Thursday, January 6, 2011

January's Theme of the Month: Body Image

It's clearly that time of the year again. Bookstores are bringing out diet books and salad cookbooks, while every retailer is selling diet pills and scales. Gyms are filling up with business that they know will disappear within a few months. And while I know that men are part of the new years weight loss rush, I'm mostly hearing from women that they want to lose 15 pounds or 20 pounds or 30 pounds over the next six months. And I can't help but wonder for how many women (and men) this is an emotionally damaging goal. Even after successfully losing weight through a New Year's goal, some women remain conflicted. We can't ignore the underlying issues that factor into the weight loss.

I'm all for healthy lifestyles, and I understand that no matter how much I wish everyone would stop focusing on numbers (in terms of weight and clothing sizes), people nevertheless do. Personally, I refuse to buy a scale, but I'm narcissistic enough to want to step on one the instant I see it. I just have to know everything about myself, including that silly number that is my weight. While I was home for the holidays, I stepped on the bathroom scale nearly every day and watched my body gain 7 pounds in just two weeks. So, I understand that resting and eating during the holidays does a lot to make a person feel extra bloated, and that extra bit of worry, combined with the yearning for a fresh start with the new year makes a New Year's weight loss goal seem pretty appealing.

But how many people who go on diets actually experience long-term health benefits? I'm no expert on health and nutrition (in fact, I rather hope Whitney will jump in here), but it's my understanding that research shows no health benefits for people who go through diet-gain-diet-gain cycles, compared to people who just stay at one weight. According to Whitney, some recent research even suggests that the process the body goes through while it loses weight may make weight loss a bad idea for some people - especially if it's frequent.

I also know that many people lose weight, thinking that they'll be healthier, happier, and more confident - only to suddenly want to change something else about themselves. Maybe the loose skin from their weight loss bothers them (I had a roommate who was convinced she was fat, because she had loose skin from losing weight). Maybe they're too terrified of gaining weight to enjoy their body after the loss. Maybe they don't like acne, or how small their hips and breasts are, or the way people in a crowd tend to push thin people aside.

And really, let's consider just how arbitrary the numbers are that we attach to our health. Unless you're big enough that your size directly impacts your health (and that is the case for some people), chances are you're better off buying bigger clothing and going for a holistic health approach. If you're making your body healthy through exercise, a healthy diet, and regular doctor appointments and your weight/dress size/appearance isn't directly hurting your health... then why lose weight? Why tell your body that it has to change just to suit fashion or social expectations or the incredibly flawed BMI?

This is obviously a sensitive topic, and obviously what you do for your body health-wise is between you and your doctor. Maybe a New Year's weight loss goal really is the best thing for you. Or maybe some other kind of New Year's health goal is a good idea (such as changing what you eat or exercising more frequently, though for some people that of course may not be enough). But I hope you'll think twice before you jump on the weight loss band wagon.

And that is why this month NAW is focusing on body image. We welcome posts on any related topic. Tell us your frustrations with what people expect from your body. Tell us how much you hate to see commercials that treat people like products. Tell us how much you love your body. Tell us how sad you feel about your body and how happy it makes you. Whatever you do, talk. We need to work through the psychological issues that have us all obsessed with our bodies.

1 comment:

  1. Someone listened to me! Awesome! Though it's been a few years since I was immersed in findings from nutrition research, I do remember those things you mentioned: that weight loss, even for "overweight" people ISN'T necessarily healthy and is associated with negative health outcomes in some research, and that cyclical weight loss and gain has negative effects on physical health (and psychological health, obviously).

    Now that I'm studying sociology, one of the primary things that strikes me is the degree to which knowledge--including scientific and medical knowledge--is socially constructed. Definitions of what is 'healthy' rely on definitions of what is 'unhealthy,' which is dependent on historical context and ideology. Many of us feminists love to cite the Renaissance as a historical period when curvaceous women's bodies were seen as attractive. I'm guessing that in that period, those bodies were also dubbed the "healthy" ones: they were privileged, visible, had money and resources, were scarce, and were being compared to the masses of skinny peasants. Today, the people--well, the women--who are privileged, visible, and moneyed are skinny. Yet we live in a country in which the incidence of obesity is rapidly increasing--ESPECIALLY among underprivileged groups (black Americans, poor folks). The connection between privilege and certain types of bodies is implicated in the assumptions that guide scientific research, in the questions asked, and in the way results are interpreted.