Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I Wish My Friends Trying to Lose Weight Would Read This

I admit. I'm baiting with that title.

I'm in a tough spot. I am not thin. It is highly unlikely--given personal history and evidence of genetic predisposition--that I will ever be thin. It is possible that I will be thinner than I currently am, but it's not really a goal. What is a goal, though, is to lift heavier weights, run faster miles, and participate in more obstacle courses and races. I have achieved, for the first time in my entire life, the ability to care for myself without hatred.

And that's the only word I can think of that adequately fits the feelings I used to have toward my body: hatred. Its absolute refusal to fit into the narrow (literally and figuratively) confines that had been set for it left me with nothing but disdain.

That's no way to live. This body, after all, has served me quite well. It grew, carried, and birthed a healthy baby girl. It has survived car accidents. It has fallen out of canoes and managed not to drown. It has walked miles and miles and miles of city asphalt, country gravel, and backwoods dirt. It has stayed up into the early morning hours to watch the sunrise or hammer out a paper before deadline. It has, to be fair, done a pretty good job.

Sunk red canoe

But hate was all I gave it. Hate for the chin that didn't look right, the hair that was neither straight nor curly, the calves that were too bulky, the belly that was too round, the frame that was too short, the shoulders that were too broad.

If anyone else treated me the way that I treated me, I'd have sent them packing a long time ago.

At first, I thought this newfound frame of mind was a fluke. After all, there had been moments in the past where I thought I'd found clarity. I'd start a new diet (drinking Slim Fast twice a day and eating bland, dry handfuls of cereal as a "snack.") I'd drop 10 pounds and think "Yes! Look at all my self control." Then I'd start doing mental math. "If I can lose 10 pounds in three weeks, then just think of how thin I'll be in three months." Of course, you cannot live off of cardboard and chalky milk substitute for three months, so two weeks later, the ten pounds would be back and I would be a failure. The power I felt in the moment of "success" was replaced by an immense, sometimes all-consuming sense of ineptitude.

So when I first realized that I wasn't hating my body anymore, I just sat back and waited. Surely, I thought, it's coming. I looked in the mirror in the morning and waited for the voice to come back, the one that zoned in on all my flaws and broadcast them to me while I brushed my teeth, just in case I had forgotten.

"But the eyebrows! Dear God. Have you even seen those eyebrows?!"

It stayed silent.

Here I am, over a year into (dare I say it) liking myself.

What changed? My diet.

Not my food diet (although, that has changed a lot as I started eating food that made me feel good, consciously avoiding the chemicals and crap I used to rely on as "healthy" alternatives). I changed my media diet. I stopped feeding myself messages that told me my body was worth hating and started consciously seeking out messages that made me realize that health was much more than a number on a scale. And it's health I'm after.

I won't (though I certainly could if I chose) be wearing a bikini to the beach anytime soon, but I did squat 120 pounds in the gym yesterday. My shirts are still size XL, but I did run for an hour in the rain on Sunday. My BMI is still in the overweight category, but my blood pressure is better than it was when I was twenty (and dieting). These are certainly not the only ways to be healthy (and we all have to find our own versions of fit and healthy from within the bodies and abilities we have), but they have certainly been a lot more rewarding for me than my old goals of "get thin" and "be prettier."

So here's my tough spot. I have found what I was really looking for: the ability to take care of myself without hatred, the ability to work out regularly, eat healthy, and not see myself as a failure for not meeting some arbitrary standard of "beautiful." And I want to share.

I have several friends who want to lose weight, and I wish them luck with all of their goals. I hope that they get where they want to be, and I have nothing against someone having a goal of weight loss. I know that there was a point when my body was carrying pounds that were not healthy, pounds that slowed me down and made my blood pressure jump.

And if someone wants to lose weight just to look differently? I think that's fine, too. If you want to dye your hair or wear contacts instead of glasses or dress in stiletto heels or get a tattoo or pierce your tongue, I think you have all of those rights, too. We should be able to do what we want to our bodies, including changing their weight if we choose.

But I can't help but look at these friends who are trying to lose weight and feel a little sad. It's not because I think they shouldn't change their bodies if they want to. It's just that so many of these friends are so beautiful. I don't even mean like in that "oh, we're all beautiful in our own ways" beauty (even though, sure). I mean these friends are beautiful in the "Damn!" way. And I'm not sure they know that. Perhaps they are busy listening to a voice that's broadcasting in their heads, and I wish they could turn it off. If they still want to change their bodies after they shut that voice up, then by all means, they should. But if we're making decisions while a deranged drill sergeant barks commands at us to hate ourselves, then they're not really decisions made freely.

I don't know how to broach that conversation, though. I don't know how to tell someone that I think they're not being fair to themselves. I'm sure they'd get defensive (I know I would have if someone had tried to tell me that). Instead, I am going to leave here a list of the things I wish these friends would read.

Body Image
The biggest thing that's changed the way I feel about myself is reframing my goals. Realizing that losing twenty pounds wasn't going to change who I was (and thus solve all of my problems with magic) made me try to figure out what was really bothering me, and I fixed (or am fixing) those things instead.

