Dieting, Health and the $64,000 Question

So, here’s the thing: I am staunchly anti-diet-for-weight-loss.  Staunchly.  Did I mention staunchly?  (Wow, that’s starting to not look like a word anymore: staunchly.  Staunchly.  Staunchlystaunchlystaunchly.  Weird.  Aaaaaaanyway.) 

I know all the reasons people give for dieting, and mostly they seem to boil down to 2 ideas: people want to lose weight “for [their] health” or they want to look better in a swimsuit.  Ironically, I don’t really have a problem with the latter.  While I wish that every single person would be happy with the way they look and rock that bikini on the beach whether fat or thin, the fact is that it is very hard to do that in our culture, and not everyone is cut out to fight every battle.  In other words, I see a problem with the paradigm, but not with the individuals who go along to get along, so to speak. If you’ve absorbed the message that your body isn’t “right” so much that every time you walk past a mirror or a window you’re plunged into a swamp of self-hatred and body-loathing, I can’t fault you for doing everything in your power to fix that state of mind, EVEN IF it includes things I don’t agree with on principle. 

So.  In an odd way, I can respect someone who says, “I’m losing weight to rock that bikini.”  I think it’s sad that we’ve come to that – I’ve been there, and I know what it feels like to hate my body – but I can understand it.  But as a society, why do we treat it as a big moral triumph?  Honestly, how is changing your body any different than changing your hair color?  Dieting might take more work/obssession, but that doesn’t automatically make it worthy of the praise we heap on it in this culture.  When I colored my hair a got a few, “hey nice hair” comments, but I didn’t discuss every freakin’ detail of the bleaching process to a bunch of fascinated ladies in the lunch room for the whole hour.  (And before you say I’m exaggerating, please think about how much time you or your friends spend talking about what you eat.  I’ll bet it’s more time than you realize.  I know it was for me.)

But if someone says they are dieting only for their health, I’ve got to call bullshit on that one.  Frankly, there are so many conflicting studies that I don’t think anyone can say with any certainty that thin is healthier than fat.  There are a bunch of links on the “Links and Studies” page, above, so I’m not going to go into a lot of it here. 

But how do we know if we’re doing what we’re doing for our “health” or because of cultural brainwashing?  We all like to think we’re independent thinkers, but really none of us are.  God knows I really thought for a long time that if I didn’t lose weight, I was doomed to be unhealthy.  But when I was at my lowest weight (which ironically put me at the middle-to-low end of “normal” according to the *cough*bullshit*cough* BMI), do you know how I’d gotten there?  Eating under 500 calories a day, sometimes less, and exercising at least 60 minutes a day, sometimes as much as 90 minutes, 7 days a week.  Was I healthy?  Um, no.  I blew out my (other) knee, blew out a couple of discs in my back, had a constant cold, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t focus, had recurring bloody noses . . . I was NOT.  HEALTHY.  But I was thin. 

And for a long time, I really thought that if I gained weight I would be not only fatandugly, but UNHEALTHY (because obviously, I was a paragon of health before).  Even after that crazy period in college, when I started eating more and exercising a little less and started gaining weight, even when I pendulumed back the other way into binge eating and gained even more weight, I thought that THE REASON I WAS UNHEALTHY WAS BECAUSE I WASN’T THIN. 

I was saying that to someone one day, and she asked me the $64,000 question.  Are you ready?  It rocked my world, and made me realize that underneath my belief that I was FINE with my body, REALLY, I JUST WANTED TO BE HEALTHIER . . . I still hated myself with a fiery passion.  And then my REAL internal work began.  Here you go:

What if you did all the “right” things, got the “right” amount of exercise, had perfect blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, never ate anything but unprocessed, organic food, could run 5-10 miles easily and without getting out of breath and every doctor you saw said you were the healthiest person they’d ever seen?  Pretty great, right?  Now imagine that you wake up tomorrow and all those things are true, BUT YOUR BODY IS STILL EXACTLY THE SAME.

Are you happy with yourself?  Or do you hate yourself just as much?  (I know the first time I heard that, I felt a wave of physical revulsion wash through me that I could not BELIEVE.)

