“What if you were OK with your body the way it is right now?”
Think about that. Really think about that. Not ok with your flaws. Not alright with being a “good person” despite not looking how you want. Being truly ok with your body.
In a chapter titled “How My Life Changed in One Sentence,” Harriet Brown sets up this premise in her book Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive OUR OBSESSION WITH WEIGHT and What We Can Do About It. This is a question a therapist asked her after she came seeking advice on how to get control over her body and increase her will power. What if it wasn’t about control? What if it had nothing to do with will power?
At first, I read this chapter and thought great, another “Love Yourself” manifesto. But the more I read, the more this sentence seemed revolutionary to me. What if this was a real possibility?
I have been devouring books about the obesity epidemic and body image the way I tore through books about feminism in my twenties. It seems fitting since body image can be a very feminist issue. The way the works of Naomi Wolf and Gloria Steinem guided my young mind, these new books are shaping the person I want to become. A happy, healthy, whole human being.
Of course the big question that comes up with weight is health. What is health? Take a moment. See if you can define it. Is it a number on a BMI? A cholesterol count? The number of times you’ve been sick this year? How many nights you’ve laid awake with anxiety?
What does it mean to be healthy?
I would wager if you asked anyone on the street if you can be healthy and overweight, most people would think no. The problem is that’s not true.
If we are speaking in terms of mortality, overweight people statistically live just as long as or longer than people of “healthy” weights. The people who have increased risks are on the outskirts of the spectrum- the morbidly obese AND the underweight. But when we think about underweight people dying of premature deaths, we envision people struggling in a battle with anorexia. When we think of overweight people meeting the same end, we judge them as weak, immoral people who knew better and dug their own graves.
The science behind weight is VERY complex. I would love to put it into some easily digestible snippet to prove my point, but it’s not possible. It is not as easy as overweight=unhealthy. You may be thinking I am saying that because I am overweight, but it really is this insane tapestry of physiology, chemistry, nature, nurture, and social cues. If you really want to delve into it, read Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss- And The Myths and Realities of Dieting by Gina Kolata. This book will blow your mind.
There are a few things I can tell you. Statistically, a person can not lose and keep off a significant amount of weight. In this case, significant is defined as losing 30 lbs, and keeping it off for more than 5 years. 95% of people are not able to do this. Of that 95% the vast majority do not just gain it back- they gain back more.
People digest calories differently. In one study described in Kolata’s book, obese people were dieted to a specific weight. Thin people were made to gain to this same weight. Then all participants were made to overeat by the same amount- meaning everyone started at the same weight and should gain the same amount of weight. But they didn’t. The overweight people gained more- in some cases up to 25% more. Their bodies simply did not process the calories in the same way. The next time you look at that obese person and think he just isn’t trying hard enough, think of how hard it is for you to lose weight- and that he has to try that much harder.
Before I started reading these books, I decided I was going to do something I hadn’t done in decades- I was going to start keeping a food journal. Sick of feeling like I was working out and eating a mostly healthful diet and still not losing weight, I was determined to get to the source of the problem once and for all.
I learned that I truly do eat a pretty healthy diet. Not perfect. But most days, most meals I eat well. There are the little slips. When I slice a piece of cheese for my son, and I eat a small slice myself. There are times when if I’m not counting, I eat eight whole wheat crackers instead of six. One day I ate an extra orange because I was at the park with my son and he handed me a snack. I got home and learned that orange was an extra 80 calories.
Some people might say “there you go. You’ve pinpointed the problem.” But I mostly thought do I want to be a person who won’t eat an orange offered by my son? Am I really going to spend my life counting six crackers instead of just grabbing eight? No, I am not doing that.
Does that mean I am weak willed. Maybe. Or it could be my physiology. In one horrific sounding experiment, normal sized rats were sewn to obese rats and diabetic rats, so that they shared a circulatory system. It was found that the diabetic rats produced a hormone telling their bodies they were satiated, but their brains were not receiving it. In this instance, the normal sized rats never ate again- once they were sewn to the diabetic rats, they received the overabundance of the hormone and were cued to stop eating.
In a reversal, the obese rats did not produce or insufficiently produced this hormone for satiety. When sewn to the normal sized rats, they had access to the hormone in their bloodstreams and were able to regulate their food intake and lose weight. We think we are in control of our bodies, that it’s mind over matter, but there is an insanely complex mixture of physiology going on- what if we have no control over it?
Most people have a weight their bodies like to maintain at. We can fluctuate around ten lbs on either side, but our metabolisms generally do their magic to keep us at that weight, despite our best efforts. When I read this, it made perfect sense. For more than a decade, I basically maintained at 155 lbs (other than pregnancy). At my slimmest I got down to 146 (a weight I maintained for about three months). I now weigh about 164.
I hated this weight. Why can’t I get thinner? I work out a good amount. Why can’t I get skinnier? I failed to realize you can be fit and overweight. I think many of us think of healthy as thin. Fitness is a characteristic of health- therefore fit people must be thin. Fitness can be a component of health. Weight isn’t necessarily so.
I was ruminating on all of this tonight. My first thoughts were somewhere along the lines of What if its not my fault? What if it is something in my physiology? What if I release some chemical when I’m stressed that causes me to overeat or to eat the wrong things? What if I could learn to combat that?
Then I paused and thought or, what if your body and you are ok exactly as you are?
I had to write it all out before I forgot or let go.