had a tendency to be a people-pleaser, but it's almost impossible to be good at it if you're fat."

"Doctors say we're unhealthy. . . . The weight-loss industry tells us that if diets don't work, it's because we lack the willpower. Even OA pulls this game with their claims that you aren't really trying if their program doesn't help. [This attitude is] so pervasive that it's hard not to let it drag you down. . . . I find that a certain level of activism helps me a lot. If I'm busy defending other fat people . . ."

"I can persuade myself as well. [Now I have the] inner strength to tell critics to go -- themselves if they don't like it!"

Finding #3: Women who felt they had little control over their weight in particular felt greater feelings of self-control in general.

There is a strong cultural equation between thinness and the attribution of self-control, and, conversely, between fatness and the assumption of a lack of self-control. Each person is assumed to be able to "control" her weight through self-discipline. Therefore it would seem that women who have an investment in dieting would claim to feel a greater sense of self-control than women who had "given up."
But the experience of 95 percent of the people who diet is that they regain weight. A person who has dieted unsuccessfully is therefore left with a choice between believing that weight can be controlled and she lacks the self-control to do it successfully, or believing that weight cannot be controlled and that dieting failures are not a reflection of an overall lack of self-control.

The women who adopt the former belief express a sense of shame and frustration:

"When I am dieting I usually feel wonderful, sexy, alive, and full of hope. Then I stop due to some emotional catastrophe. I start to eat the bad things again. I stop exercising. I get depressed and eat more. Then I start to despise myself for yet again letting myself falter."

"I despise myself for not being able to say no to sweets, for not sticking with an exercise regimen. Pretty soon it's too late. The double chin is back, the tone in my muscles is gone, and all those months of dieting are for naught. I get resigned to being a failure. . . . Thank goodness for my cat!"

If the words of this woman represent the feelings of many dieters, then it seems that self-esteem suffers when a woman assumes that a diet failed because she is a "failure." More and more, the argument is being made that diets fail not because of excess emotionality or lack of self-control, but rather because of a combination of normal physiological and psychological reactions to caloric deprivation. Attributing the failure of diets to these factors seemed to preserve respondents self-esteem:

"Society equates FAT with LAZY/GLUTTONOUS/BAD/LACK OF WILLPOWER/LACK OF MORAL FIBER/LACK OF CHARACTER . . .

[but we] eat like most people eat and [our] weight is not cause for guilt and self-denigration. . . . Despite more and more medical evidence that fat is often the result of genetic predisposition, we still need to fight for acceptance."

"In 1978 I gave up weight-loss dieting and therefore stopped binging. I stopped feeling compulsive, so I started feeling in control. At an earlier age, self-control meant not to engage in any sexual behavior (Catholic background), and as I got older, it meant not eating or drinking "too much," maintaining a strict diet. The more that control was an issue, the more I swung wildly between compulsive overcontrol to out of control. When control became a non issue, it was no longer a problem."

It seems that some large women are reassessing what they are, in fact, able to control. Respondents reported giving up the struggle to be thin, working on accepting their bodies as they are, and treating themselves as kindly as they can in the present. They described working to change the social stigma against fatness and surrounding themselves with like-minded people. Many reported trying to give their bodies nutritious food and pleasant physical activity as ends in themselves. And the good news is, they are feeling better.

Interestingly, despite the sense of optimism and acceptance that most respondents expressed on their own behalf, when they were asked about large women in general, the overwhelming majority guessed that most large women felt only shame and pain about their bodies. The women in the study apparently did not feel that their self-acceptance was very common.

The experiences reported by this group of women should serve as a powerful incentive for all of us to reexamine our beliefs about weight loss and self-acceptance. It is time for those in the business of giving advice to large women to begin questioning whether dieting is the answer. More important, it is time for large women to listen to each other and their own internal truths about pain, joy, and the potential to live the best life possible, now.

DEBBY BURGARD, Ph.D., is the coauthor (with Pat Lyons) of Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women. She works as a therapist in Palo Alto, California.


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