Edited to add: The next question, after “YOUR BODY IS . . . THE SAME,” is, would you feel differently if in order to acheive all that, you had to GAIN weight?  Would you do it?  Would you rather meet all the above criteria and weight 50-100 pounds more than you do now?  Or conversely, would you rather lose your desired amount of weight at the PRICE of those things?  What if you could wake up tomorrow at 125, 150, whatever you wish your weight were, but you would have none of the health benefits above?  (I am glad to say that most days I wouldn’t choose to be skinny and unhealthy, but I’m a little ashamed to admit that most days I would not gain 50-100 pounds to improve my health, either.  I’m working on it.  It’s some tough shit.)

THAT’S how you root out the cultural brainwashing.

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20 responses to “Dieting, Health and the $64,000 Question

  1. Damn. I thought I was ready to answer this that I would be fine. That I have a lot of this at the point where I want it. But then I took a breathe and realized I was wrong.

    I’m going to have to blog my answer or I’d be writing a tome here.

    Damn.

  2. Pingback: Tale of the Scale: Question and Answer « Weight For Deb

  3. Hey, Deb, welcome! It’s a really f*cking hard question, isn’t it? The first time I heard that, I felt like I’d been sucker-punched when I realized that I just didn’t want to be fat, NO MATTER WHAT. That was the first time I really realized that a big part of wanting to be thin, at least for me, had NOTHING to do with health. That was a tough thing to face about myself.

  4. I found this post when Deb posted a link on Twitter. Very interesting question, for sure. I’m going to read what Deb wrote and maybe see about chiming in myself, too. 🙂

  5. Great question – how honest can I be with myself?

    I don’t want to be fat… because I hate how I look in clothes sometimes. Wow. Yeah, I wanna be “healthier,” but my numbers are good – blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. I could phrase it better too, I wanna be more physically fit, because I wanna be able to run and not get winded, but ultimately, I want to look better. Damn.

  6. uhmmm….long day, 2 tired 2 come up with a coherent response right now. very stimulating post…welcome back and thank u for your comments on my last post,
    K.
    til-i-reach.com

  7. damn youre good woman.

    family visiting.

    Toddler still awake.

    Im here rereading your post.

    it’s that powerful.

  8. Thin.

    Thin. Thin. Thin.

    I’m sad, now.

  9. Powerful post. I’ve been overweight longer than I’ve been thin (if you don’t count the first 13 years of my life) and I’m *this close* to being, ahem, normal on the BS BMI. I have run a half marathon, and can run a mile in less than 10 minutes if I push myself. I wear size 8s. I am relatively comfortable in my tankini & swim skirt at the pool now. My husband thinks I’m hot.

    And I still am not happy with the way my body looks. And am working on losing 15 more pounds. (Insert tangent: I also want to lose more weight so I can run faster….that’s not a “health” thing or a looks thing. I want to run a marathon when I’m 40 and don’t want it to take 6 freaking hours.)

    What scares me most–I will reach my goal weight and still not be happy with the way I look. When will the madness end then? Plastic surgery? More dieting? Endless workouts?

    When will enough be enough?

  10. Hi Zandria and Elisa – good to have you here!

    K, get some sleep. Feel better, girl. 🙂

    MizFit! *blush* That is all. Actually, no it isn’t: go to bed, silly! Toddler Tornado waits for no man, woman or dog-tired mommy! LOL, you’ll be cursing me in the morning otherwise. 😉

    Cara, don’t let it make you sad. Seriously. DON’T. That way lies madness. (I might have to post something tomorrow called, “Now Get Angry,” LOL.) It’s important to remember that we can only change the things we’re aware of, even when those things suck. Look at it this way: if a crazy person were coming at you to kill you (cultural brainwashing) would you rather close your eyes and hope s/he goes away? Or would you rather open your eyes and fight back? Opening our eyes is scary and upsetting, but it’s the only way to fight back. So don’t, don’t, DON’T be sad. Be grateful to recognize that crazy person NOW instead of forty years from now. *hugs*

    Laura, something tells me you’re a PERFECT example of the BMI being flawed. (And can I tell you how impressed I am about the half-marathon? I’m still working on a mile. Wow.) I have to say that I wouldn’t put losing weight for speed into the same category as losing weight to look good. Mostly because “looking good” is about making ourselves pleasing to other people, but speed is about what you can do for yourself. It’s less about what you look like than what you can do, and so by definition it’s less objectifying. If that makes sense. But as far as enough being enough? I SO HEAR YOU.

