Imagine your body is ready to make a giant leap into an exciting stage, but a stream of urgent messages tells you to stop and turn back. Welcome to diet culture vs body transitions. This shift happens as women's bodies change, but diet culture says to fight it with all they have.
Body transitions are stages of life from puberty through menopause, including illness and pregnancies. These body transitions coincide with cultural messages warning women to fix their bodies and shrink their hips and thighs.
During body transitions, a sharp disconnect arises when your brilliant physical self says, "Time to grow and flourish!" What is the disconnect? At the exact same time we experience this transition, women hear they must lose weight, and shrink or enlarge other parts. Many of us begin attempts to control our body using diets, and methods such as ignoring our hunger. (Why? Hunger never goes away!) Or we comply by eating less than satisfying food. As a result, women remain miserable with their bodies.
Ask yourself, why are we told to shrink our most womanly parts, such as hips and thighs? Is it really a healthful change for women at these stages of life? Maybe there's a biological reason our hips and thighs and belly are expanding at certain stages of life. Indeed, there are good reasons our bodies change, but the reasons vary, depending on the life transition.
The messages urging us to shrink may start in puberty, and follow us throughout our lives, into menopause and aging. And yet, these are the exact stages when our body release necessary hormones to cope with a changing body, and when more fat is needed. In most cases, if we settle at our natural weight, a small rise in fat is naturally protective.
For example, during puberty, the body prepares for maturation and fertility, releasing necessary hormones. Some of those hormones promote fat for the body to survive and grow. Thus, girls gain an average of 40 pounds during puberty. Unfortunately, this is also when eating disorders can develop, as teens hear they need to fix their bodies to avoid becoming bigger.
During premenopause, women at higher weights have lower rates of breast cancer, more evidence for the protective nature of fat at this stage. Women at higher weights also live longer, which has perplexed many researchers. For elderly women, a higher weight is also protective. They live longer, have less falls, and fewer fractures common at this age.
During menopause, women naturally gain fat in their belly first, along with other areas. This is clearly a protective mechanism, whereby additional estrogen is released to ease the transition and help with hot flashes and insomnia. Women will often start new diets, struggle with eating less, and become discouraged as their body shifts and adapts to fluctuations in hormones. At the same time, women face societal messages to remain the same size as their teenage daughters.
What does gaining fat mean for those at higher breast cancer risk? If you're eating well and enjoying some movement - meaning, taking care of yourself and responding to hunger and fullness cues - it's best to allow the body to do its job. Your body may well return to its natural weight, or not. In any case, women of all sizes who are sedentary with poor dietary habits have similar risks of breast cancer.
Additionally, some studies show that weight cycling increases the risk of breast cancer. Weight cycling is defined by gaining or losing 10 pounds. Also called yo-yo dieting, weight cycling is directly related to stopping and starting diets. This often happens because diets are ineffective at long-term weight loss.
Breast cancer survivors are more likely to gain weight due to treatments, medications, and long periods of inactivity after surgery or chemotherapy. Women struggle with side effects, other body changes, or sudden medical menopause. New intolerance to specific foods may develop, along with changing food tastes as a result of chemotherapy.
Breast cancer is a forced transition. It is completely unlike the natural body stages women's bodies are prepared for, with an arsenal of hormones at their disposal. However, the response may be the same as to any of life's transitions.
Try these 5 things to meet your body with grace, while reducing your risk of chronic disease and breast cancer recurrence, for which breast cancer survivors are more at risk. There is nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight. But these steps take the focus off your weight, which is a far more successful approach to building health.
1. Practice body acceptance. This is a stepping stone to being comfortable and eventually admiring your body. Accept your body's changes, even it's not your choice, because these shifts are enabling us to survive and thrive.
Example: Refocus messages about your body from an emphasis on weight, to how your body is simply responding to medical treatments or other changes, without any judgments.
2. Aim for body positivity. Your size is not an indication of your health. Notice how your body functions and how it serves you, even in sickness.
Example: If you previously saw your arms as thick, change it up to noticing how your arms are now strong enough to lift a child.
3. Treat yourself with compassion.
Example: Focus on the future, and how your body healed well after surgery. Your body is your ally, and responds better to compassion. You'll be more motivated to make healthful behaviors.
4. Take good care of yourself. Set goals that don't include weight.
Example: Find ways to take good care of your body, from movement that brings joy, to discovering foods which are satisfying and flavorful. Intuitive eating or mindful eating can be a wonderful tool to accomplish these goals.
5. Focus on the strengths you gained from experiences, or after breast cancer or preventative surgeries.
Example: What is the one strength you gained from cancer, surgery, or another difficult transition? Let's say you chose perseverance. Notice how you use this new strength in other aspects of your life. Did you persevere and still go to work, despite fatigue? Write that down. Then, for a week, notice when you used that strength, and write it down every day. For more tips on building your strengths, see Greater Good in Action. The advantage of this approach is focusing on what you can do at any size.
Emphasizing what our bodies do for us, rather than how they fail us, is not an easy task. It's even more difficult after years of hearing cultural messages that oppose our body's natural needs to change. But it's time to change it up and allow our bodies to do their jobs, fight for us, and help us heal.
Women deserve it.