Moving Beyond Weight: Redefining Health and Body Image
It’s a common scenario. I’m at the doctor’s office for a routine check up. The perky nurse leads me to the exam room with a pit stop at the scale. After years of chastisement about my weight, I’m relatively prepared for what’s coming.
“Shoes on or off?” I ask bemusedly, dropping my purse and removing my coat. The nurse tells me it is my preference, but then she sighs and says, “The scale never gives us good news. No one feels good about stepping on the scale.”
Maybe she meant to prepare me for what she perceived to be a disappointing moment in my day, a moment where I saw numerical proof of how much I’ve failed. Maybe she meant to reassure me that I’m not alone, that I belong to a universal club: The Society of People Who Are Perpetually Dissatisfied With Their Bodies. Or maybe she’s just repeating what many of us have been told our whole lives, that we should never feel good about our weight.
Regardless of the intentions behind this casual body-shaming, the nurse’s sentiment sheds light on a pervasive problem that is so engrained within our society that most people don’t even realize it; we place a heavy emphasis on our weight, often to the point where we misconstrue the connection between weight and health.
The idea that our weight is not fully representative of our health is not new. Many body image activists and doctors have been suggesting this for years, pointing to research that proves many weight-health correlations are inaccurate. And yet, many people struggle to separate the number on the scale from their self-worth, leading to unbalanced relationships with food, exercise, and body image. So why is it so hard to disconnect the perceived link between weight and health?
Billie Gray, Ph.D., executive director of The Emily Program Foundation, suggests a few reasons behind our society’s preoccupation with weight. First, Gray notes that people prefer to focus on weight because “it’s easy to measure — it’s harder to measure health.” While it’s hard to measure and monitor something like cholesterol, weight is something people can see and attempt to fix. Gray adds the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality of our individualistic society adds to our assumptions that we can always control and improve ourselves, starting with that number on the scale.
Focusing on weight can give people a sense of control as well, especially when other aspects of life can’t be controlled. But improvements based on weight loss are more likely to fail than succeed in the long run. Gray notes, “We know that weight loss is not sustainable…80–95 percent of people who lose weight will regain, sometimes even more than they lost, and yet we keep prescribing weight loss. Are there any other medical interventions that doctors prescribe that have a 95 percent failure rate and yet they keep prescribing them?” This high failure rate for weight loss also encourages perpetual dieting and self-monitoring, potentially leading to obsessive behaviors.
And it’s easy to go beyond self-monitoring and slip into evaluating other people’s weight based on their appearance. Gray adds that the focus on weight also allows people to make judgments on a person’s personality and values based simply on their physical appearance: “We think we know how much they exercise or if they exercise. We think we know what their eating habits are like, that they eat a lot of junk food or fast food. We think we know about their personality, that they lack willpower, that they’re lazy. We think we know all these things, but we don’t.”
These instances of size bias are prevalent even within the GLBT community, a community that is supposed to be welcoming and affirming to an extremely broad range of people with different body types, genders, and expressions. From assumptions based on size to excluding people based on “harmless” preferences for specific body types, the queer community is also implicated in fueling the obsession with weight and health.
The need to fit in with idealized body images is especially prevalent among gay males, a demographic that (according to the National Eating Disorders Association, or NEDA) makes up only five percent of the male population in the United States but accounts for 42 percent of U.S. men with eating disorders. While this number accounts for diagnosed cases, it does not even begin to cover the amount of people within the GLBT community who experience body dissatisfaction that manifests in some sort of disordered eating, disordered exercise, or body image issue.
In addition to anxieties surrounding weight and size, the fear of being “unhealthy” encourages many of us to immerse ourselves into grueling fitness regimens or strict eating habits, all in the belief that a healthy lifestyle will help us lose weight, improve our health, and solve all our other body image issues. But are diets that demonize or eliminate whole food groups healthy? Is it healthy to approach exercise with a “no pain no gain” mindset? Where’s the tipping point between healthy and obsessive?
