Bootstrapping Your Way to Thinness: Dieting and the American Dream

What is “bootstrapping?”

Most of us are familiar with the phrase “pull yourself up from your bootstraps”, it’s as American as apple pie. Bootstrapping is the idea that anyone can change their situation using only existing resources if they work hard enough. It is the core idea behind The American Dream, which of course is falsely predicated on the idea that all people have equal access to all opportunities. We know that isn’t true and hasn’t been true throughout the history of America, yet the lore of The American Dream persists. 

Why? Because it gives us a sense of control. It soothes us to know that we have complete and total power over our destiny. If you succeed it’s because you worked really hard, and you have great “willpower”, but if you fail it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. This black-and-white thinking allows us to make sense of things, unlike the truth which is that our destinies are intricately linked to the systems and people around us. This is a nuanced conversation with a lot more unknowns than we are comfortable with.

Bootstrapping and Diet & Wellness World

Bootstrapping is also the core idea of diet & wellness culture and the primary marketing tactic of the diet & wellness industry. They sell us the belief that anyone can change their body size using only a diet/lifestyle change and hard work (willpower). If your body size doesn’t change or you gain the weight back, you are the problem. Failure is never because of the diet/lifestyle change, but because of the individual. You didn’t have the “right” diet or you weren’t following the diet the “right” way. The diet is never to blame when studies consistently show that 95-98% of diets fail long term. This shame-filled narrative is still pervasive and persuasive. 

Why? Because it gives us a sense of control. It soothes us to know that we have complete and total power over our body size and therefore our status in society. It gives us the illusion that anyone can move freely out of the societal structure of oppression based on our bodies if they “work hard enough” instead of working to dismantle the oppressive structure in the first place. 

Most people don’t want to be fat because they know how fat people are treated in our society and are incredibly afraid of being treated that way. And yet, instead of having an enlightened conversation about body diversity, poverty, food deserts, racial disparities in health care, or other multifaceted reasons people might be fat, we want to blame the individual because American culture has trained us to individualize systemic issues. It is easier to blame a person and say they need to change instead of a system or societal belief because changing systems and societal beliefs requires collective action. This speaks to internalized weight bias that pervades our culture and causes us to pit people against one another.

There is no simple solution or black-and-white answer when it comes to why we have diverse body sizes. Being fat isn’t a moral failing and being thin isn’t salvation. We collectively need to work together to dismantle the idea that anyone can become thin if they work hard enough. It isn’t a matter of work ethic. Also, some people are fat and will stay fat and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. 

Bootstrapping and Recovery

This “bootstrap” logic can also show up when you’re in recovery. People can feel they aren’t “working hard enough” at their recovery or that if they relapse it’s because they didn’t “have the willpower to recover”. This personalization is toxic and counterproductive. Unlearning disordered eating is full of habit and behavior disruption, which is hard for everyone!

What you can do?

When you notice or hear the “bootstrap argument” see if you can add nuance and compassion to the conversation. Ask yourself questions like:

  •  “Who benefits from me feeling this is my problem and my problem alone?” 
  • “Who else do I know who has also had this struggle?” 
  • “Where did the system fail me?”
  • “How is my belief about ____ influenced by cultural messaging?”
  • “How do I feel about myself after using bootstrapping logic? Is that feeling helpful”

Incorporating the collective normalizes a situation as a systems issue. If you aren’t alone and most people also struggle with something then it’s time to widen the lens. Also, think about how “bootstrapping” makes you feel, even if it were your fault (which it’s not), is it useful to make yourself feel like garbage because of it? You deserve better and we deserve better. 

Meeting You Where You Are: Health At Every Size Personal Training

I am Abigail Ladd, an anti-diet health coach, and Health at Every Size fitness professional. I have worked in the fitness industry for 15 years training people of all ages in multiple modalities. However, it was only in the last 5 years I walked away from the traditional “health & fitness” model towards the anti-diet and Health at Every Size frameworks driven by my own recovery from an eating disorder. This shift not only improved my relationship with my food and my body, but it has also made me a better trainer and coach to my clients and truly support them wherever they are with their fitness goals. 