  11. Whoever invented the BMI needs to kiss my fat healthy ass.

    Great post girly. Borderline liberating. I’ll be anxiously awaiting the “now get angry” edition ;-).

  12. Hmmm….good question in the post. I have been trying to eat healthier and exercise this past year or so, and do feel better. And my cholestral is down! But would I still feel so much “better” if I hadn’t lost weight? To be honest…probably not.
    Ok, I admitted it!
    And the BMI thing? Bunch o’ nonsense…

  13. Hi! I followed you here via a comment you made on Domestic Felicity and I have to say I just LOVE this post! Personally I am in the middle of a diet designed for healthy weight loss mostly because just four or five years ago I used to weigh much less than I do now, and university living really did a number on me! I remember vividly how at the end of twelfth grade and the start of university I had more energy, woke up more refreshed and was generally able to keep going much farther for much longer at just about every task I undertook. It was missing that feeling, coupled with my efforts to keep up with a class full of kindergarten students, that really sparked my weight loss plan, so if I could feel that healthy and have that same old drive back, then I’m not sure I would really mind the numbers.

    That said, I am 5’2″ and 23 years old, and am consciously trying to get back to my 19-year-old weight of 120 pounds from a longtime weight of 152 (at my heaviest point I was 160; I am right now 136). Those numbers DO have meaning for me and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t focusing on them as well as my target “feeling,” but more than the numbers, I just plain don’t feel comfortable with myself when I am bigger. I feel as if I fit into myself better when I am 120 lbs. I don’t get stuck in narrow chairs, I feel lighter on my feet and comfortable in my own skin. I have a better sense of balance and awareness of my own proportions when I am 120 pounds (or when I am the size I was at 120 pounds) than I do when I weigh more. It’s that feeling of fitting my own body that I miss, not the numbers that gave it to me. If I hit 130 lbs and find I have that feeling back again, then I will happily work to maintain that weight rather than focusing only on the numbers on the scale.

    That is probably WAY more of an answer than you were looking for, lol!

  14. Hi Andrea – nice to meet you! And I love long comments – I personally am incapable of leaving a short one, LOL.

    (I should probably warn you that I’m far more foul-mouthed and liberal than the lovely ladies at Domestic Felicity, just so you don’t feel taken aback at the things I post. ;D)

    Actually I understand what you’re saying about feeling uncomfortable in your body. My first question would normally be, “how long were you heavy?” In other words, did you really have time to get used to that body? Did you spend all your time in that body wishing it was something else? Because those will both make you constantly uncomfortable, never allow you to really get to KNOW that body, and make it seem like a lower weight would be more comfortable.

    But I also know that as simple as that seems, sometimes you can do all those things: get comfortable, own that body – and sometimes it really does still feel “off.” I’m learning that most of that “off” feeling ties in more to a lack of health than a certain weight, though (at least for me). If my weight goes up because I eat junk food and don’t exercise, it’s not really any wonder that I feel like crap, you know? But that feeling like crap isn’t because of the weight; it’s because of the health.

    so if you were eating better, exercising, FEELING better, would you still want to lose weight? I think you sort of hit it in the first part of your comment, about how if you could feel good, the weight wouldn’t matter. But then the second part talks about not “fitting” at your higher weight(s). I guess what I’m wondering is, which is more important? If you had to choose between “fitting” and being skinny or not “fitting” and being energetic, which would you choose?

    I’m not trying to single you out, and I’m not asking you to respond in the comments (though you’re welcome to if you’d like!). I guess I’m just thinking on paper, because you just touched on something that I wrestle with periodically, too: that feeling of not “fitting,” somehow. I’m still not sure if it’s because of my body, or because of the fact that when I gained weight I didn’t want to live in my body, so I sort of dissociated from it, if that makes sense. But if I dissociate, it doesn’t make sense to say I don’t “fit,” you know?