Many people assume that diets promoting organic foods or “clean eating” are fostering positive habits that lead to overall wellness, and many people are able to follow their preferences in a balanced and mindful manner. But these eating guidelines can easily slide into obsessive territory for someone who is a perfectionist or who leans toward all-or-nothing mentalities. Taken to an extreme, even an organic or raw food diet could develop into an issue. Recently, a form of disordered eating called orthorexia has become more prevalent, where someone restricts food intake based on the food’s perceived health value, quality, or purity. According to NEDA, people who develop orthorexia may assume they are following a healthy diet, but their eating patterns eventually become all-consuming and severely impact their day-to-day lives.
In a society that values extremes and ultimatums, especially around food and exercise, it can be very difficult to articulate what healthy actually means. The many different messages about health from the media and the health industry also make it hard to develop a complete understanding of health. Gray warns, “An advertiser’s number one goal is to make you dissatisfied with yourself or your life so you’ll go buy or do what they want you to do, and that will supposedly increase your satisfaction.” Therefore, the underlying motive behind health-related messages may be more about making a profit and less about an individual’s well-being.
Gray encourages people to be cautious of how the media defines health and suggests that people look at health in a more individual and holistic way. A more accurate and safe way to think about health considers the unique needs of the individual, emphasizes a strong connection between physical and mental health, and reflects on the motives or intentions behind behavioral patterns.
Considering health as an individual journey, Gray suggests that people think of health more as “self care, which is about listening to yourself and what you need.” When people develop positive relationships with food, body, and fitness, they account for personal preferences and don’t resist natural preferences based on perceived societal opinion. Gray also notes that a stable relationship with food is flexible: “Sometimes you’re eating for comfort, sometimes for celebration. Food can equal love. Eating can also be out of hunger or convenience. It’s all these things.”
Additionally, a more holistic definition of health considers the correlation between body and mind. “Mental health and physical health are not separate, they are interwoven. We are actually diminishing people’s health by focusing on their weight,” Gray adds. Instead of attempting to fix the physical body and hope the mental problems associated with body dissatisfaction or low self-esteem will be solved, the better strategy is to promote acceptance and encourage radical self love in the current moment — a moment that is not contingent on past failures or future success.
Finally, an integral component to defining health is the ability to reflect on the motives fueling certain behaviors. Although diets and exercise regimens are not all destined to end up in dangerous or unsafe territory, it’s important for everyone to consider what’s behind their relationships to food, exercise, and body image. Gray encourages people to challenge assumptions about the perceived safety or value of “healthy lifestyles” by questioning the motives behind participation: are you following a diet that encourages self-righteous thinking about perceived qualities of food? If any behaviors are accompanied with judgment, resistance, or anxiety (or if they become invasive into everyday life), Gray believes there might be cause for concern.
While redefining health and challenging society’s ingrained assumptions about bodies will take some time, there are several ways to start practicing self care and foster positive relationships with food, exercise, and body image. Gray offers some tips on how to nurture radical self-acceptance:
- Eliminate the word “should” from your vocabulary. Often, “should statements” (such as “I should go to the gym”) are imposed by external constructs and frequently are shaming statements. Instead, Gray suggests trying to “replace ‘should’ with ‘I want’ or ‘I don’t want’ — then you’re listening to your internal voice.”
- Allow yourself to play, be curious, and even fail. Allow yourself to move your body in ways that are fun instead of seeing exercise as purely for fitness or punishment for not having the body you think you should have. Try new things where you give yourself room to fail.
- Think about and celebrate what you can do in your current body. Thank your body for what it has done — think about how well our bodies actually serve us. Gray notes, “Gratitude is a great antidote to shame!”
- Challenge yourself and set intentions (more flexible than goals) that are not based on weight or size.
- Gray encourages people to “listen to their body of the day; that acknowledges that some days we have more energy, feel stronger, or feel more attractive. Honor where you are in that moment.”
It’s not easy to challenge assumptions about weight and health, especially because negative mindsets are engrained into us our whole lives. But the more we resist the messages that equate our physical bodies with our self worth, the more we can encourage ourselves and others to find joy in our current bodies. Imagine defining health in a way that moves beyond the scale, beyond shame and unattainable expectations, and toward a place of self care. By promoting mindful behavior and positive relationships with food, exercise, and our bodies, we can begin to challenge our society’s obsession with weight and eventually smash the scale that has attempted to sum up our worth in pounds and ounces.
For more information on The Emily Program Foundation, or to volunteer, visit www.emilyprogramfoundation.org.