While you may have heard of Health at Every Size or HAES, you might not fully understand what it is. So, let’s define it right out of the gates: 

Health at Every Size is a set of principles that was established in 2003 by the Association of Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH). These principles reject the idea that weight, body size and BMI are sole indicators of a healthy body. Instead, they are merely data points in a complex, nuanced system. We cannot determine someone’s health based on the size of their body. HAES also rejects the idea that weight loss is the panacea of the diet industry and some parts of the medical community claim it is, because people of all sizes experience varying levels of health – not just throughout the world, but also throughout their lifetime. Health isn’t a stagnant thing. After all, every time you get a cold or the flu, your health status has changed. 

As a personal trainer, I have had lots of conversations about Health at Every Size with colleagues in the industry because HAES brings out all the feels on either side of the discussion.

Critics of HAES describe it as “endorsing or glorifying obesity” and “giving up on your health.” First, the portrayals of fat or “obese” people in our media are far from “endorsing and glorifying”, in fact they are full of shame, collective disgust and often verbal abuse of fat people. Fat people are treated terribly and we all know it, which is one of the many reasons people are so afraid to become fat. There is not a multi-billion dollar industry promoting being fat, but there is a multi-billion dollar industry glorifying thinness and disordered eating. So, if we as a society want to be worried about glorifying a body type with unhealthy eating behaviors, we should all have our eyes trained on Diet Culture.

Second, health is not synonymous with thinness. We all know people who are thin, who manage health conditions and we all know people who are fat and manage no health conditions…and vice versa. More to the point though, health isn’t a moral imperative or something you “owe” anyone. Your health status is no one’s business but your own. Additionally, weight loss does not automatically correlate with improved health outcomes. But, health behaviors like stress management, eating nutritious food, and exercise, do correlate with improved health regardless of any change in weight. 

So, putting weight at the forefront isn’t “health promoting” because it is the wrong focus. 

Usually the main reason someone wants to hire a personal trainer and health coach is weight loss. Now, this can be coded in many ways: be healthy, have more energy, feel confident, be stronger, play with my kids more. However, when setting goals with my clients I ask: “If I help you be healthy, have more energy, feel confident, be stronger, play with your kids more, but your body size doesn’t change, will you be ok with that?” most of my clients say “no,” because what they really want is weight loss. They want to look the part. Now, there are many reasons people believe a thinner body will give them health, confidence, energy, strength and make them a better partner, parent or family member, but all of that is marketing. Thinness doesn’t mean you’ll get any of that and, more often than not, the behaviors required to make someone thinner than their natural frame – extreme food restriction, exercise routines and/or constant weight fluctuations are incredibly damaging to one’s health. 

We don’t know if a person’s body size will change as a result of adding in health behaviors. If we did, no one would have to try oodles of diets. They’d only need one. Bodies are diverse and nuanced. But we do know how to build a person’s strength, manage and increase their energy, build confidence, and increase your endurance so you can play with your kids for longer periods of time.

So, with Health at Every Sizes personal training, we do not pursue weight loss and  it’s not “on the back burner” because it’s not a reliable data point to set a goal. Your body might change in size and it might not. However, we can improve your strength, endurance, mobility, stability and your relationship with food. A Health at Every Size approach means we’re not trying to “fix” your body we’re working on the best way to support your body sustainably, so you can support it and yourself as your body changes throughout your life. 

When people think their bodies aren’t valuable as they are, regardless of size, they treat them terribly with crash diets and over exercising. But, when we acknowledge that bodies are inherently worthy and valuable, it is a lot easier for people to care for their bodies because they know how precious they are.

To find out more about my fitness services check out:

Breaking the Feeding Cycle: How to teach your children to eat intuitively

 “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

James Baldwin

Our children hear how we talk about bodies and watch how we treat our bodies, including feeding them. They listen and learn how to categorize “good’ and “bad” food. Whether you have children, work with children or just spend time around children in your family, they are downloading the world through the actions and words of adults. We all have power to break the cycle of disordered eating, to stop generational feeding trauma with every interaction with the young people in our lives. 

I know this can seem like a VERY daunting task, especially if you are in recovery yourself and relearning supportive eating practices. It’s ok. That’s why I wrote this blog! 

Let’s talk about how to help children develop intuitive eating: 

1.) Eat together. Think out loud. 

Children learn by observing adults. They are masters at intuiting meaning and subtlety. So, eating with your child is a powerful way to impact their eating habits. Ask them questions about their food, demonstrate mindful eating techniques like taking time to smell your food and discuss the taste. Food is love in our culture, so take time to love them while they eat and encourage them to love sharing and eating with others. 

2.) You provide the structure. They provide the choice.

