I've been reading a lot lately about fat-acceptance, health, obesity (goodness I hate that word!), and so forth. More and more I've been drawn to reading fat-acceptance blogs (favorites include kateharding.net and www.fatnutritionist.com ); I feel that it is of crucial importance that I take seriously the work of learning how to see myself, and especially my body, in a positive light because I live in a society that tells me over and over again, with varying levels of subtlety, that as a fat person: I need to lose weight, I am lazy, I am unattractive, I am unhealthy, I am less intelligent--that all in all, I am less worthy than other human beings.
Thankfully, the people in my life do not repeat such harmful messages to me, and they are largely very supportive of my quest to learn to see myself as an equal human being despite my size. But this does not take away the cacophony of media and advertisements, the frequent thoughtlessness and sometimes cruelty of strangers, or the nearly twenty years of mostly believing what society told me I ought to think of myself because I was "too big" (I haven't been thin since 2nd grade; I am now 25).
And believe me, I absorbed those messages. Even though I now constantly practice seeing myself as beautiful, there is still a deep-set part of me that believes that I am less than because I am fat. (I often feel self-conscious about my size/appearance when in public, so I've taken to imagining that when strangers see me, they think, "Look at that beautiful fat woman!" hahaha)
Because of how much of an uphill-battle this is for me personally, and how passionate I am about spreading awareness of fat-acceptance (fat-rights? size-acceptance? we're definitely a fledgling movement!), I would like to share with you what all my reading and experiences have led me to believe, at least at this point in time, when it comes to fat. (Btw, I'm simply too tired--or fat and lazy hehe--to look up all the links for the things I mention here, but please feel free to ask about ANY or ALL of them and I will provide you with info! A fair amount of this is paraphrased (and further linked to studies) from Kate Harding's "But Don't You Realize Fat Is Unhealthy?" post which can be found here: http://kateharding.net/faq/but-dont-you-realize-fat-is-unhealthy )
1. Studies show that diets--even healthy ones--any kind of eating-program that restricts your eating, even if it's focused on healthy eating, and even if it's also combined with exercise--on average DO NOT work. In the short term yes, but the large majority of people gain the weight back and then some. So diets on average actually lead people to gain more weight. Also, it's hard on your body to always be going up and down with weight (so-called "yo-yo dieting"). I have experienced this personally: when I was teaching in New Mexico, I went on the one and only diet of my life (simple calorie-counting)--I first lost 15 pounds, and then gained that 15 back plus another 30 or so.
2. The human body tends to settle into a size and becomes very stubborn about changing--and it is often a futile and potentially very psychologically and physically damaging battle to try to change it. Studies show that when larger people go on diets and lost weight, their bodies enter starvation mode. Even if they become and look thin, what's going on inside of their bodies is drastically different from what's going on inside naturally thin people's bodies--which is why the weight is almost always regained. Similarly, it is extremely difficult for naturally thin people to gain significant amounts of weight. In one study, thin people had to eat 10,000 calories a day to gain 20-25% of their body weight, and as soon as they stopped eating this much they lost the weight again. Bodies tend to like to stay where they are. (Also, I have Poly-Cystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) which makes it even more difficult to lose weight.) (Also, genetics may be a very strong factor in determining weight/size.)
3. You can be healthy at any size: what matters is much less your size and much more your behavior--whether you eat well and exercise. Exercise and food DO affect your health and longevity, and they are very important. I personally think it would be very helpful for people to focus on food and exercise rather than on weight, because it is not possible in the vast majority of cases for people to control their weight, but it is possible for them to control in a healthy way their food and exercise. (Note: when I say "control" I don't mean to imply any type of perfectionism...eating healthy doesn't have to be perfect, and neither does exercise; what matters is that you do it, not that you do it perfectly.) That way you aren't setting people up to feel like failures when they can't lose (or keep off) weight, which then discourages them and causes them to fall back into unhealthy habits.
In fact, there's this super-cool movement called the "Health at Every Size Movement"; it's really quite beautiful. It is about making peace with your body; learn more here: http://haescommunity.org/ .
4. People of ALL body shapes and sizes are attractive. I felt unattractive my entire life growing up. For the most part I wasn't even very big, but I thought of myself as not good-looking at all.
