11 January 2011

Yet Again, I Am The Ugly American

Alicen over at The Space Between My Ears wrote this amazing post about being thin and the other side of the whole "let's get trim and fit" phase that hits every January. She makes the great point that doing the healthy thing can be made so much easier when you get a reward, like losing weight. That is totally true and it also got me thinking about why we, as a society, do provide such a reward for the business of getting thin and "healthy." (The term "healthy" here being a bit subjective given that "thin" and "healthy" don't always go hand in hand and we know what the real priority is in the minds of many.)

I think that it goes way beyond the notion that we all want to look like movie stars. Sure it is great to look great, and we all wish we looked like the people on TV. There is also a strong correlation, for our culture anyway, between being thin and being perceived as being in good shape. So much focus is placed on being a "healthy weight" as defined by BMI despite the obvious fact that BMI is not a universally accurate measure of health and well-being. However, that can't be the whole story. Why then do we give such accolade to people who are losing the weight yet all we have to say about people in the maintenance phase of weight management is "oh yeah, they must take good care of themselves."

My theory: we place a level of moral superiority on being thin. That really complicates the issue doesn't it? Then again, maybe it doesn't. As a culture we think that people who are thin do so by doing the "right" things. Anyone who is not meeting the standards must be doing something "wrong." It makes the whole mentality simple in that heavy people must be slackers who eat junk all day and never exercise, while people who are not must be eating nothing but wholesome (both in terms of nutritional value and general moral value) foods and working out every day. Neither of these things are true, but the hypothesis goes a long way to explaining how we treat weight loss and people of all body types.

By extension people who are losing weight are to be celebrated. They are making good changes. They are coming to the light and learning to be healthy and fit. They will be easier on the eyes and not contribute to the obesity "epidemic" (not actually an epidemic by epidemiological standards, but hey, that is not going to make headlines and skyrocket Lipozene sales). Life is great and we should applaud everyone who is taking that step to the moral high ground. Interestingly this does not always translate to admiring people who stay trim, by choice, chance or otherwise.

That my friends, is because when we apply a moral value to weight and body image, now people who are thin are to be feared. If you are thinner than me, you must be perceived as morally superior to me. Now, I don't believe this, and we all know that logically it is not true, but that is how our culture makes us feel. The thin people of the world get no accolades because our own sense of well-being depends on being superior to others and well, if being thinner gives higher moral ground, that can be a tough idea to swallow. Think about it, we only love celebrities when they lose weight and get celebrated as a model citizen or when they get "fat" and then we can feel superior. TMZ's entire business model is based on this premise and how it can be applied to anything; weight, drug use, bad fashion…whatever.

The real bad news here is that I am getting just as sucked in as the next gal. I started Weight Watchers as a way to "force" myself to make better choices. By paying the fee and being accountable to something I was going to get healthier. I honestly set no goal weight because the number on the scale was not the point for me. I was not going to worry about the weight loss; I was going to worry about the eating right and getting off my butt for a few workouts. However, magic happened. I have lost 6 pounds and now I am addicted. I keep fanaticizing about what the scale could say. I keep thinking about what size dress I can buy for my SILs wedding in the fall. Most importantly, I am consumed by how good it feels to have made the "right" choices and damn it if I don't feel a level of smug satisfaction that only moral superiority can bring. Chris is doing it (in a modified way because weight is technically not an issue with him) with me since he wants to work out more and eat better too, so now I have the unending joy of us telling each other how great we are doing. The sickness grows. I am going straight to hell.

So now comes the dirty little secret: I have a goal weight. It well above the maximum for a healthy BMI at my height, but it is a weight at which I know I have previously looked good and felt good. (It is worth noting here that even as a teenager, wearing 6s and 8s, and a B cup (a B! Holy crap!) I was still in the obese category for BMI. There may be something to be said for body frame since my shoulders are broader than Chris'…I know, sexy right? Anyway…)

So there you have it, I am working towards:

  • Weight loss goals that will make my doctor get off my ass about dying, at any second, from my body fat.
  • Getting back into my wedding dress (it is a slightly altered 12…bigger in the boobs, smaller in the waist; yeah the DDs might be an issue here since the "bigger" may have been a C at most).
  • Not feeling like such a sanctimonious bitch about it.
  • Applauding those who have already done this work and are now doing the not so glamorous job of keeping on keeping it off. Alicen, my love, my inspiration, you rock!



Alicen said...

I also think some of the problem with our society is that everyone gets so caught up on the numbers. The number on your jeans, the number on the scale, you get the idea. I personally know people who will not buy a pair of jeans even if they fit beautifully, because the size is bigger then they usually wear. When people decide to make a change and you ask the reason, their response is typically "to lose weight". Rarely is the response "to get healthy". Maybe that is because of this whole superiority phenomenon you mention.

I feel you (and people in general) should be proud of the weight you lose, it's a big accomplishment! I see nothing wrong with being proud of what you were able to do. I think the problem comes when people fixate on a number, one that they feel they should be (whether unrealistic or not). As you are doing, I think people need to pick a size (or weight) which they feel good at instead of picking a size/weight they think they should be. We all have different shapes, sizes and bone structures and can't all be a size 4.

There are so many things wrong with BMI that I can't even begin to get into that right now. It is about the most asinine thing ever created. For one, it doesn't take into account whether you are a male or female (who each have very different builds) or your bone structure, muscle mass, or anything else for that matter! For my height a "healthy weight" is anything from 104 to 141.

And lastly, (sorry for writing a book) from what I've noticed, is that in general people consider thin people "lucky". I have never heard someone say "you must take good care of yourself" however I have heard "your so lucky" more times than I can count. I am lucky to be naturally small and in adolescence I could even argue that maybe I was "lucky". Now that I'm an adult, it goes beyond luck. I can gain weight just like everyone else and a magic fairy did not come down and sprinkle fairy dust on me! There seems to be so much animosity surrounding this subject. Just like in the Mommy world, we need to stop being so mean to each other and instead support each other. Be proud for any accomplishments and not assume people are rubbing it in or bragging. There are certainly people out there who say things to be harmful but they are the exception.

Alexis said...

@Alicen I think the whole "thin people are lucky" thing illustrates our exact point. The idea that someone worked harder than you, or is somehow superior is totally unsatisfactory, so they must be lucky.

Word verification, no joke: "fatie"..and we are done here :)

ChiGirl said...

I really enjoyed this post. I was never the dieting "type" but I joined Weight Watchers last September when I was about to have to up my pants another size and wondering how I went up 3 sizes in 2 years. 16 weeks later, I feel like I might as well work for Weight Watchers. I've lost 20 lbs, but more importantly it's really taught me a lot about my relationship with food and how to have a more healthy outlook. I was one of those people who was a size 4 or 6 until age 22, but I definitely wasn't healthy. I'd never made consistently good food choices and never had proper nutritional guidance from my parents. (Teenage years spent with a single dad=a TON of takeout). I think your moral commentary on the issue is spot on.