"Fitspo" or "fitspiration" are the pictures we pin on Pinterest or post on Facebook that have muscular people (usually without heads) and "inspirational" sayings on them. 
  • Beauty Redefined has an excellent post about how "fitspo"aren't actually all that inspiring. 
  • Along the same lines, here's a great post explaining just how irresponsible a lot of those "inspirational" posts can be. Work until you puke and crawl on the floor? Not exactly a recipe for health. 
  • Here's a discussion of why shows like The Biggest Loser are also not very good inspiration for actual health. 
  • Also, remember that anytime you hold up an image of a celebrity as an inspiration, they may very well (and by that I mean almost certainly) be on the Photoshop diet. You can't compete. 
Healthy Inspiration
So if "fitspo" isn't good for us, what should we look to for inspiration to work hard and get fit?
  • I love Fit and Feminist, a website that does a great job of examining the complexity of beauty image and actual health goals. (They also have great discussions on their Facebook page). 
  • There's also a Tumblr called Feminist Fitspo which aims to find positive images of fitness. 
  • I started a Pinterest board with a similar goal, and I try to feature images and videos that focus on actually doing something with our bodies. If the goal is strength, that can only be shown through action, not standing around in a sports bra. 
  • Here is one of the most inspiring fitness videos I've ever seen. Yes, the woman clearly transforms her body with weight loss, but when I watch this, what I see is someone using her body to become stronger and more skilled and to have fun. She's not afraid to make mistakes, either. 

The Science
We exist in a world saturated with messages about the obesity "epidemic." And it is undeniable diseases like heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes negatively impact (and end) a lot of lives. With everyone from our news anchors to our doctors telling us that we must immediately lose weight in order to be healthy, we can forget that there's a body of research out there that demonstrates a lot of gray area in just how "healthy" and "skinny" do (and don't) intersect. 
We should make goals, and we should strive for them, but we must remember to be kind to ourselves along the way. 

Photos: puuikibeachRobbie Sproule, Igor Klisov


  1. Michelle, I have needed this lately. I read so much about strong being the new skinny but lately have not been making it a priority. I always look at the scale to see if I am gaining weight which is a false idea (I know it seems crazy because I am thinner) but it goes back to being told that I gained a few pounds once and it has stuck. I will say that Paleo has helped but I have been off the bandwagon for a few weeks. I also have the issue of not getting motivated unless it is a challenge. I also only like to workout with people, otherwise I feel that I am not being held accountable and will not go. I have so many things that are obstacles. I can say though that cross fit and lifting (can be done on your own and not in a box) has really shown me what your body can do. I used to not be able to do a sit up. Now I can do a lot more than just one.
    I have another obstacle that is always in my way. Running. I just CANNOT get past the mental part that I am going to be slow or faint. I think I have psyched myself out so much that I am now like "why do it anyway or I can't". Always in progress.

    I do relate to you that eating better doesn't always mean you will lose weight but we have to think about all the things we are doing for our bodies. They can only take so much toxicity.

    Thank you so much for this post! It has really been at the forefront of my mind and it was like you have ESP with me. =). I hope that your friends really get as much out of this post as I have. =)

  2. Hi Jane, Thank you for this article, I am a yoga instructor and have a BMI that puts me as overweight verging on obese. I have a very healthily low blood pressure. And unlike people who over train their bodies, pushing them to the limit, I don't have knee problems, back problems, my asthma has gone and I am not stressed or full of tension.
    Who's healthy now?
    My insulation, as I call it or padding, doesn't make me unhealthy as I look after my body in all other ways apart from my one vice which is chocolate.
    If you Love your body and you will become the weight you are supposed to be not the one everyone else says you should be.

  3. Thanks for writing this. I gained about 10 or so pounds over the summer while writing my thesis. I've been so hard on myself lately about it. I've never beat myself up about my weight until recently, when stress from work and school became unbearable. Its nice to read articles from other women, reminding us that we don't have to hate ourselves.

  4. In our house we're living both sides of the Eating Disorder Coin. Hubby and I are morbidly obese (though being successful on WW) daughter is anorexic.
    YOu are so right in how messed up we have allowed ourselves to become based on the media's interpretation of "Beautiful"
    Thinspo is part of the ProAna culture don't let anyone tell you any different. Pinterest will take down anyboards that are actively promoting the ProAna Culture ~ PA's believe anorexia is a lifestyle not a sickness
    Thank you for getting this out there
    I'm going to add a link to this post on my Fighting Ana resource page I'm working on

  5. I'm so sorry to hear that you're dealing with these health issues in your family. I can't imagine how hard it is to watch your daughter struggle while also trying to find your own approach to health. Good luck, and it's so great that you're using your experience to help make a resource page for others.

  6. It seems sad that we need reminders not to hate ourselves, but clearly there are plenty of messages out there saying just the opposite. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  7. Oh, chocolate. It gets me, too.

    I love what you say about how if you love your body it will do what it's supposed to do. Isn't that true of most things in our life? Treat it right, and things will fall into place.

  8. Somehow you were speaking to me and everyone like me, the women you talked about trying to loose weight not just to be thinner, but to be younger, prettier, sexier and so forth, but the reality is that we have to like ourselves as we are today, not in the past and not tomorrow, but today.Thaks for a great article.

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