In my holistic health class, we were asked to discuss something about ourselves we would like to improve, and apparently, a lot of us mentioned weight. This should come as no surprise to a professor of a health class, I would think. We are living in the middle of what people are calling an obesity epidemic, and we live in a society in which people are always being told they need to work harder to perfect their bodies. Somewhere, there is a disconnect, obviously.
But my holistic health professor reacted in a way that really irritates me. He said he was disturbed by how many people said they wanted to lose weight, and went on to ask if we thought we had unrealistic expectations of what our bodies should be, and that we just need to learn to love ourselves, etc., etc.
Excuse me? I’m 5’8 and 190 lbs, in what world is that a healthy weight? Maybe if you’re a body builder, fine, but I’m not a body builder, and my problem is not that I don’t love myself enough or that I have unrealistic expectations. My problem is that I am overweight.
There are few ideas I hate more than this one. We live in a society where, really, fat is the last accepted prejudice. In most circles, its uncool to say something bad about a person based on their age, their sex, their religion, their race and even their income, but just about everyone is cool with ragging on or making fun of fat people. We are bombarded with media and cultural images telling us that we must be thin, petite and delicate if we are women, and muscular, fit and strong if we are men. We are told again and again and again that the more we deviate from this norm, the less we are worth as human beings.
And then, when we express a desire to change our standards, people shake their heads and cluck their tongues and say “Oh how sad that this person has bought into what the media is telling them to be. They should just accept who they are and love themselves like this.” Which sounds very nice on the surface, until you look at it from the point of view of the oppressed person, and you realize that what the fat person is being told when someone tells them this is “You need to accept your place in society and stop trying to change it. You are fat, and that’s all you’ll ever be, and as such, you are less than human in society’s eyes.”
I know, I know. It is wrong that fat people are less than human in society’s eyes. We need to change that. But the way to change it is not to treat every overweight or obese person who expresses a desire to lose weight as if they have an eating disorder. Imagine, just for a second, if we applied that same reasoning to a member of another oppressed group of people.
Imagine saying to a young, inner city, black kid who expresses a desire to go to college, “How sad that you have bought into what the media is telling you you should be like. You shouldn’t be comparing yourself to rich white kids from the suburbs who can pay for college and go to good public schools. That’s unrealistic. You should love yourself for who you are and be content to be the person you are right now.”
This is exactly the same thing as telling a fat person that the answer to the oppression they feel as an overweight person is to love themselves. Of course, it’s important to love and respect ones self, but it doesn’t address the real issue here. The issue is that we live in a society that oppresses overweight people, and the issue is that being overweight is unhealthy and it is in a person’s best interest, regardless of what society says, to be in a healthy weight range. Just like a poor kid from the city can and should love himself, but it doesn’t solve his real issues of not having access to quality education, and that not getting a good education dooms him to poverty, so it’s in his best interest to do what he can to get a good education, regardless of what society says.
Of course society pushes an unrealistic standard of weight and beauty, and of course that is damaging. But we also have an epidemic of obesity taking place. Clearly, a good portion of the people who say they want to lose weight are being very realistic. Is it not equally as damaging to tell those of use who are working to lose weight that by doing so, we are destroying our self esteem?
I have news for these people. All the things I’m doing to improve my health is not destroying my self esteem. Quite the opposite, actually. I just got back from the hardest weight training session I’ve ever done. I couldn’t even do all the exercises, I hit muscle failure several times. I FEEL FANTASTIC!! Next weekend, I am running a marathon. A FREAKING MARATHON!! That’s 26.2 miles. And I expect to finish in under six hours.
How does this all make me feel? Amazing. Invigorated. Proud. Confident. Strong. A little sore. But my legs look fantastic. Oh my god. You should see them. I mean, wow. So don’t tell me that working to lose weight is about my poor self esteem, or me not loving myself. I love myself more and more every day I do something amazing.
There is a balance we need to strive for. We need to do away with unrealistic expectations of what weight people should be, of course. But we also need to teach people to be healthy, strong, capable and confident. For some people this will actually mean gaining weight (women in Hollywood, I’m looking at you), but for a great deal of people in this country, it’s going to mean losing weight. Maybe even significant amounts of weight. And for those people, we need to offer encouragement, not this weight double standard that makes them feel like shit for being overweight, and like shit for trying to change their weight.
Manifesto for those who want to lose weight
It’s about health. No matter what society tells me I should or shouldn’t be doing with my body, I am focused on being the healthiest, strongest, happiest person I can be.
I determine what beauty is. Not the media, not fashion designers, not my family, not my friends, not my boyfriend. Beauty is mine. I own it, I create it and I set it’s limits.