Body Image

My Roman Empire Is Losing Weight–Here’s How I’m Changing That

written by JOSEY MURRAY
woman with tape measures"
woman with tape measures
Graphics by: Caitlin Schneider
Graphics by: Caitlin Schneider

Editor’s Note: This essay discusses disordered eating. Please take care of yourself if those topics could be triggering.

I became self-conscious of my body in fifth grade when I realized I was bigger than my best friend. From then on, I grew increasingly embarrassed and critical of my body—its size, shape, and softness—obsessed with how it compared to other girls and how it affected the way people viewed me. When a growth spurt resulted in a thinner body, others praised me. As a quiet teenager, the comments signaled to me that I was accepted. I chased these feelings of acceptance and admiration by carefully calculating every calorie that entered my mouth, attempting to control the body that seemed to represent me and fit into the slim boundaries of what I thought women were supposed to look like. High school felt like a push and pull between wanting to disappear and wanting to be seen, and the next eight years continued to be the same. I’ve never had a day go by when I wasn’t haunted by some thought of being smaller. And according to the TikTok “Roman Empire” trend, it turns out that I’m not alone.

For the past three years, I’ve been working to change this. My main motivations: I don’t want to be 80 years old and still hate myself. I don’t want to pass an obsession with weight to any children that I have. I don’t want to say that I never fell in love with life because I let unrealistic expectations of my body get in the way. Slowly, I’ve been finding ways to alleviate this body image distress, to accept myself and my body for what it is right now, and to be a positive voice for those around me facing similar issues. The pain isn’t all gone, but it’s lessening. I’m finding ways to exist as if my body weren’t the problem (because it’s not!). Here are some tools that worked for me.

Five Ways I’ve Been Working To Get Weight Loss Out of My Head

Addressing internalized diet culture

The first step of my journey was addressing the eating habits that I (and our society) normalized. Getting into the specifics about the amount I ate or the calories I consumed isn’t helpful to me or you (in fact, those types of details are often harmful). Food controlled my life for a long time and brought me significant distress. It got in the way of being present with my family, prevented me from spending time with friends, and robbed me of otherwise celebratory and memorable moments. And that’s how I knew that if I wanted to live the life that I always dreamed of, I had to get help and release the constant desire to be smaller.

Finding a therapist who specializes in treating disordered eating started my journey toward healing. With their help and support, I was able to acknowledge what I had been experiencing since I was a teenager and unpack what society teaches us about bodies. My therapist helped me realize that food doesn’t have to be stressful; it can and should be pleasurable—a way to connect with loved ones, form new relationships, and an opportunity to nourish your body physically, sensually, and, yes, even emotionally.

While this article is not specifically about eating disorders, it has to be addressed. 28.8 million people in the U.S. will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime, but less than a third of those suffering will receive treatment. In addition to these facts, we are constantly exposed to diet culture. Beliefs associated with diet culture include conflating health with thinness, demonizing larger bodies, encouraging the pursuit of thinness through restrictive diets, strict exercise, and other means, and seeing only certain body ideals as attractive. Diet culture’s focus on thinness and appearance feeds the development of eating disorders, and we simply cannot minimize the harm that these disorders cause.

While you can incorporate many of these tips into your life by yourself, sometimes going at it alone isn’t best. Professional support should be part of your journey, especially if you suspect you have disordered eating habits or a negative relationship with food or your body.

“I don’t want to be 80 years old and still hate myself…I don’t want to say that I never fell in love with life because I let unrealistic expectations of my body get in the way.”

Unlearning fatphobia and getting the facts

I found that educating myself helped me challenge my long-held beliefs about weight and dieting. We live in a society that praises weight loss no matter the circumstances. It takes a conscious effort to unlearn much of what we were taught about weight and health. Along with learning about eating disorders and the harm they cause, I have challenged myself to get the facts on the diet industry and the impacts of anti-fat bias.

“Confronting our internalized fatphobia is essential in healing our body image,” says Sarah Simpson, body image coach. “If you’re new to this idea, you need to know that it is not helpful to feel ashamed or guilty for having internalized fatphobia. It comes from our society, and you have been taught to think this way about bigger bodies your entire life.” She explains that it’s at the root of why you might believe you need to be smaller to be healthy or beautiful. “When you’re just starting out confronting your own internalized fatphobia, just notice with curiosity, assumptions, or judgments you make about yourself, or other people based on their body size,” Simpson says. “Ask yourself where this belief came from, and talk back to it in your head, explaining why it isn’t true or the full story.”

The more I learn, the more frustrated and sad I get about living in a society that wants primarily, but most definitely not exclusively, girls and women to take up less space. But even though I have my own experience with body image distress, I have to acknowledge my privilege. I didn’t grow up in a body of a higher weight, a body that didn’t align with my gender identity, nor did I experience what it means to be a person of color in this fatphobic world. I’ve learned that anti-fat bias means more than this distress that I and many others experience; for those of a higher weight, it means less quality time in health care settings, avoidance of care, and ultimately poorer health outcomes.

I’ve also learned that anti-fat bias is a systemic issue rooted in racism. Around the 18th century, Europeans started equating thinness with moral superiority, using it as class and racial distinction. From this historical context to the development of BMI to the present-day “obesity epidemic,” the valuing of thinness is inherently racist.

