Realizing your life’s been taken over by an unhealthy obsession with food, body, and weight is overwhelming. It’s like waking up in the bottom of a hole you suddenly have to dig your way out of. If you’re lucky enough to have supportive people around you, they’re likely shouting a plethora of well-intentioned advice at you from the sidelines. Maybe you’ve entered treatment and a team of professionals champions around you, telling you to trust them. Much of the wisdom others share is helpful. Yet sometimes the way we view recovery is actually harmful. Through trial and error and years of struggle, I have found some ideas common in the ED recovery world that really would be better off in the trash. The most common one is prescribing a target weight.
What I am saying may come as a shock. It’s counter to every experience I had in eating disorder treatment. (And over the past three decades, I’ve had a lot of experience). It challenges the instructions I got from various therapists and nutritionists over the decades I struggled with anorexia and bulimia. Likewise, it conflicts with everything I learned in training to get my master’s degree in Psychology. Nevertheless, in my opinion:
The idea of a target weight belongs in the garbage- right next to your scale.
Throw the Idea of a Target Weight Away
The first time I entered treatment, I was given a “target weight” as a goal. This range was based on a few variables- my height, age, and gender. Basically a number from a chart became my “goal.” A decade after my first go round in treatment, I ended up at a different treatment center. Once again they gave me a target weight, but this one was larger. Instead of simply plugging my height into a chart, my new dietitian pinched my muscles and fat before computing complicated equations. As she clicked away on her calculator my heart raced, waiting for my new target weight. I imagine this is how a criminal feels, awaiting sentencing after being found guilty as charged.
So what is the problem of using a target weight? If it is common practice in various levels of care through out eating disorder treatment, then why am I making an argument against setting a target weight?
The Problems with Setting a Target Weight:
1. Assigning a target weight to someone sends the message that your weight determines if you are recovered of not.
The problem: people of all shapes and sizes can be struggling with an eating disorder. While living with an eating disorder, my weight fluctuated at least 35 pounds. Where I fell in that range did not determine how much or little I was struggling. I struggled significantly at every single weight within that range. Even more disturbing: I was NEVER emotionally or physically healthy or free of my eating disorder when I was within my “target weight.”
2. Focusing on a weight as the goal significantly reinforces the idea that weight matters.
Even when I was weighed blindly, I felt extreme anxiety every single time I stepped on the scale. I searched for any sign of approval or disappointment in my therapist’s face as she dutifully recorded my weight in my chart each week. Did she raise her eyebrow? Is she disappointed? Have I gained too much? Or not enough? The mind games were endless.
Although she never told me the number, she indicated if it went “in the right direction.” She measured my “progress” by my weight and this only strengthened the overinflated importance I had been putting on the numbers on the scale.
Focusing on weight during recovery reinforces the myth that our weight determines our health.
Diet culture sells us the lie that fat=unhealthy and thin=healthy. Despite a lack of any scientific evidence supporting this myth, our medical field continues to perpetuate the fairy tale that health can be improved by reaching a number calculated based on a chart. Don’t believe me? Lindo Bacon, Christy Harrison, and Paul Campos are just a few who have studied and written about the data on this subject. Check out Antidiet, Body Respect, and The Obesity Myth for more information.
3. Target weights ignore body diversity.
Another significant problem with target weights is they ignore the existence body diversity.
The truth is- we are not all supposed to be the same height OR weight.
Just like people have different hair colors, foot sizes, and skin colors, people naturally have different body shapes and sizes.
There is a great video called The Problem with Poodle Science that illuminates the faulty way we currently view bodies. If you have never seen this video, make sure you check it out here.
Target weights are typically determined by using a chart of average body sizes. This practice falsely assumes everyone should fall in the “average” range. By denying that body diversity is actually normal, we assign target weights to people that may or may not be in the range of their body’s natural set point weight.
4. To a disordered mind, a target weight = a maximum weight
I spent decades of my life believing my target weight range determined my health. Trusting the professionals I paid, I obediently accepted my weight “should” be within the ten pound range they assigned me. Despite them explaining this as a target range, I saw this range as a maximum for myself. Meaning, I did everything I could to make sure my weight NEVER went higher than the top of my target range/goal weight. As a result, I was never, ever free of restrictive eating and thoughts. Instead of being built on a solid foundation, my recovery was sitting delicately on a minuscule tight rope.
A person with an eating disorder is likely already obsessed with numbers. By assigning them a target weight range, you are only fanning the flames under their obsession with weight and numbers.
During my worst times of relapse, I plummeted below my target range and drowned in disordered behaviors. But even during my “healthiest” times, I was not free of food and weight obsession. I was trying desperately to prevent my weight from ever exceeding my target weight range. Which leads me to the most important reason target weights belong in the trash.
5. Target weight ranges are often set far below a person’s actual set point weight.
What I understand now, five years into recovery, is that the target weight range they assigned to me was not the same as my body’s set point weight. While I was deep in my eating disorder, I was focused obsessively on lowering my weight to an impossible number.
The reason I chose recovery was to break free from building my life around my weight.
Ever the conscientious patient and client, I accepted the direction of my treatment team. I believed the false narrative that in order for me to be healthy, I had to keep my body in my target weight range.
The problem: in order to do this, I still had to fight my body every single day. My body naturally wanted to be a larger size than my target weight. This place of pseudo-recovery was still built around the idea of controlling my body. I had simply traded in obsessing over shrinking my body for obsessing over keeping my body in a size not natural for her. This is not true recovery. This is not freedom. This is not true health.
I had not worked so hard to only come part way.
Finally completely and utterly resolved to put the eating disorder I had battled for a lifetime behind me, I let go and allowed myself to eat freely. I ate when I was hungry. And permitted myself to feel full. To eat a variety of foods depending upon what sounded good. I even let myself enjoy food (despite how scandalous it felt).
Doing this, I reached my body’s set point weight. A weight that is significantly higher than my target range and by today’s irrational BMI standards is overweight.This weight is determined by so many factors that we ignore when we use a simple chart to assign goal weights.
It is the weight where I can listen to my body and give her what she wants. Where I can enjoy cupcakes with my sons on my birthday and share a dessert with my husband without guilt, fear, or self harming. It’s the weight where I can live my life free of constant obsessions and self hatred. Where I can spontaneously grab lunch at a drive through with out a panic attack. At this weight I can be present and feel the joy of being alive. I can relax into life without being consumed by fear, anxiety, and shame. And I can share a meal with a loved one actually focusing on what they say, instead of obsessing over what is on my plate. THIS is what true recovery and freedom is about. And it has absolutely nothing to do with a target weight.
At this weight I am significantly healthier emotionally, mentally and probably physically as well.