I want to get real for a minute. How many of you are regularly worried about “those last 10 pounds”? As in, “If I lose these last 10 pounds, I’ll finally be ___.” Maybe that ___ is happy, maybe it’s beautiful, maybe it’s successful. Or MAYBE, though you wouldn't think so and wouldn't want to admit it, it’s unhealthy. As someone who sees patients on a daily basis for weight loss, these “last 10 pounds” come up quite a bit. Of course, I see patients who truly do need to lose weight to improve blood glucose, cholesterol, or high blood pressure more often, but weight loss to improve health is a different subject. Why is it that we are so concerned with attaining the perfect body and what does the “perfect” body even look like?
If you think about the “ideal body” in today’s culture I bet it looks something like this:
Men should be tall, built, and generally resemble a Greek God. We should be able to wash our clothes using a man’s abs, and he should be able to lift heavy things on command. Women should be thin with large breasts, small thighs, have no belly fat, and be toned but not exceedingly muscular. Of course, they should also be quiet and mild-mannered. We must remain ladylike, after all.
I'm hoping you sense the sarcasm here. I can’t even write any of this nonsense without scoffing and quoting the very missed Amy Poehler and Seth Myers: “REALLY? I mean, really??”
So if weight isn't the end-all, be-all marker of health, what should we be focused on? First, do you feel well? Are you happy, sleeping well, digesting your food, and energized? Do you only get sick a few times a year and have good exercise tolerance? Do you have normal blood sugars, normal inflammatory markers, and healthy cholesterol ratios? If female and pre-menopausal, are you menstruating? Do you have people in your life that love and care about you? These factors are the measuring stick we should use for health, not a number on a scale. Shouldn't health be the ultimate goal?
Let’s talk about body image. What does this mean, and who is affected by body image? According to the National Eating Disorders Association, body image is what you believe about your appearance, including how you used to look, how you feel about your body currently, and how you sense and control your body as you move. When you have a positive body image, you see yourself as your really are, feel comfortable in your skin, and refuse to spend an unreasonable amount of time thinking about food intake and weight. When you have a negative body image, your view of yourself is distorted, you feel awkward and ashamed, and you feel that only others are attractive and your body type is a personal failure. Disordered eating can range from restricting amount of food, over exercising, bingeing, purging, and generally obsessing about food. Often, disordered eating stems from feeling that other aspects of your life are out of control, and food intake is something that can be controlled in a very detailed way. Food should be viewed as nourishment and nourishment alone, but in today’s food and beauty-obsessed culture, it has turned into quite an emotional topic.
Women tend to be more self-critical when it comes to body type, but men struggle with body image as well. George Bryant, also known as The Civilized Caveman, writes about his struggles with bulimia here , and I definitely see male patients who push themselves to extremes to “lean out” and look more cut. Though it's not necessarily healthy for men to become too thin, men can lean out much more than women before hormonal balance is upset. Women, however, need more body fat than men to remain in hormonal balance. When the female body is in starvation mode, reproductive function is not the #1 priority. This will often cause cessation of the menstrual cycle, and significant reduction of sex drive. And forget about fertility! If you are starving, do you think your body feels up for creating a new life? We need a little cushion for the pushin' to make those babies and get lucky!
I recently finished Stefani Ruper’s new book, entitled Sexy by Nature. Stefani is an eating disorder counselor who is currently pursuing a PhD in philosophy and considered a leading expert in the Paleo/Primal community for women’s health and body image issues. She discusses what it means to actually feel sexy in your own skin, whatever that looks like, and emphasizes that “sexy” is about confidence, self-love, and feeling empowered just as you are. JUST AS YOU ARE- what a revolutionary thought! She also discusses the importance of what foods to put into your body to feel your absolute best, and how, often and over time, outer beauty will follow. Stefani states, “Your body is a natural body with natural needs that, when loved properly, loves you right back.” Amen, sister.
I move that we start making health the priority, and not the size of our thighs. There is an inner calm that comes with accepting the hand (or body) you've been dealt, and with choosing to make changes to your lifestyle solely driven by the desire to feel your absolute best. If the goal becomes self-compassion and forgiveness for your “imperfections,” you’ll naturally treat yourself better, put good foods into your body, let go of obsessive behavior, and live your life in health. So YOU over there, the one obsessing about those last 10 pounds...IMAGINE the possibilities!