In the last few years, I’ve been working on improving my body image and learning just how many of us hate our bodies. I started reading a variety of books, checking out blogs regularly and interviewing experts.
Combined with these years, the time I spent in undergrad and grad school doing research, and the last few months of starting Weightless, I’ve received an invaluable crash course in body image, disordered eating, eating disorders, healthful eating and living and more. Below are some of the lessons that I’ve learned thus far:
1. Diets don’t work. This one is a biggie. Yesterday, we talked about an exercise to explore and let go of your own diet mentality. That’s because the diet mentality is damaging to your body image and to your health. Research consistently shows that diets don’t work and that individuals often gain the weight back. In fact, “dieting is actually a great mechanism if you want to gain weight,” Linda Bacon, Ph.D., said to me in our interview.
Here are some other diet-related excerpts from my interview with Linda:
With taking in fewer calories, if your body doesn’t like what’s happening, it can do things to compensate. If you try to diet to lose weight, you’ll see yourself losing weight initially because your body doesn’t react immediately; however, there’s a point when your body says, “This isn’t healthy for me.” So it may pump up your appetite to get you to eat more calories. But we all know that dieters can sometimes have strong willpower and resist the urge to eat. Then your body can get more aggressive, influencing processes beyond your personal control. It can compensate, for example, by slowing down your metabolism, the amount of energy your body spends.
You have this very minor slow down, which might not be perceptible to you, or you might find yourself with less get up and go. Your body is essentially trying to offset that you’ve eaten less. So your body just spends less in response and suddenly you aren’t losing anymore or you might be losing less weight. The idea that we can control our weight is a myth. Your body does a lot to undermine weight loss.
We have limited ability in changing our weight. We can diet for a while and we can beat our body but over time, our bodies always compensate. They turn on mechanisms to fight back, which is why people can’t diet their entire lives and inevitably lose their resolve. It isn’t just psychological mechanisms, like deprivation and disappointment. We see a lot of biologic processes like hormonal patterns. For instance, your body produces less of a hormone called leptin. With less leptin, your appetite gets turned on. There are also a lot of mechanisms that you don’t have control over.
You can override your appetite, but that is when your body gets much more aggressive on things you can’t control. Like your metabolism, certain processes slow down. Maybe it takes you longer between breaths. Maybe you’re naturally walking a bit slower, subtle mechanisms which you may or may not feel kick in. Some days you don’t have as much energy, and it may be harder to get out of bed. This might be a sign that your body has slowed down your metabolism. These weight regulation mechanisms work on a slow and subtle basis. The weight increase happens gradually.
From an evolutionary perspective it’s valuable to store fat, particularly during famine so the body can live off the stored fat. Throughout our history, we didn’t need to activate our ability to store fat, because we had sufficient amount of food. We didn’t trigger those genes. But now people are dieting and depriving their bodies of energy. The body doesn’t know the difference between diet and famine and so it triggers the response to store fat more readily.
2. Magazine photos are an astounding work in artistry. I used to admire photos in magazines, flabbergasted at how flawless the women are. I honestly never considered that images were airbrushed or that they were airbrushed to such an egregious extent.
The process from photo to print magazine is an interesting (and arduous) one: After spending hours upon hours in hair and makeup and having the right outfit chosen for them, stars and models get their photos taken on a set that features flattering lighting and where the photographer directs them for the best camera angle and pose. Months before that, the magazine works on a concept and the starlet likely works on her appearance. Then, after all that, the image is still airbrushed. It’s amazing to see the “before” and “after” shots. Here are more images from Newsweek.
Again, remember that the camera (and most magazines) usually lies. OK! Magazine recently published a story of Kourtney Kardashian’s post-baby body. The problem? They concocted the quotes and doctored the photo to make it look like she’d lost weight in record time. Jezebel has a great post about it here.
Still, many of you might not be surprised that images are Photoshopped but kids and teens might be. If you have younger siblings or kids of your own, talk to them about the realities of Photoshop. Point out the telltale signs: no hair, no pores, wrinkle-free skin, flawless complexion, missing limbs (oh yes!). Even babies are deemed incomplete without the magic of Photoshop.
