Why people are expected to lose weight in the new year, and why many still want to

Virgie Tovar's message is clear. (Photo: @virgietovar/Instagram)
Virgie Tovar's message is clear. (Photo: @virgietovar/Instagram)

“I’m about to be so skinny. You won’t know who I am. I’m about to be so slim. You will not recognize me,” comedian B. Simone sings in a TikTok video about “manifesting” weight loss in 2021.

Although Simone is making light of the vast pressure for people to lose weight at the start of the year, the influx of emails about discounted gym memberships, convenient diet plans and the idea that “there’s still time” to become your best self by dropping pounds is very much not a joke.

In fact, Virgie Tovar, host of the Rebel Eaters Club podcast and author of You Have the Right to Remain Fat and The Self Love Revolution, Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color, explains that it’s a “cultural norm” dating back centuries with no end in sight.

She explains that Jan. 1st has become a deadline “where we have to go back to being the citizens that we expect from our society and in our culture is a society that expects people to undertake weight loss.”

As a writer who highlights the effects of weight-based discrimination, she further notes that the concept of weight holds extreme value within western culture, allowing the number on the scale to be not only a priority within our society, but also a determining factor of what kind of citizen you are.

“Weight loss is about saying, ‘I take responsibility for my body and my weight because that is what my culture expects from me,’” she says. “And so weight loss is a way that people perform this understanding. It's a way of saying, I understand that the culture expects to take full responsibility for my life. And that includes my finances. That includes any number of things. And that also includes my weight.”

Related: Experts say give yourself a break when it comes to New Year's resolutions

The start of a new year incentivizes people to “double down” when it comes to taking control of those things that society values, including healthy minds and bodies. According to Tovar, however, the push to do everything in one’s power to attain the ideal “healthy body” is as much of a sham as the companies marketing the “new year, new you” mindset for their own gain.

“We live in a culture that thinks that 100 percent of our longevity and our wellness has to do with what we eat and that attitude is just not bared out by the data. It's a non-scientific attitude,” Tovar explains. “As someone who studies this, I'm deeply aware, for example, that only thirty percent of our overall health is determined by individual behaviors. Seventy percent of our overall health is determined by factors that are out of our control, that are called social determinants of health. And within that thirty percent number of individual control, eating is another smaller slice of that pie.”

For this reason, Tovar emphasizes that weight loss is a “cultural norm that has a social purpose” — something that a number of body positive influencers are calling attention to and condemning on their platforms.

Even as some people are taking steps to distance themselves from this pressure, Tovar explains that the isolation that many experienced in 2020 may push people further into the mentality of extreme diet and exercise.

“People, more than anything I've found, want community. So with weight loss, you get a sense that not only are you on the same page with your coworkers, who are all doing a weight loss challenge or your family who’s doing a weight loss challenge, but you're on the same page as the culture at large,” she says. “And not that sense of belonging can not be underestimated. It’s very powerful and it motivates people to do anti-scientific behavior.”

When it comes to living through a pandemic, people may also be looking for something to control.

“COVID was the biggest thing that our generation faced just showing us that there are these factors that are outside of our hands,” she says. “This idea that we can deal with these things that feel outside of our control by doubling down on our weight and how we eat. And that sense of control helps people feel okay. It helps people feel okay in a world where there's a lot of factors that we can't control.”

She adds, “The idea that anyone can become anything if they work hard enough is perhaps the most important ideological cornerstone of our culture. And it's a big cornerstone of diet culture as well.”

Kanoa Greene, body-positive fitness coach and founder of Plus-Size Adventure Retreats, however, has worked to shift her focus to becoming the active person that she wanted to be without the pressure of weight loss and body image attached to it.

“It’s so ingrained in me that movement is about burning calories, getting smaller, and that's kind of where you find your worth. And so movement for me for a lot of my life was tied to that,” she tells Yahoo Life. “It wasn't joyful at all. It was like an obligation. And if I didn't do it, I felt guilty. I felt ashamed. There was just so much tied to it. So then for me, I realized I'm like, there's gotta be a better way.”

Greene explains that she wanted to lean into fitness for the community, but the idea that it was just a means to an end of losing weight kept her from truly feeling accomplished. Then she began to push herself to “just move” without certain incentives attached.

“It eventually evolved to where I discovered I can have strength in my body. I can gain agility and athleticism and not be focused about making that size smaller on my jeans or that number go down on this scale,” she explains. “That's when I was able to discover all that my body could do.”

The intention that Greene had set for herself — to gain fitness for the sake of climbing to the top of a mountain or to learn how to surf without working to shrink her body — was not something she had seen represented before. “It was either you're fat and you can't do things or you're this model of what we think an athlete should look like and they can do all the things,” she says. Soon she realized, “I can do all the things in the body that I'm in right now. I just need to move my body and gain strength and mobility and flexibility, and I can do those things.”

She even proves that you can set fitness goals for yourself without the desire to lose weight — something she does every year as the new year approaches.

”It's like, is this the thing that's going to give me joy? I knew for myself going after a number literally served me not. I have lost tons of weight, I was following the number, but was I doing anything active? No, my body didn't have the things that it needed. It was smaller but it wasn't just more capable,” Greene says. “And for me, that capability is what brings me joy.”

Tovar adds that it’s helpful to “reframe goals” to understand the true intention behind them.

“Instead of saying, I'm going to start a weight loss accountability group, is the actual outcome that you want more friends? Because if that's what you want then maybe the weight loss group isn't necessarily the route,” she explains. “Like I want to have more energy and I want to have more energy through physical activity. Okay, fine. The goal ultimately is I want to explore the green spaces near my house. I want to feel more of a sense of wonder.”

Greene does just this by setting goals like getting to the top of a mountain on a hike or learning how to surf and snowboard — two physical things that she wants to do for fun. Ultimately, Tovar says this is the key to embracing movement in the new year.

“Regardless of weight, every single person benefits from movement. And when we take weight off the table, we take the pressure off of the table and we leave more room for fun,” Tovar says. “At the end of the day, every person who's ever been on a diet understands the failure, success feedback loop that ultimately just kills your spirit. What’s really great is when you take weight loss out of the equation, you take out the failure part of the feedback loop. That's really powerful.”

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