Now, the diet industry is worth $76 billion and is fueled by fatphobia and endless weight cycling. When we face all of these facts, we have to ask ourselves: What are we really seeking when we obsess over weight loss? How can we better contribute to a life well-lived for ourselves and those around us?

Making social media a place for healing

Social media can often be a place of comparison and spiraling deeper into those self-loathing thoughts. That’s what it often was for me before I intentionally curated my feed to be a place of healing. By following body-diverse influencers, anti-diet dietitians (yes, they exist!), and body image coaches, I was able to create a space much more conducive to healing. Now, my Instagram is a place I can go to for bodies that (do and don’t) look like mine, reminders to eat, and facts that challenge diet culture.

“The most valuable aspect of social media when you’re trying to improve your body image is being reminded that you are not alone in this experience,” says Simpson. She has created an online community by embracing honesty in her experience with her body and empowering others to break free from body insecurity. “The community I’ve created strives to see nuance and question everything when it comes to this diet culture that is always telling us that there is one perfect way to be healthy.”

When I see pictures of people embracing parts of themselves that I avoid looking at myself, I get a little bit closer to feeling okay in my skin. When I see people who are beautiful and fat (yes, it can and should be a neutral word), when I see their bodies change over the years, when I see them living through the good and bad in life unapologetically, I wonder why I can’t see myself in the same way, no matter what my shape or size.

Renaming that critical voice inside my head

One of the most helpful things I’ve heard during this journey is that my body is not the problem (thank you, therapy!). Whenever that negative self-talk starts up, now I know to ask myself more questions and find out what is triggering these thoughts about my body. When I realized my body wasn’t the problem anymore, I started to understand how much my body image distress was a front for other feelings, whether that be frustration with the job hunt, questioning my self-worth, or generally feeling out of control of my life.

That critical voice isn’t how I would want someone else to talk to me or how I would talk to a loved one, so why was I allowing myself to talk to me in those ways? It’s like having a bully or even judgmental aunt in your head all day. It’s simply not helpful, and nobody wants them around. This change of perspective showed me that I didn’t have to listen to these thoughts. These thoughts don’t represent who I am or want to be. They are deeply misaligned with my core value of acceptance. Acknowledging how much I want to be a voice of inclusion and belonging for others helped me realize that I have to turn to myself in the same way.

Getting my friends, significant other, and family on my team

Going at it alone is hard. Having loved ones on your side makes all the difference. When I started working on releasing the need to diet and lose weight, I started talking about it—a lot. I was combatting all of the thoughts of weight loss by talking about why these things can be harmful and have been harmful to me. I needed my friends and family to know what I had been through and what I was doing to change that. Sharing allowed us to connect on another level and even made some of them comfortable opening up to me about their body image issues.

This also meant that they knew not to comment on changes in my body or what food I was eating or even food or bodies in general. And I led the way by not talking about those things and calling out inappropriate comments. Simpson says that leading by example is a great way to get your loved ones on board. “Being a positive force for open conversations about body image and self-love enables the people around you to follow suit.” An easy way to start doing this is by embracing non-appearance-based compliments like, “I love your energy today” or “I’m so happy that you are here.”

How to Face the World With This New Perspective

This is all great, theoretically, right? Until you get back out into the world, exposed to dieting commercials or people in your life like a judgmental aunt or a weight-obsessed mother (who loves to talk about working off their sweet treat or getting in those 10,000 steps every single day—please share this article with them, too!). Even now, my spirit shrinks a bit when I hear comments from others about their bodies, how they don’t like their arms or ate too much yesterday. I can’t help but automatically think about how they might see me, or my changing body over the years. It’s hard. More recently, I’ve been able to shut out those comments, empathize with the endless cycle of disappointment they’re trapped in, and even subtly encourage sentiments of unconditional love and of trusting and accepting your body.

“It’s so important to remember that health is not a one-size-fits-all approach. When you’re confronted with this message from society that there is one perfect way to be or be healthy, instead of giving into that thought, and asking yourself what you need to do to change or be better, ask yourself, ‘What is best for me and my goals?’” suggests Simpson. When you do this, you remind yourself that there is no wrong way to exist, which can help you rebuild your body image.

Readjusting my perspective to a body-neutral and anti-diet one has been hard. It is fighting against a system that wants you to shrink yourself for the comfort of others, but I know I won’t ever regret standing firm in my acceptance of myself and others, embracing all bodies no matter their shape and size, and validating the unique and valuable existence of all people no matter their appearance.

I’m not saying that all days are good days for me and my body now. I still look at parts of it, prod and point with disgust, and then feel frustrated for giving in to the inner bully. I still plead with myself and the universe to let me exist without this pain, wondering how I came into a world that makes everyone despise their own flesh and bones for doing the best that they can to survive in this crazy world. But, I know I have to be patient and forgiving. I’m grateful to confront this pain now rather than later so that I can help build a more accepting, inclusive, and joyful society. And this is my new Roman Empire.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder or with disordered thoughts or behaviors regarding food and eating, please seek help. Call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 for support, reach out to a qualified medical professional, or, for a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.