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.
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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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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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