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A BodyPositive Approach

Body Positive explores taking up occupancy inside your own skin, rather than living above the chin until you're thin.  It is a set of ideas that may help you find greater well-being in the body you have. One of these ideas is to define "healthy weight" not from a generic height/weight chart or even arbitrary Body Mass Index cut-offs, but rather as the weight your body is when you are living a reasonable life.  It is the weight at which your unique body seems to "settle" when you are not obsessing about food and exercise.  It is the weight your body may try to "defend" if you diet, or (conversely) if you eat more than your body is hungry for.  For most women, this weight is higher than they want it to be, since our culture deems the leanest bodies as the most desirable.  It seems probable that people come in a range of fatness, just like they come in a range of heights.  We don't think it's bad for someone to be tall or short, but lots of people feel bad to be heavier than average (or even average!) these days.  

In practice, the focus of Body Positive is not on weight at all, but rather the decisions you make day-to-day about how to parent yourself and meet your needs.

The Context

This viewpoint is the outcome of my experience as both a fitness instructor and a psychologist.  For many years, I taught a class called "We Dance - Exclusively for Women over 200 Pounds," which was then featured in the book, Great Shape, co-written with Pat Lyons.  At the same time, I ran an inpatient program for women with eating disorders.  I was working with the healthiest fat women in my dance classes and the sickest thin women in the hospital!  It became very clear to me that health was not automatically linked to thinness, that I couldn't really tell by looking at someone's body what they were doing with food (or whether they were healthy), and that I couldn't ask a fat woman to embrace a diet mentality if that's what I thought was partly responsible for ruining the lives of my eating disordered patients.

Moreover, the evidence that dieting didn't work was mounting, decade after decade.  We were not able to show that dieters could maintain weight loss more than a couple years.  We were not able to show that fat people and thin people ate differently.  Instead, we began to see studies showing that different bodies use fuel differently, and that genes play a substantial role in that process. 

The Dilemma

I became interested in the dilemma faced by large women about whether to even try to lose weight, when their own experience and much of the research was showing that weight loss didn't last.  I wanted to know how the experience of "failing" repeatedly was affecting their self-esteem and sense of control, and I also wanted to know how the large women who maintained their self-esteem did it, despite the cultural hostility toward fatness.  It seems like pretty valuable information, both for members of stigmatized groups in general, as well as for women across the weight spectrum who live in fear of their weight ruining their lives.  My research study shed light on some of these issues.

After working for years with people at every point on the weight spectrum, it became obvious to me that we can't choose some arbitrary number on the scale and turn our lives upside down to achieve it.   This is what we call an eating disorder in a thin or average-weight person. We can't then turn around and prescribe it to a fat person. 


There is probably some range that is your genetic heritage, a range where your body "settles."  You could be "underweight" on the height and weight charts and be above that range for you.  You could be "overweight" on charts but below that range for you.  How do you find it if you can't trust the charts?  It is the weight your body settles and defends when you are not compulsive about dieting, exercising, and eating.  You can't get away from the truth about how you are living your day-to-day life.  You can't live in an unhealthy way and achieve a "healthy" weight.

Whether you are a thin, average-weight, or fat person, if you are struggling with food and weight, the recovery process looks much the same.  You have to learn to let the focus on weight recede, and instead cultivate weight neutrality.  You have to work with your body, make it a partner - and there is joy in this.  You have to learn to be a good parent to youself, to care about what you need and desire - and there is joy in this.   You have to strengthen your "emotional immune system" to withstand the culture's nasty messages about femaleness and fatness and failure - and work to change the culture - and there is joy even in this. 

May you find joy,

Debby Burgard, Ph.D.


Debby Burgard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist practicing in Los Altos, California, whose research and psychotherapy focus on women's issues, particularly eating, weight, and sexuality concerns. She is the creator of the Body Positive website ( and co-author of Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women, and "Alternatives in obesity treatment: Focusing on health for fat women," with Pat Lyons, in Fallon, Katzman, and Wooley (Eds.), Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders. She has also written numerous articles for the popular press. She earned her BA (magna cum laude) in psychology from Harvard/Radcliffe and her Ph.D. from the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. She is available for psychotherapy, speaking engagements, and workshops.


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Last updated: March 05, 2011.