    Hey! I might have just found another subject to post about. 😉

  15. I know what my answer is already. I will always (deep down) want to lose more, even if it means losing health. I honestly think the only thing stopping me from doing it is keeping other people happy – not upsetting my friends or family again by becoming ill like before. If you took them out of the equation I’d be a skeleton again in 6 months, no question.

    Losing weight ain’t about looking good in a bikini for me though, or about health – it’s something much darker and scarier than that.

    Sorry to be a downer!

    TA x

  16. Tokaiangel, you’re definitely NOT a downer. It’s an important distinction, I think: that distinction between what people do for vanity and what people do when it’s a disorder. It’s a WHOLE different mental space. I have to confess that even when I was most disordered, I never quite tipped over into HAVING a disorder, if that makes sense. I was lucky for some reason: maybe I didn’t have the genetic predisposition for it, maybe my weight never really got low enough to jack up my brain chemicals permanently (a la the Ancel Keys study) or maybe I didn’t starve for long enough to jack up those brain chemicals. I really don’t know how I dodged it.

    The only disorder I can “claim” is Binge Eating Disorder. (“Claiming” a disorder: oh yay. :P) That one definitely kicked in years later, and was definitely more than just disordered eating.

    It’s interesting to see how the outside pressures around us can either make us crazy, or in your current case, keep us sane. Either way, you’ve got my . . . sympathy? Empathy? Compassion? I’m not sure I’ve found the right word, but I hope you know what I mean. 🙂

  17. Marste,

    I love the ladies at Domestic Felicity even when I disagree with them, but I do live in everyday North America so I like to think that, by virtue of necessity, I really don’t offend too easily. I do appreciate the heads up, though!

    My first question would normally be, “how long were you heavy?” In other words, did you really have time to get used to that body? Did you spend all your time in that body wishing it was something else? Because those will both make you constantly uncomfortable, never allow you to really get to KNOW that body, and make it seem like a lower weight would be more comfortable.

    Honestly, I was in the bigger body much longer than I was in the smaller one! I had . . . hmm maybe a year and a half in my smaller size (at the start of 12th grade I had made a conscious decision to cut most refined sugar from my diet because it was giving me stomach problems. I dropped twenty pounds in four months simply due to that) and I have spent nearly five years since then living in a “bigger” one.

    The impetus to change, though, really only hit me in March. I had been chasing after twenty-two five year olds for two months by that point and was finally forced to confront how drastically changed I had was from my old self. I compared my activity level and ability to keep up with what it was when, at age eighteen, I taught a church class of first and second graders, and I just wanted to cry. I couldn’t even enjoy the kids because I got in the way of myself. These reflections opened the door for other realisations, like the fact that my balance is off, my breathing is poor, and my energy goes so fast. I acknowledged that keeping up with my bouncy little dogs is now simply a chore, walking them is a labour of love rather than the glorious, much-anticipated hike that it used to be . . . I have had a lot of time to get comfortable with my bigger self, but in truth, the longer I am in this body the more I realise it doesn’t fit me.

    so if you were eating better, exercising, FEELING better, would you still want to lose weight? I think you sort of hit it in the first part of your comment, about how if you could feel good, the weight wouldn’t matter. But then the second part talks about not “fitting” at your higher weight(s). I guess what I’m wondering is, which is more important? If you had to choose between “fitting” and being skinny or not “fitting” and being energetic, which would you choose?

    The thing is, I DON’T eat a lot of junk food, and have always been a moderate exerciser. I walk for a brisk forty minutes a day (because of the dogs) and my meals are balanced if not obsessively organic, whole grain, all that. I am a picky eater but like enough healthy foods to make for varied, balanced meals when I make the effort. It’s just that when I was in school I had ready access to a lot of food (the cafeteria can KILL you, lol!) and I eat to combat stress. I also eat when I study, when I read . . . one of my best friends and I would meet for dessert and tea and I always made a point to eat with her even if I had already eaten, just so we had time to spend together. I can see quite clearly where my eating patterns took a turn for the worse, but I didn’t see it at the time.

