On the heavy language of weight loss


seem to have fallen into a bizarre pattern. Over the past few years, June has become the Big Decisions month.

Three years ago, I finished uni, pulling my first and last all nighter in the library and running around with cat whiskers drawn on, in the early hours of the morning when university libraries get weird with the pressure of deadlines.

Two years ago, I started on my journey to spinsterhood and cut a foot of hair off. Weirdly, I’m wearing the same dress in the photos of this and the previous year’s event. I also made strawberries and cream cookies.

One year ago, I came back from a holiday and decided it was time to drop some pounds (which I touched on previously). And then made a lime and coconut yoghurt cake, obviously.

So naturally, it’s a time to reflect. I did drop some of those pounds*, and, although I still have some to go, the question I get asked most often is how did you do it?

Not to be a total diet bore, but buckle up, because this is going to be a long one.

It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take my ass away

The answer to that question is diet and exercise. Of course. It always is. But as much as that applies, at least half the battle is mental. It’s harder to do if all you can focus on is hating yourself, or deprive yourself of food groups, or see certain foods as the enemy. So many of these thoughts are tied up in language, too. After all, we can’t get away from the words we use — we even think in words, so the vocabulary we claim for ourselves is closely linked to our attitudes. I don’t know about you, but I find that much more interesting** than hearing about kilometres logged on the bike or which yoghurt has the lowest fat and sugar content.

Moving beyond good and bad, the language we use around weight loss is laden with overwhelmingly negative emotional connotations such as guilt. Guilt is an incredibly powerful driver, and reinforces the feelings of worthlessness that many people with weight issues suffer anyway. We use words like clean (and, on the flip side, dirty, with all its associations), or naughty (and therefore worthy of punishment!). We tie our feelings up with food completely when we call it comfort eating. Even Slimming World, a diet plan which is recommended by the NHS because of its realistic approach to weight loss and health, uses syns, pronounced exactly the same as sins, to categorise more indulgent extras (different meaning, sure, but all too similar in how we register it).

But the words we use also reflect how we see our ability to choose. We all know something becomes much more attractive when we can’t have it, and that this can lead to binging. We knew this almost two decades ago — in 1995, the results of a ten-year study by Jules Hirsch showed that dieters fantasise and even dream about food, a psychological behaviour seen in those who are starving. For me, this means that if I’m “allowed” to eat a biscuit, I’m less likely to say Screw it, might as well eat the whole packet, now that I’ve had one, or to cry over a few grams of chocolate 

The language of choice itself is more nuanced, though. Andie Mitchell wrote about reframing language so that the restrictive can’t becomes a more empowered don’t want to, and there’s some interesting comments from readers about how they’ve modified their speech to assert control. But there’s a third denier that’s all too prevalent in restaurants and at parties across the world — shouldn’t. Oooh, I really shouldn’t, with a wink, or maybe a longing look at that box of doughnuts.

Like can’t, shouldn’t removes choice, making the speaker a passive player in the whole scenario. But more than that, what shouldn’t says is one of two things: I really want to, but I’d be filled with shame before I’d even licked those last delicious crumbs from my lips, or I’m going to eat it and probably beat myself up about it afterwards, but you should know that I had good intentions and so am not a total fatass. Shouldn’t according to who? It’s one little bundle of guilt and lack of control, nearly packaged up into one word.

When you have choice, you have control, and when you have control, you have the power to reach your goals.

Bullsh!T and billboards

On the other side of the coin, our emotions are massively manipulated by marketing. Less nutritionally beneficial foods are linked to happiness, and reward. I recently found myself weighing up whether I could justify spending £3 on a watermelon. I then realised I was umming and ahhing over spending a few pounds on a healthy food that I enjoy and that would last me a few days despite the fact that I’ve been known to spend up to £4.50 on a Starbucks (full of syrup!) as a “treat”. It was utterly ridiculous, but it’s about a reward system that is encouraged by advertising.

Nothing makes this more obvious than looking at how advertising and food packaging has evolved. The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in London takes you from the 1800s to the present day, starting off with products proclaiming they’re “superior”, “world’s best”, and “the finest”. There’s a very gradual shift that sees the language move from superiority to nourishment around the time of the Second World War. And then, an abrupt change in the 60s, when the diet industry really kicked off. Low-fat foods became commonplace — full, instead, of the latest Big Bad, sugar — while others, like Limmits biscuits, claimed they could help you slim.

Coming back to the modern day, we’re constantly bombarded with food advertising, for both diet food and treat food. Our screens are filled with women smirking as they eat yoghurt, or prancing about grinning after a bowl of Special K, while happy moments are peddled to us as we see a bloke forgiven for being late to a pregnancy scan because he’s turned up with a McDonalds. Alarmingly, in the US in 2012, McDonald’s alone spent 2.7 times as much money on advertising as fruit, vegetable, water and milk advertisers together — and this marketing was aimed more at children than adults.

