Health

Why Weight Loss Goals for a Wedding/Office/Beach Body Never Work

If we want to feel healthier and better about ourselves, making a goal to "lose weight" is literally the worst way, with the highest failure rate.
August 4, 2021, 5:28pm
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Illustration by Elnora Turner
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I saw your tweet about “office bods,” and while I agree it’s a stupid term/concept, it’s a proven fact that losing weight helps people feel better, makes them healthier; count the ways that it’s good, I’ll wait. If people just have an arbitrary time peg in the future, what’s so wrong with that, if their goal is going to be the same anyway? When I’ve had to lose weight in the past, I’ve found it extremely helpful to have a motivating deadline, like a wedding. I had intended to lose weight anyway, but the deadline helped me commit. Office bods are stupid but maybe you are the stupid one for pretending deadlines don’t work. --Loser

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I mean, you can probably guess what I think about this in the abstract, but you also raise a more interesting general point: What is so wrong with goals, especially when those goals, however silly, align with our abstract desires that we struggle to acknowledge and work on directly? If I have an ambient desire to lose body fat and get in shape, what’s so wrong with latching onto society’s well-known and longstanding convention of the “office bod” as motivation to do it? 

First, let’s back up and understand how we arrived at this “office bod” moment. If I have any reason to be grateful for the pandemic, it’s that it turned certain accepted realities of our lives that we used to be able to depend on like the tide so upside down and backwards that it revealed what a joke many of them are. A pathetically low minimum wage. The existence of student loan payments. Our complete dearth of public assistance. Commuting to offices so we can sit silently next to each other as we message each other on Slack. And then, somewhere pretty far down the list but nonetheless on there, are “the seasonal impetuses for a particular kind of body.” 

For as long as I’ve been alive on this earth, the Gregorian calendar has demanded two things of me as a woman: to turn around a “new me” in response to the “new year” by way ‘undoing all the damage I did’ during the holidays, reducing my caloric intake until I’m chastely eating only fruits and vegetables and working out an hour and a half a day; and to mount a “beach bod” offensive at the start of summer or the first time I put on a swimsuit, whichever comes first. In the years I was in school, there were two additional calls: the “back to school bod” and the “spring break bod.” For people who are getting married, there is the moving target of the “wedding bod.” There’s prom bod. High school reunion bod. The list goes on.

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Influencers and brands would have been canceled for suggesting people focus on their beach bods while the pandemic was raging in April and May of 2020, and it was, frankly, blessedly, the first time in my life I didn’t really hear about it. The usual New-Year-new-me din in December was a relative whisper. 

All of that pressure built up in the heads of the diet and fitness industry over the year. And then, around February 2021, when vaccines began to suggest a possible return to some kind of normal summer, all the body talk suppressed by the pandemic came flooding out. There was talk not just of “losing the quarantine 15,” but also the “post-pandemic body,” meant to trick people into thinking that not only did you not gain weight during one of the most stressful years of all time, but you thrived productively and grew hotter than ever before. More recently, Delta variant situation excepted, workplaces are beginning to explore a “return to office,” and along with that has come a new “bod” peg: the “office bod,” or the body we present when we see our co-workers for the first time. 

While “office bod” is a disgusting pair of words, all of the “bods” represent a studied scientific phenomenon called “controlled motivation.” Controlled motivation is when our motivation is drawn from gaining rewards or approval, or avoiding feelings of punishment and guilt (for instance, feeling like you have to lose weight in order to win the approval of your colleagues). Controlled motivation contrasts with “autonomous motivation,” which is when we are motivated by our own psychological needs or “intrinsic goals” (for instance, wanting to build muscle because you think it would feel good to pick up a very big rock). 

Autonomous motivation is, per researchers, better than controlled motivation in terms of accomplishing things and retaining the results, bar none. Controlled motivation might work in the short term; we see this all the time: A daughter goes to medical school and becomes a doctor because her parents wanted her to, but is miserable her entire life because what she wanted was to go to clown college; a son desperately wants to learn to code, but his teachers laugh loudly at him and say “Fat chance! Who do you think you are, Mark Zuckerberg?” and push him toward becoming a writer; eventually, ironically, his dull and uninspired prose means he’s one of the first ones replaced by an algorithm. (I’m just kidding, of course, no one on this earth has even once been encouraged to become a writer.) You can grit through “sticking with” controlled motivation, but it’s going to suck shit. 

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From here, the question becomes, how do we know we want anything because of our own motivations, and not because we feel external pressure, guilt, or fear? It’s difficult, but the best barometers I’ve found are “how do you feel?” and “how well is it working?” If you hate it and it sucks, you’re not really doing it for yourself. Sounds overly simple maybe, but as a barometer, it’s worked for me.

I’ve done lots of controlled-motivation stuff—I wanted to be a writer but went to engineering school because it had a solid career track; I thought I had no real interest in physical activity but started running because I wanted to lose weight. But every new controlled-motivation goal put me slightly further away from understanding what it was that I actually wanted. It reinforced my dependence on those kinds of goals, and each one isolated me a little bit more from what was going on inside of my body and brain that led me to cling to controlled-motivation goals. Eventually I ended up being a writer anyway, and ended up lifting weights instead. While I am probably neither as physically light nor as rich as I would be if I hadn’t given up my previous controlled-motivation goals, I imagine I am at least easier to deal with than when I was driving myself up a wall trying to be all this stuff I didn’t actually care about. 

But at the root of it, physical appearance will simply never connect to intrinsic motivation, because the standards for it are entirely made up. They are fake. Fake as in Tucker Carlson, fake as in football flops, fake as in ‘old African proverbs.’ You can’t have real motivation about something that is not real at all.

Lastly, let me address the part of your letter saying “losing weight helps people feel better [and] makes them healthier.” While I don’t deny the experience of people who have lost weight (and probably more specifically body fat) and found it helped their health and daily enjoyment of their life (a big hello to an example of a body change that ISN’T about being hotter because everyone says you should be), it’s SO FAR from being a net good for everyone generally. This would be like saying “if everyone read more books we’d all be smarter.” Smaller isn’t better, lighter isn’t healthier, and fuck you for suggesting so!

Therefore: it’s time to kill the “office bod” inside of you, spiritually. Not just because it fundamentally isn’t going to work as a motivational carrot and only will make you miserable, but occasion-bods are so fake and made-up at this point that we simply have to laugh. To paraphrase an iconic tweet, the office is going to get whatever body you give it. 

Disclaimer: This content is for education and entertainment purposes only. Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights. Consult a professional for your personal medical and health needs.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com.