    School was delicious, fun, fantastic . . . all that. I plan to get a Master’s degree, I LOVE school. But it is so STRESSFUL! I ate and ate and ate. Healthy food, yes, but much, MUCH too much of it. I did not have my dogs for almost three years out of four, so my exercise level decreased too. I just made no conscious effort after graduation to fix any of those problems; I lost almost ten pounds because I started walking the dogs again, which took me to 152 pounds, but when I realised I couldn’t keep up with the kids in my class, and was subsequently made short tempered by the fact that I hadn’t the energy to keep up . . . I knew I wanted to make an extra effort. Since April 14th I’ve lost sixteen pounds, but so much more than that, I am starting to feel like ME again! Walks are fun again, I don’t knock into things as much when I misjudge my own width . . . it’s great.

    So yes, if diet and exercise fixed those problems of balance, breathing, temper and whatnot without reducing my weight, that would be fine with me, because those problems bothered me most. But the thing is, when I start targeting my diet and exercise levels with a will to improve them, the weight DOES fall off. I believe it’s because my body just wasn’t meant to be that larger size. To think that by keeping with this diet I will soon fully have my balance back, that I’ll have not only the will but real joy in going for long walks with the dogs, that I’ll be ready to keep up with my own kids when some day they do come along . . . those things, more than anything, are what keep me going (although in the interest of full disclosure, as an added incentive I bought myself a fun summer skirt I love in a size that I know is quite achievable. It hangs in my room and I look forward to wearing it!)

  18. Andrea, that makes a lot of sense. I have to admit that due to some health issues I recently had to limit my intake of refined carbohydrates pretty stringently, and it does appear that I’m losing some weight, so I know that sometimes changing a diet or exercise plan so that you feel better might very well lead to ancillary weight loss. I’m actually kind of on the fence about how I feel about losing weight, because I’ve been working really hard to just be ok with where I’m at, and the weight loss is reactivating all my disordered thinking. Meh.

    Because of all that, I’ve been trying to take the attitude of, “Hey! I did 10 pushups! Woo! Oh, and I lost 2 pounds. Hm. Interesting. Whatever.” But I would be lying if I said it usually worked that way in my head, LOL. I’m working on it.

    I appreciate your taking the time to come back and comment at length. Sometimes I have to stop and remember that whether someone is pro- or anti-diet, in the end WE KNOW OUR OWN BODIES BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE, you know?

    On a side note, I’ve also always wondered about people who are able to diet without self-flagellation becoming an integral part of the dieting process. You seem to be in that camp, which FASCINATES me, because my brain? Does NOT function like that. But if I could lose weight without hating the way I am now . . . well, I’m not convinced I wouldn’t lose weight, anti-diet principle be damned. If that makes sense, LOL.

  19. Marste I do understand about working hard to like where you are. When I was 120 lbs, I was a normal-looking 120. I wasn’t toned or tanned or anything, I still had a soft little tummy and low muscle mass. My tummy took some time to become acceptable to me, lol! I also envied my younger sister her effortlessly tanned skin and her naturally muscular frame; I in contrast looked like a porcelain doll you might find in an old fashioned nursery, with very pink and white limbs and a soft middle! But that was a healthy and functional body I had to get used to; I am realising I don’t like my bigger body not for reasons of vanity (much!) but chiefly for reasons of lack of functionality, and I do agree that distinction is a healthy one to make.

    On a side note, I’ve also always wondered about people who are able to diet without self-flagellation becoming an integral part of the dieting process.

    I will definitely admit to some self flagellation in the dieting process. For me, though, as a personality trait in general, my biggest problem is that I have to find something I can be obsessive about in order to stick to it. Once I commit to something I am in it up to the neck, so before I even began to diet I researched different approaches so I could find the healthiest one, given my nature (I ended up with a combination of calorie counting and portion control, with the condition that I would not let myself go hungry just to keep the numbers down. This way I get the satisfaction of keeping a column of numbers, but I refuse to live by the numbers themselves, lol)

  20. Now that is a brain teaser. Wow. I dont even know what to say. I was more hit with the would you gain weight to achieve those things. Sadly, I wouldn’t. In fact if I was entirely honest I would give up all those things to be thin. But that is why I blog to not think these insane thoughts.

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