Not good fats versus bad fats. Not artery-clogging fat. I’m talking about the shameful kind of fat- the kind on the outside. The kind many people don’t want, feel ashamed to not want, and go back and forth between the two. We feel badly about having it, and we feel badly that we can’t accept ourselves as we are.
We are a pretty sick society in America when it comes to fat and weight, and very few of us are immune to this illness (myself included). The question then becomes: is it possible to find a balance between self-acceptance and motivation to improve our health? It there space for happiness while we achieve both of these states?
It is no secret in 2013 that media representations of women are unattainable. We know about photoshop; we know about anorexia and intentional starvation for the purpose of walking a runway. And we can accept these concepts as truth in our minds, but deep in our beings there is a part of many women that still WANTS TO LOOK LIKE THAT. We know we are bombarded with images of women who have no fat- no visible fat right? Even the Kardashian sisters- goddesses of curves and womanly form- do not have ANY FAT OR CELLULITE in their photos (which we know is physically impossible). Jennifer Lawrence, current darling of American cinema, recently said of a photo of herself: “Of course it’s Photoshop, people don’t look like that.” This admission then became a news headline.
Here is the vicious cycle as I see it:
1) We are shown all of the above images and are made to feel that this is what would be healthy for us. So we begin working on this. We exercise, we eat leaner diets; we sometimes go to extremes. We engage in surgical manipulation. We wax, dye, trim. We exercise more.
2) But then we are also told when we watch Oprah and Dr. Oz that we should learn to love ourselves, that self-acceptance is the first step in making changes. We have to love ourselves as we are, and accept who we truly are, to attain deep happiness. So we work on this as well. We go to church. We meditate and pray. We repeat aphorisms of self-love in the mirror.
3) We are also often addicted to foods that simulate a feel-good response. (Research literally supports this theory with regards to many processed foods, sweets, etc.) We like to eat these foods in front of the TV or at our desks or in our cars or when we are alone because there is some deep PLEASURE in that act that is not achievable when we are calorie-restricted, stressed about how we are going to pay our mortgages, driving around between work and after-school activities, exhausted….. We do this usually in private because we are ASHAMED that we want to eat these foods despite the fact that we know better with all the information available to us.
4) So we exercise more. We do cross-fit. We go to the gym five times per week for two weeks until we burn out and the cycle begins again.
So how do we break this cycle? How do we simultaneously accept ourselves as we are, acknowledge the need for some change, and truly find pleasure and joy??
Unless someone is truly ill, my goal for each of my patients is to make changes that are healthy and sustainable. While I occasionally will recommend a more extreme set of dietary guidelines for a person, I most likely guide patients towards a way of eating and living that they can still be enjoying in five years. Enjoy: that is the key. After the initial high of calorie restriction or overexercise, there is little joy in extremes for the average person. If a busy, working person sets a goal of going to hot yoga five times per week, I can pretty much guarantee that this is a set up for failure. I have no problem with lots and lots of exercise ( I love it, in fact), but setting extreme goals that are not likely to be lasting is a recipe for feeling disappointed, which causes most people to throw out the entire program. Extreme rates of weight-loss (more than two pounds per week) are almost impossible to maintain. This is true for nearly every different type of diet that has been researched. There has to be some daily joy and pleasure in the routine in order to guarantee sustainability.
Here are some simple rules to follow that should help you create a lifestyle that works for you:
1) Do not restrict calories in order to lose weight. Unless you are severely overeating (a nutritionist of physician can help you determine this), restricting calories below 1500 (and honestly for most adults this is more like 1800) will cause your body to perceive that it is in a state of starvation, and it will resist dropping pounds. Changing the type of foods is healthier than changing the amount for most people.
2) Exercise is mandatory. This will vary significantly from person to person. Find something that you ENJOY. The more pleasure you experience the more you will want to go back to it. Keep it variable- don’t do the same thing every time you exercise or you will either get bored or your body will become to accustomed to it and you won’t burn as may calories. There IS TRULY AN EXERCISE FOR EVERY PERSON, even those who hate to work out.
3) Accept that you are human and know that your body has a unique look and shape. What is a realistic goal for you? If you truly need to lose weight, perhaps dropping one or two sizes in a six month period is healthier than making your goal to go from a size 12 to a size 2. Know that eating well, sleeping well, and feeling optimally energetic are the true signs that your body is in a state of balance. It is not what you see on the scale and not what you see in the mirror.
4) WHAT BRINGS YOU JOY?? Cultivate this, and you will find that you worry less about your physical appearance (and you will also look better to yourself, I guarantee it). It is human and perfectly ok to want to look good, but I think most people will agree that it is what you feel deeply on the inside that matters most. If you do hot yoga for the workout and the weight loss, I can guarantee you are missing the true joy of this art form. Try listening to what your teacher has to say to you and you might get some peace out of it too.
I can tell you that I often wake up full of joy, snuggling two crazy boys and thinking that I must look like Beyonce due to the amount of love I am feeling; I look in the mirror and find that I look slightly more akin to something out of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. But the reality is: even Beyonce doesn’t look like “Beyonce” when she gets up in the morning. Despite what she might have shown you in her tell-all documentary, she also undergoes hours of hair and makeup in order to look like the “Beyonce” we all know and love.
Fat cells can shrink but they do not go away. They are an advanced product of evolution, storing nutrition for periods of stress and starvation. We don’t have to love what we see in the mirror, but we would all be happier if we could accept that we are who we are. There is a middle path for everyone with health and weight, and I truly believe that if you follow the one that brings you the most joy, you will be satisfied with the results.