3. Your shape or the number on the scale isn’t tied to your self-worth. When I was younger, the shape of my thighs, the rolls on my belly, the clothing size I wore, the value on the scale all determined my mood and my self-worth. Not surprisingly, the way I viewed myself was shaky, at best. I was competent, attractive, accomplished, smart, worthy and happy only if I was thin. If I wasn’t skinny enough, somehow this discounted the rest of my qualities.
I don’t exactly recall my a-ha moment. It was a combination of factors: taking better care of my body, realizing that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, focusing less on my appearance, starting to exercise and finding out that I’m pretty strong and powerful, realizing that I had more to offer, finding someone who loves me for me, having a great support system.
4. Healthy eating isn’t synonymous with dieting. I used to think that if I wasn’t dieting, there was something wrong with me. All the magazines I’d see, all the TV segments, many of the articles I’d read advocated some sort of diet or calorie counting. Some movie star was eating bland chicken and broccoli and I wasn’t even really thin, so I had to do it, too. Didn’t I? I felt guilty if I “indulged” in a dessert or a high-calorie meal.
If I wasn’t restricting than I wasn’t doing something right. And my all-or-nothing thinking ignited a cycle of dieting and overeating, one that would continue for years, on and off.
Fortunately, the more I read, the more I realized that healthful eating has nothing to do with dieting. And, no matter how much they advertise to the contrary, programs like Weight Watchers are diets, too. Dr. Michelle May writes:
1. If it’s not a diet, then why do they tell you how many points you can eat each day?
2. If it’s not a diet, then why do you have to earn the right to eat more by exercising?
3. If it’s not a diet, then why do you have to be weighed in?
4. If it’s not a diet, then how come vegetables are “free” instead of just good for you?
5. If it’s not a diet, then why is everybody on it talking about food ALL the time?
6. If it’s not a diet, then why do you have to weigh, measure and write down your food? (unless of course you choose their “Core” plan – then you can eat as much as you want of the foods they say are allowed).
I love Michelle’s (of The Fat Nutritionist) philosophy on food, which emphasizes the importance of listening to our bodies: “Eat food. Stuff you like. As much as you want.” Internationally recognized feeding expert Ellyn Satter has one of the best (if not the best) definitions on normal eating. (See it here.)
I realize that these descriptions might seem radical to many people, but I think it’s only because we’ve been fed many a lie by the billion (or is it trillion?) dollar diet industry and the media as a whole, which teaches us that we can’t listen to our bodies; that if we do, we’ll go wild and eat countless calories.
Your body is an amazing communicator, remember that. Many of us have silenced our bodies because we think “experts” know better.
5. Women’s magazines are ridiculous. I used to take magazine articles as gospel. Here’s what I used to think thanks to women’s magazines:
- I have to watch what I eat like a hawk.
- I have to work off everything I eat.
- If I eat what I want, I’m “cheating” or “indulging,” both of which are horrible to my health and my already expanding waistline.
- Everyone who exercises and eats healthfully can and should be thin and toned.
- Everyone who exercises and eats healthfully is thin and toned. If you aren’t, then clearly you’re doing something wrong, and you need to step it up.
- Exercise is for losing weight.
- I must manipulate my mind and body into restricting my food intake because then I’ll be attractive and beautiful.
- I should be freaking out about bikini season, and instead of a whole person, I’m just my jiggly thighs, rolly-polly belly and flabby arms.
For more ridiculous lessons from magazines and asinine advice, see here, here, and here. It’s hard not to think that you should be obsessing over calories and exercise and feel like some traitor every time you listen to your body and eat something that’s delicious (G-d forbid). Remember that women’s magazines just rehash the same “lose five pounds in five days” storylines. This is their bread and butter. But you don’t have to consume it!
Stay tuned tomorrow when I’ll discuss five more lessons.
What lessons have you learned throughout your life about body image and being healthy? What most surprised you about those lessons or the above list?