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From Harmful Dieting to Embracing 'Body Positivity'

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Jeneva Toolajian runs cross-country and track at Bishop O'Dowd High School, and now champions body positivity after restrictive dieting impacted her health. (Courtesy of John von Seeburg)

The following story was produced for Youth Takeover week at KQED.

For all of my life, and probably all of yours, too, you’ve heard that a thin, toned body is a must. If you are slim, you are healthy. And that you have to eat certain foods and avoid others to be healthy and therefore happy.

You’re lucky if these messages haven’t taken a serious toll. The constant barrage starts early, and it’s everywhere.

About half of teenage girls and a quarter of teenage boys have tried dieting to change the shape of their body, according to the National Institutes of Health.

For me, it all started freshman year of high school, when I joined the cross-country and track team. I had never run on a team before. I heard the myth that “thinner equals faster,” so I restricted my food intake, counted my calories and avoided certain food groups.

By the time summer came around, I wasn’t healthy. After a harrowing trip to the doctor’s office, I was told to stop doing the thing that made me feel best: running. So I made the choice to get better, and worked hard that summer to regain a bit of my health.

I then entered a kind of pseudo-recovery but was still very careful about what and how much I ate. Real change didn’t happen until my junior year, when I discovered another passion — social justice — and began to understand the close relationship between body respect and the greater fight for equality.

Then I stumbled upon a podcast that put everything into perspective. “She’s All Fat” is all about "body positivity, radical self-love and chill vibes only,” according to its hosts, Sophia Carter-Kahn and April K. Quioh.

“She’s All Fat” introduced me to the “Health at Every Size” model, which is really different from your standard, weight-based approach to health. It’s all about respect and acceptance of body diversity and promotion of health for people of all sizes.

As I listened, I identified with so many of the stories other people shared; people like me who felt trapped by cycles of dieting and self-loathing.

What’s more, there are important social justice implications. Often lower-income people and people of color experience body oppression at a higher rate than others. It’s a vicious cycle that takes its toll on more of us — and in more ways — than most people realize.

And so, while I don’t know all the answers, I’m working toward a better relationship with food and my body, while reframing the narrative I’ve been taught about body size. I am working on this not only for my own benefit, but as a way to create a more just system for everyone ... or every body.

Jeneva Toolajiana is a senior at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland.


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