Children are still learning how to eat to feel good in their bodies. They are still learning the difference between “sometimes food” and “everyday food,” so provide mealtime and snacktime structure, but allow them to choose what and how much they eat out of that structure. “Picky eating” is normal child development. Be patient. Be consistent. Create a joyful spirit of trying new things and a safe place to dislike certain foods. 

3.) Trust your child. Provide Language. 

It can be hard to trust your child when they report they are hungry because it could be every 5 minutes. Ask them about their hunger. Provide them language to describe different types of hunger. Help them identify where in their body they feel it. Ask if it is a small, medium or big hunger. This will build their intuitive sense. If mealtime or snack time is close, ask if they can wait. If they’re going to have an activity over their normal snacktime, teach them how to plan for hunger and eat beforehand. Eventually, your child will be uncomfortably full or feel uncomfortable sensations after eating certain foods. Sit with them, comfort them, discuss what could have happened to make them feel this way and how to prepare for next time. Teaching them to trust their body, means you have to trust their body too. 

4.) Focus on strengths. Celebrate change. 

Diet culture is deficit focused. It is all about the things your body isn’t. Flood your child with the pros of having a body, even the mundane! “Your body is so cool, it digests all your food without thinking about it!” or “You’re so strong you can climb all the way up there!” There are endless ways to think about all the amazing things a body does in a day, be explicit. Praise other people for their power, strength, kindness, persistence in front of your children, show them how to lift people up in ways other than body praise. Celebrate change in all things, but especially bodies. Changing bodies are inevitable. Set their expectations, their body will continually change. It is normal, natural, and not something to worry about because your body is not your worth! 


None of this is easy, especially while on your own recovery journey. You don’t need to be perfect. You will make mistakes, you will not have the right words, and you may not have time everyday to slow down and be mindful with your kid. That’s ok. That’s life. That’s a great thing to show them too, but when you can, these small moments can be so impactful to cultivating a strong and positive relationship with their body and food. We all can recall powerful moments with our caregivers or teachers that changed our perspectives. You have power to be that for the young people in your life. Your healing will help heal others! 

The Dreaded Doctor: Advocating for Yourself at the Doctor’s Office

Fat people and/or people recovering from an eating disorder likely have a complicated relationship with medical providers. Most likely, they have experienced weight stigma and fatphobia when engaging in our medical system. Weight stigma research shows that medical providers self-report more bias towards fat people and often prescribe diets or weight loss before testing for maladies. 

Now, while the medical system is changing, it is slow, to say the least. So, in the meantime, I’m here to give you helpful tips on how to speak up for yourself and create meaningful boundaries with your medical provider. 

  • Find a better doctor

      1. Know that there are “fat-friendly” or HAES-aligned practitioners out there. If you have the ability to change providers, you should. Change to someone who will give you higher quality, comprehensive care. Thankfully, someone decided to compile a list by state and country: Fat Friendly Doctors List
  • Prepare

      1. Speaking up at the moment can be hard. So, call your provider’s office ahead of time. Ask them to make a note on your chart that you don’t want to be weighed (YES, it’s totally ok to refuse. Unless you are rapidly dropping or gaining weight, your weight isn’t a “vital sign”). 
      2. Now, some people on certain medications and/or with certain conditions may need to have their weight more closely monitored. Or perhaps you don’t want to refuse to be weighed, which is totally fine. You can stand with your back to the scale and ask them to not tell you the result. This allows them to take their “vital sign” and doesn’t trigger your eating disorder. 
      3. If applicable, also have them note your eating disorder on your chart. Tell them they may not counsel you on weight loss for any reason. 
  • Activate your care team:

      1. If you work with an ED Recovery Therapist, give your medical provider their contact information. Direct your provider to speak with your therapist about any concerns they might have regarding your weight. (You’ll most likely need to sign a consent form). The same thing goes for anyone working with nutritionists or dietitians during recovery, allow the provider to talk with your “care team” if they have concerns instead of activating your ED.
  • Bring a Buddy

    1. If you can, bring someone with you to your appointment. It can be intimidating and isolating to advocate for yourself alone. If you bring a spouse, family member, or friend who can help advocate for you, you might have more success and feel better about the whole situation. 

Most providers make appropriate adjustments when presented with one or all of these solutions. If your provider doesn’t change and continues to have fatphobic interactions with you or is dismissive of your symptoms, find a new provider. It is worth it because you’re worth it. You deserve to have quality health care regardless of your weight or body size.