“Casey Donovan’s proudest moment”. That was the headline on the front page of a recent tabloid magazine cover. It wasn’t a story about how she won Australian Idol back in 2004, or her critically acclaimed role in the 2010 production of The Sapphires, or about her triple platinum album For You, or about her song-turned-online community “Big, Beautiful and Sexy”.
It was about her recent weight loss. “How I lost 36kg and five dress sizes. No surgery,” the cover read.
The 29-year-old Sydney singer says she “feels bloody amazing”, that “life is looking up”. Casey has every reason to be proud of what she’s achieved, and the hard work she has put into improving her health.
But Untrapped.com.au clinical psychologist Louise Adams says we should also be careful when reading stories like this. That we need to be conscious of how the media, and our culture as a whole, tends to conflate how many kilograms a person has lost or the number of dress sizes they’ve dropped with their happiness and emotional well being.
“A focus on weight loss is really unhealthy. As a culture, it’s just consistently selling us a message that we’ve got to pursue being thinner in order to feel OK about ourselves. What I try and do is not focus on weight loss at all, but on healthy behaviours,” she told Mamamia.
“If you’re treating your body well, it doesn’t matter what you weigh… But I guess that would make for a pretty boring [magazine] cover. I mean, ‘She looks exactly the same, but she’s feeling great’ – no one cares, right?”
And so cover after cover, story after story, status update after status update, we are sold the ‘health’ message in terms of numbers. This is because, Adams argued, we love nothing more than the drama of a total body transformation, a then-and-now, that promise that this person’s problems have dissolved along with their thighs and their stomach and their bum.
“What these articles are saying is that because [a woman] has lost weight she’s happier,” Adams said. “In some ways it can be true,” she added, but part of the reason for that happiness may be because, “people treat you differently when you lose weight.”
As Casey Donovan told the tabloid, “Everyone has noticed the weight loss and everyone has been really nice about it.”
Of course, it’s likely that a person who’s gone through a ‘transformation’ will also feel physically better in their body. But that’s often not necessarily just because they are slimmer, Adams said.
“It might be because you’re fitter [in a cardio sense] or your body is more nourished,” she said. “Let’s stop giving weight loss all the glory and pay attention to the behaviours. And ask yourself are those behaviours sustainable, and are they healthy.”
All too often they’re simply not. US research indicates that 20 per cent of people who try to lose weight ultimately succeed – and that’s after just one year, let alone five or ten. “It couldn’t be easier to see,” psychologist Traci Mann told CBC. “Long-term weight loss happens to only the smallest minority of people.”
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Yet those in the spotlight are pressured to stay on the roller coaster, to try, and try again. They’re applauded, celebrated at the bottom. But when they climb upwards again, talk about that same body shifts; the tone becomes thinly veiled finger-wag or cluck of the tongue. ‘Oh, what a shame’, it says in big, glossy, capital letters.
We’ve seen it countless times before… Oprah, Magda, Oprah again.
“We’ve got such a problem with diverse bodies, with looking at larger bodies as a project that needs changing,” Adams said.
It’s an approach that is damaging to all but the weight loss companies that profit from it, Adams said. But by putting on ‘a critical eye’, by questioning what weight loss stories are actually saying, by remembering the rest of the story, we can begin to realise that.
“We’re in the era of #metoo and the Women’s March. Women are seeing through all of this oppression, and weight loss culture is part of that oppression, because it’s saying you’re not okay unless you’re smaller,” Adams said. “We need to push back.”