The first time this perception of myself was really challenged was my freshman year of college when I dressed up in an 80's costume for a party, and someone told me second-hand that another person had described me as hot. I later was studying with a new friend (now one of my best friends!) and told him this story because it was the first time I'd ever heard myself described as hot. He told me I was totally hot, and he was shocked no one had ever told me before. This was an amazing moment in my life--I began to realize that I didn't have to be thin to be attractive, though it took me many more years to truly believe it. It also helped when I started having sex; having someone appreciate my body that much went a long way toward helping me believe in the reality of my beauty. Ever since then I've been slowly building and strengthening the belief that I am attractive even though I'm really big; and I've also been learning how to see other big people as attractive.
Yeah, I'll say it, and mean it: I'm pretty (and by pretty, I mean REALLY) damn hot! Who would have thought I'd have my best body image at my biggest? Go figure.
5. A lot of the research that is reported on obesity, weight loss, disease, etc in the mainstream media is actually funded by companies in the weight loss industry. They are very invested in making sure everyone believes without a doubt that if you are large, you cannot be healthy (or attractive), because they make a lot of money off this belief.
6. The treatment of fat people in our society is absolutely unacceptable--it is prejudice, plain and simple. A lot of people who discriminate against fat people excuse their prejudice by saying that they're just concerned for people's "health"--which is often nothing more than prejudice masquerading as science. (Did you know that of all the BMI categories, people in the "overweight" category have the longest lifespans?) Fat people face significant discrimination in employment--it's a lot harder to get hired, and even once they're hired, fat people often face hostile work environments. More generally, fat people face hostile environments everywhere--work, school, family (not mine, thankfully, but I've heard oodles of horror stories), media, stores, on the street.
It is a prejudice that has caused us to forget our human decency. In the wonderful words of Kate Harding (minus expletives lol): "Human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Fat people are human beings. Even fat people who are unhealthy still deserve dignity and respect. Still human beings. See how that works? In any case, shaming teh fatties for being “unhealthy” doesn’t help. If shame made people thin, there wouldn't be a fat person in this country, trust me. I wish I could remember who said this, ’cause it’s one of my favorite quotes of all time: 'You cannot hate people for their own good.'"
7. Personally, I am in a process of continually, step by step, adopting healthier habits for my body--i.e. eating more fruits and vegetables and moving/exercising more. But I am not going to make my goal weight loss. I can't, and maintain my sanity: all I have control over is how I eat and how I move. Whether that ends up affecting my weight or not is up to my body, not me. Also, meditation (which I've been doing more and more of) is supposed to be good for physical health, not just mental health.
Is this enough? I don't know. What is enough? There is no combination of diet and exercise that will allow me to live forever--though in our culture, I think we have a very peculiar relation with death; specifically, we try to live forever. We sanitize death and hide it from view as much as possible (in The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion points out that we give very little space for the long and hard process of grieving); ultimately, if not fully consciously, we are trying to avoid death. Death is not avoidable and everyone knows this, but it is so imperfect (messy, dark, unhappy, difficult) that it is continually swept under the rug in this perfectionist, glamorous, clean, happy America.
Don't get me wrong; I want to live a long and healthy life. I just don't buy into the idea that I have to be perfect to have a decent shot at this. Similarly, I don't buy into the idea that getting sick, or even dying, is necessarily the fault of the individual. (Someone made a great point somewhere on some blog I read--heaven only knows which: notice how it benefits insurance companies to blame maladies on the sufferers themselves. Keep your eyes open; I bet you'll start to notice the increasing tendency to blame people for getting sick.)
In any case, my attempts at more vegetables and exercise are a start--and, in line with what I've learned in fighting my depression, I am trying to approach them from a very non-guilt-based standpoint. Every effort I make is a step, and is important, and is laudable.
In particular, with eating, I've not been focusing on restricting food a lot. Rather, I've been focusing on trying to work in more healthy foods into my diet, and even more generally, to just pay attention to how different foods feel to me. (i.e. when I eat a certain food, does my body feel good? does it feel ok? does it feel yucky?) I'm rather shocked to find that I've actually been NOT craving lots of "bad" foods that I normally would go for--today I had to buy myself lunch and I noticed my thoughts trying to force myself to want a cheeseburger (oh habit), but I just couldn't make myself want it and ended up getting a falafal-pita sandwich instead. Who woulda thunk! This is a very recent phenomenon so I don't know how well it will last, but it's certainly more than I ever expected! Perhaps my body really does know what's best for me, and all I have to do is listen to it, without judging myself. Hmmm, what an idea!
One last note: I just read a STUNNING piece about appreciating one's body, please please check it out! http://www.bfdblog.com/2010/02/17/marias-manifesto/