As people have said before, If there’s an advert for it, it probably isn’t that good for you. 

Yeah you’ve got a friend in…you

Another cliché that has a great point behind it is treating yourself like you treat your best friend. You wouldn’t look at your best friend and say, “Eurgh, look at the way your thighs look when you move, and, jeez, all those spots”, but we do it to ourselves. Equally, you wouldn’t shame him/her for eating a cheeseburger every now and then. And if someone else spoke to our closest pals the way we do to ourselves? All hell would break loose.

Of course, all this is far, far easier said than done. It’s difficult to learn to love yourself, even the bits that, really, you loathe, so it won’t happen overnight. It’s difficult to undo all the social conditioning that tells you you’re not worthy if you’re not a certain size; or to clear your mind of the conflicting messages we’re bombarded with by the media — This celebrity is too skinny! She’s gained weight, what a slob! This diet will change you life! Pair all this contradictory information with emotion and you’ve got a battle on your hands.

It comes down to attitude, and here I’ll sum mine up with two pop culture references: Treat yo’self and Make good choicesThese two ideas don’t have to be opposite ends of a spectrum. Treating yourself doesn’t just mean choosing to have that cake once in a while, but also to treat yourself with love and patience and care. Freeing yourself from guilt allows you to take control and be objective about the choices you make, rather than them being inextricably linked with feeling bad.

They’re the only secrets. So take control, love thyself, and kick some ass. 

* Specifically, I dropped two stone, roughly following Slimming World, in about 6 months and then maintained while focusing on fitness, It’s weird how your body continues to change shape even when you’re not actually losing. The chart at the top is mine — guess where Christmas was…

** Some people might not find this interesting. I once spent a whole walk home thinking about how brands become so engrained in everyday life that their proper nouns become verbs (like Hoover and Google!), so who am I to judge? I know. I’m a barrel of laughs at parties.

Sweat, baby, sweat: a note on exercise

I never, ever thought I’d write something like this. I was the kid at school who skived off PE all the time. I had a stash of sick notes to use just so I wouldn’t have to go through the humiliation of being the one too uncoordinated to play volleyball. But these days I’m happy to admit that the post-exercise high is real, and it’s honestly just a matter of finding something you love. I like biking in the gym while reading, and targeted exercises that give me a big butt and baby abs; Stephanie is a pretty great runner; Amy digs aikido. There’s something out there for everyone. Really.

Related reading

Fat Is A Feminist Issue Paperback  Susie Orbach (h/t to Ella)

The Shape We’re In: How Junk Food and Diets are Shortening Our Lives  Sarah Boseley

How sugar affects the brain – Nicole Avena/TED-Ed

Fast Food Facts 2013

3 thoughts on “On the heavy language of weight loss

  1. Eleanor Humphrey says:

    I’m sure we have all considered whether watermelons are really worth the price. We only take one slice and leave it in the fridge.

    The psychological battle starts even before we even know who we are. The fact that society is having to make these food and exercise choices mean the probability of being classed as overweight is not in anybodies favor.

  2. Hemborgwife says:

    I started last year on my 29th birthday that I would have healthier habits by my 30th birthday which is in July. I have tried to do balance in eating and exercising in the way I feel comfortable. I do feel that most of it is mental like you said, so many times when I feel like I am punishing myself that I want to stop but then I remember I am making the rules and plans so I have a chocolate and just get on with life!

  3. Stephanie @ A Magpie in the Sky says:

    I hate the guilt culture, it comes in exercise land too. I was listening to the Jillian Micheals podcast yesterday and her co presenter was saying that her hubby doesn’t use social media and he doesn’t feel any of the negativity and guilt shaming – food for thought about what this online world brings us.

    I was also the girl with the sick note and recently went to a running track for the first time, I felt so nervous I thought I was going to puke, after being overtaken as soon as I stepped on the track by the speedy 5 year old stars of the future being put through their paces, I just decided that my pace was okay – start from where you are. I never ever thought this would be me, I remember my first and only cross country ‘race’ at school, my friend Emma and I walked it. I got invited to take part in softball recently as newer friends and colleagues see me as sporty. I suddenly have clear flash backs of school and my classmates screaming “DROP THE BAT STEPHANIE YOU SPESH” and the hair stood up on my arms and I declined their offer. I won’t tell you the story about the softball in the face.

    Sometimes when you look at the ads objectively they are actually farcical – case in point, anything with Nicole Schwewejadkrghkdf and Muller.

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