Is your “dream body” really worth your mental health?

“No pain, no gain.”

“Sweat is fat crying.”

“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”

You don’t need to look very hard to realize that the fitness industry is built on shame based marketing, verbal, and physical abuse, unrealistic expectations, and horribly inaccurate + sometimes dangerous misinformation.

And it’s ALL a problem, but for today’s post I am going to focus on ONE insidious problem.

The idea that weight loss or getting your “dream body” will make you happy.

You don’t need me to explain this idea to you.

It’s almost exclusively how fitness is sold to us. Before picture of sad looking person in bad lighting. After picture of bright smiles and glowing, shredded abs. Slogans like “Lose weight! Feel great!’ 30 day shreds, detoxes, and transformations.

And my personal favorite, a woman laughing over a salad like she’s having the best orgasm of her life.

While we know it’s bullshit, we still buy it into. (Let’s be real. No one is that happy to see some lettuce). 

No shade. I get it.

I’ve been down that road. I know what it’s like to hit a “goal weight,” but I also know what it’s like to be so far gone in mental health that you keep going until you unravel. I have to tell you, it didn’t make me happy, or confident. It made me a miserable and anxious. Despite the compliments (and believe me, people will look you over and comment with envy) I don’t associate that level of thin with health and happiness. I associate it with disorder and depression.

I’m not at that place anymore physically OR mentally and today I want to share something that has recently occured to me as I’ve reflected back on WTF happened and how can I avoid ever ending up in that space again.

The health/Pilates/fitness/yoga industry got it wrong.

Weight loss won’t make you happy, but addressing your mental health and your relationship with yourself could.

Think about it.

The “ideal” body is a construct. You were taught that a thinner or more muscular aesthetic was “good” and being softer or larger was “bad.” For better or worse, this is no different than why we loved a razor thin eyebrow and lip liner in the 90’s and now it’s fashionable to have natural, thicker brows and lightly glossed lips.

It’s all status symbols and marketing – except unlike makeup trends, we are our bodies. We can’t switch them out as the trends change. Our bodies are how we exist in the world. They are the vessel for all of our lived experiences, traumas, thoughts, and feelings. Our means of expression. The first thing that people see and unavoidably tied to our identity.

Which means that no matter what your body looks like, YOU are still the same person inside. The only difference is how the outside world perceives you.

And therein lies the clusterfuck, because our little human brains are hardwired to seek acceptance as a form of survival, so we learn to associate the “ideal” smaller body with being more loveable. valuable. and worthy and having a larger body as the opposite.

This is where the problem starts. It’s not where it ends.

This body stuff has layers. The first layer, which frankly deserves an entire novel revolves around fat phobia.

The second layer is unrealistic expectations. Maybe you already have a certain level of thin privilege, but are you thin enough according to our punishing beauty standards and do you understand what it will take to get there?

Let me state the obvious. When you look at fitness and the media, it’s not just about being “small.” It’s about being unrealistically, and painfully small. Thin to the point of visible abs and bones. Beyond that, what most people who’ve achieved this don’t tell you is that short of a small percentage of those who “won” the genetic lottery, getting to this place may require obsessive, rigid, and extreme behavior, including a severe caloric deficit, which could require weighing and tracking every single thing you eat (hello disordered thoughts around food) and could result in increased anxiety, depression, and disrupted sleep. (And did I mention that you can experience this at any bodyweight? You don’t have to be underweight to get on this ride).

But wait! There’s more. Enter the third layer of this mess. Once you get there, you may be so physically and emotionally depleted that there’s not way you can maintain this and you’re probably not going to enjoy the results you experience. Rather. you’ll experience fear of it all going away and your relationship to food may be pretty compromised. Enter weight regain, binging, and all sorts of miserable after effects. For the record, this isn’t from a lack of will power. It’s because our bodies are designed to survive, so when you create restriction, your body is going to fight that.

Yep. It’s a party.

This isn’t sustainable and it’s certainly not a recipe for health or happiness, so let’s talk about what why might want to work on our relationship with ourselves before setting or pursuing aesthetic goals.

As I mentioned earlier, you and your body are forever linked. Even if it changes, you can’t divorce yourself from it, so you might as well learn to manage the thoughts in your head and treat yourself with a measure of compassion or at least neutrality. Beyond that, if you are unhappy with yourself or your body and seeking physical change, it’s so important to take the time to ask yourself WHY you feel this way and what behaviors and relationships in your life are contributing to these negative feelings around self worth.

Understand that and you may start to feel a lot better about yourself without your body ever changing.

You may even decide that your body is fine and you want to pursue fitness for other reasons like health and longevity. Novel concept. I know.

However, let’s just say that you still desire physical transformation. As someone who believes in body autonomy, I support you. I just want it to come from a well informed place and I think mental health should come first.

Think about it. Fix your relationship with yourself, you’ll probably be more emotionally prepared to make choices from a place of empowerment, instead of desperation.

You’ll be more likely to prioritize your emotional and physical well-being over the external approval of others. You’ll know yourself well enough to be able to identify how much change is “enough” instead of chasing an unrealistic standard that was force fed to you and may result in some serious misery attaining – should you be able to attain it at all.

Parting thoughts.

Weight loss isn’t the only fitness related goal that goes sideways. I’ve seen it in strength, posture, flexibility, and alignment. It’s just that weight loss is such a socially accepted and celebrated thing that it is literally treated as a life event and crowning achievement for women, which is fucked up. We deserve better than that.

Change needs to happen in our culture AND within ourselves.

We as a culture need to unpack our conscious and unconscious biases around how we view being larger bodied. We need to hold the media and the fitness industry accountable and demand for more responsible marketing. We need better representation of body diversity and better information about how to pursue and maintain weight loss in a way that doesn’t wreck physical and mental health *should* someone choose to pursue it. We need a more realistic standard to model after. Actually scratch that thought. The standard needs to be body diversity. All bodies are amazing in their various shapes and sizes.

We have a lot of work to do and this isn’t going to change overnight. Hell, it might not even change in our lifetime.

What we can change? Our relationship with ourselves.

So start there.

If you are going to become obsessed with something, become obsessed with understanding what makes you tick. What brings you joy. What aligns with your values, your passion, and your interests. Then consider how fitness can enhance it and reflect on if that aesthetic goal you were seeking actually makes any sense given who you are or if you even still want it.

Only you know the answer to this, but you may surprise yourself and after working on your relationship with yourself, you might be so busy doing the things that you want to be doing that you abandon the idea of a “dream body” completely or realize that your “best” body is actually the one that allows you to live the life you want – and that might have very little to do with what you look like.


There are 2 comments on this post

  1. Siobhan
    2 hours ago

    I would like you to talk more about how things like posture and alignment have “gone sideways” in the fitness world in another blog post. I thought it was interesting you said that along with strength and yoga. I want to hear more of what you mean. I kinda get it but I want to hear you say it!

    1. Nikki Naab-Levy Author
      3 hours ago

      Thanks for you comment. I have a lot in previous posts. It’s pretty much weaved into multiple blogs and the better part of 3 years of my instagram. Here’s just a few examples where I site the problems. As you can see it’s a never ending rabbit hole of people who don’t understand what they are looking at who end up cueing people into movement dysfunction or inciting fear when there is nothing wrong…


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