The weight we carry: Why body acceptance is a growing movement

Cara Taylor wanted to lose weight, but losing weight is hard, diets are difficult and she didn't have time. She had the rest of her life to live.

Cara Taylor and Jackie Reimche have an idea: Maybe dieting isn't the only way to improve your health

Cara Taylor is a mental health educator in Saskatoon. She facilitates a workshop called The Weight We Carry. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Cara Taylor wanted to be free.

She had gained weight over a few years and began to question herself, to the point of pondering her right to even stand beside thin people.

"What do my friends think of me? Would they not want to be in photos with me because it's not esthetically beautiful to them anymore?"

She wanted to lose weight, but losing weight is hard, diets are difficult and she didn't have time. She had the rest of her life to live.

"I wanted to find freedom and I wanted to see if there was another way of looking at this," she said months later, reflecting on the simple idea that perhaps she was healthy, and her body was fine the way it was — the way it still is — bearing the weight of those transitional years.

Taylor's mother died due to mental illness in 2016, about a year before Taylor was facing her own struggles. Taylor witnessed and was influenced by her mother's body image.

"I know that body image was something that restricted and constricted her in terms of feeling she was less than other people," said Taylor

"It was really painful to see that because she was so incredibly valuable to me as my mother."

Taylor began to think of measures of value and worth other than weight.

A counter cultural approach

As a mental health educator, Taylor facilitates workshops on issues like self-harm, addiction, eating disorders, and body image.

People are wondering now, are the negative health outcomes associated with having a higher weight because of the stigma and shame around that, or because of the actual weight?- Cara Taylor, mental health educator

Her aim is to help people work through their issues and feel better by offering them an alternative viewpoint. Critical thinking, while generally encouraged in our society, is rarely applied to matters of weight.

And why not?

"It's oversimplified health and oversimplified weight to such an extreme that we as women feel disgusting or ugly or unhealthy if we weigh a certain amount," said Taylor

"This pursuit of health has produced such a decline in women's health."

Taylor believes shame and isolation are more harmful than high weight, even though the "obesity crisis" has taken up permanent space in North American consciousness.

"People are wondering now, are the negative health outcomes associated with having a higher weight because of the stigma and shame around that, or because of the actual weight," Taylor asked.

She said loneliness has been found to be a strong predictor of early death, perhaps even more so than obesity.  Shame has also been associated with negative health outcomes. People who live in large bodies often experience both deeply.

The pursuit of health is a noble cause, but we may have been going about it the wrong way.

It's not you - diets fail

Taylor's body image workshop is popular in Saskatoon. Women pay about $40 to attend a two-and-a-half hour session where Taylor speaks about her own experience and her mother's experience. She guides the participants through a discussion and exploration of their own attitudes toward their weight.

She often has to interrupt debate or discussion so she has time to get through the material prepared. Women, after all, are used to bonding over weight. Usually, though, the conversation is focused on self-criticism.

In a prolonged period of relative peace in Canada, this is how women swap war stories.

"Almost every girl I know has been on a diet that has been quite restrictive, under 1,000 calories," said Taylor.

A sedentary woman between the ages of 19 and 30 is recommended to eat 1,900 calories a day according to the Canada Food Guide.

Most people in the body-positive community agree: about 90 per cent of diets fail. Failure can mean a restrictive diet is quit before the goal is achieved, or that the dieter gains the weight back.

"That's because our body is this amazing machine that keeps us from starving," said Jackie Reimche, a holistic nutritionist in Saskatoon.

"Our body doesn't know if it feels it's starving because it actually is, or because it's induced. It brings in mechanisms to keep us alive."

Jackie Reimche started marketing herself as a non-diet nutritionist after 20 years of dieting — and failing. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Reimche spent almost 20 years pursuing weight loss, though she "didn't have weight to lose."

Six months ago, after a gradual change in lifestyle and thinking, she began marketing herself as a "non-diet" holistic nutritionist.

"It doesn't mean that we don't do experiments with food based on the individual," she said

"I get my clients stable with a nourishing diet and mindset, and then we look at strategies to get sugar out."

Clients do go to Reimche looking to lose weight. She'll take them on, with the goal to change their mindset. She coaches them to find a reason for weight-loss that is not appearance-related.

Some of Reimche's clients gain weight.

"The getting smaller and becoming less part, that becomes less of a thing to them. I teach people about the set point range where our body happily exists when we're not restricting or over-exercising, so that's where they learn to be comfortable."

When diets make sense

Critics of the approaches used by Taylor and Reimche are generally focused on fat people. How can the obese control their weight, if not through diet?

According to Obesity Canada, it may not be necessary for people medically diagnosed with obesity to control their weight. It simply is not the priority.

The organization, a registered charity with 20,000 members, no longer defines obesity by the Body Mass Index, or by body size.

Ximena Ramos Salas has worked for years on a PhD focused on weight stigma, and is the managing director of Obesity Canada. The registered charity has over 20,000 members. (Submitted)

"Obesity is a disease where excess weigh may impair you. Health impairment is essential. It's not just how big you are," said Ximena Ramos Salas, the managing director of Obesity Canada.

Ramos Salas completed her PhD with a focus on weight stigma and weight bias.

"The problem is, because people believe others have control of their weight, and that you can control it, that's the fundamental driver behind weight bias."

Diet is part of treatment for obesity, but weight is not a measure of success. If someone is experiencing sleep apnea, success is measured by reduction of sleep apnea symptoms, not by reduction in weight.

Ramos Salas has identified weight stigma and bias in workplaces,on playgrounds, in healthcare and, of course, in media. 

But that's not the point of Cara Taylor's workshop. She recognizes weight stigma, and tries to help participants deal with it, but favours a different approach.

Taylor ignores naysayers and the culture of perfection by curating her social media and friend groups to be positive. 

She forges ahead, not caring so much if people don't quite understand her message.

"It's not that we can completely shut out everything around us," she said

"But we deserve to know both. We deserve to know the options."

Corrections

  • A previous version fo this story incorrectly stated that Canada's food guide recommends a sedentary woman between the ages of 19 and 30 eat 2,500 calories a day. The correct number is 1,900.
    Jul 09, 2018 9:34 AM CT

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