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DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE:
Body Sighs

When I was a kid, all the grown women I knew were on diets.  My mother, slim and attractive, always thought she needed to lose just five more pounds.  She and her friends drank Tab and sweetened their coffee with Sweet'N Low and talked about how "bad" they were when they ordered dessert.  My grandmother, still gorgeous in her fifties, seemed to subsist on cottage cheese, grapefruit, and unsweetened tea.  This was before Jane Fonda and leg-warmers; exercise wasn't yet trendy.  Later my mother did aerobics and Jazzercise (in combination with Slimfast, Atkins, and other trendy diets), but the focus was always the same: to get into a size 6 bathing suit.

Now there's lots of talk about diet and exercise for health, but health, fashion and weight loss seem to be inextricably intertwined.  In the interest of preventing a host of health problems, women (and, increasingly, men) are encouraged to lose weight and to conform to specific cultural ideals of beauty.  Medical professionals frequently endorse these cultural standards in hopes of encouraging "healthy" weight loss.  Some medical professionals even bemoan the advent of cute, larger-sized fashions, because women who have access to attractive clothes in larger sizes might not be as motivated to lose weight.  And yet studies suggest that being underweight can be more of a health risk than being overweight, so long as everything else is equal, and there's little evidence to suggest that weight, in and of itself, is an accurate predictor of longevity. 

I've always been leery of diets and the push to be thin.  During the many years I was active in the theatre, I knew far too many dancers and actors who starved themselves to look good on stage.  There's nothing healthy about an underweight woman smoking to keep herself from eating too many carrot sticks and throwing up her dinner so she can "afford" to have a beer after rehearsal.  I made a conscious decision to focus on health rather than size.  

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Yet I recognize that the correlation between poor health and obesity isn't random.  Yes, you can be healthy and "overweight" according to the height and weight charts.  But most people who exercise regularly and eat healthy diets aren't obese and most people who are significantly overweight will suffer some ill effects either as a result of their size (for example knee and back problems) or as a result of the habits of which the weight is symptomatic.  Surely there's a middle ground somewhere, where we don't expect grown women to look like prepubescent girls but we also encourage people to develop habits that will contribute to good health.

My own abortive attempts at healthy living haven't been as successful as I would have liked, and my weight has crept up over the past ten years, in part due to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.  Recently I was diagnosed with some health problems that necessitated a change in my diet and exercise patterns.  After the usual insurance company run-around, I found a dietitian to consult (turned out she wasn't covered after all, but that's another story).  She drew up a draconian food plan for me, all the while proselytizing against sugar and fat.  There was a distinctly puritanical bent to her approach; all sweets were snares to be avoided with the utmost willpower, and sugar, like its cousin, demon rum, was an addiction that must be fought daily.  She might as well have been quoting the blues band Sapphire, who sang, "If you like it, don't do it, and if you love it, better leave it alone."

Trying to follow this diet sent me into a spiral of depression and anxiety.  I think I've got a relatively healthy attitude about food, but all my latent cultural baggage about eating was propelled forward with one short visit to a nutritionist.  When I found myself repeatedly in tears from exhaustion and hunger, I decided to ditch the most restrictive requirements until I could follow-up with another dietitian. 

In contrast, the exercise component of this lifestyle change has been surprisingly easy.  When I'm not active, I tend to forget that I actually enjoy moving my body.  Working out is most often seen as a grim obligation, but many people are surprised by how much better they feel when they're active.  (Not to mention that for busy parents, exercise represents half an hour every day to yourself, guilt-free.)  It is possible to be healthy and to indulge yourself in things you enjoy (albeit in moderation), but healthy living is generally depicted as deprivation, and even those aspects that can be fun (like exercise) are depicted as grueling sacrifices.  On TV and in the movies, healthy living is generally reserved for the schlubby ugly duckling who longs to be a swan.  The truly privileged don't have to punish themselves like this, because they were born beautiful and maintaining their figures is effortless.

Perhaps this is the real problem with the focus on weight loss and the emphasis on appearance as an indicator of health.  In order to motivate people to change their unhealthy habits, medical professionals (and health and beauty journalists) habitually encourage women to loathe their current appearance.  If the motivation is "looking good" then first the subject must be convinced that she (or he) looks bad.  Almost every weight loss program is predicated (to some extent or another) on developing an antagonist relationship with food and with our own bodies.  We're all encouraged to identify with the "before" picture in the weight loss ads, in which a chubby, pasty woman slumps dejectedly, her pot belly pooching out from the too skimpy bikini she wears.  But never fear!  With diet and exercise (and perhaps the advertised meds), you too can be the tanned, toned, babe smiling and standing tall in the "after" picture.

But even if you can lose the weight, the damage to your self-esteem doesn't just disappear.  Almost every woman I know has a story about a time when she was 20 or 30 pounds lighter, and still thought she was grotesquely overweight.  You can never be thin enough to compete with the glamorous creatures in the pages of Vogue, you can never be allowed to be satisfied with your appearance.  Because if we liked ourselves the way we are, we might stop buying things -- diet aids, low carb tortillas, magically slenderizing bathing suits, tummy tucks -- all the things that promise to "fix" us and make us right.  If the statistics are correct, more Americans are overweight than ever before, at the same time that more Americans are dieting than ever before.  There's a major disconnect somewhere, and it's not going to be solved by encouraging women to hate their bodies.
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About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.

 

 

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