In our society being thin is seen as the pinnacle of health. If you are thin you are hard working, disciplined and you care about your body. You have created something you should be proud of.
Being fat is the antithesis of thin. If you are fat you are lazy, weak willed and don’t have respect for yourself. You should hang your head in shame, its despicable the extra money it will cost the NHS because you can’t look after your own health.
I want to share an exert from a book called Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters by Courney E. Martin, a book I have written about before. It documents a day in the life of two women, which I will paraphrase.
Susan drags herself out of bed first thing in the morning and heads to the park. She does a three-mile loop as she does every morning. When she gets home she quickly inhales some oatmeal, gets ready in a rush and heads to work late as usual.
She works in a low-level position at a marketing firm where she gets little responsibility. Her days are mostly spent on facebook and doing online shopping.
For lunch she has stir-fry with brown rice just like every other day. She refuses the cookies that co-workers have brought into share, making up an excuse she is allergic to walnuts even though she’s not. In the afternoon she snacks on some carrot sticks.
On the way home she picks up fresh ingredients to make a chili. She loves cooking and constantly drools over cookbooks and recipes. The chili turns out well and she begs her roommate to eat some with her as she hates eating alone. They eat the food while watching TV.
When she is finished she is exhausted, too tired to clean up so she just climbs into bed. As she lays there she recounts what she ate that day – the oatmeal, the stir-fry, the carrots, the chili – and feels it was a ‘good’ day. Then she recounts everything she didn’t eat – the cookie, the candy bar she saw in the checkout line, her roommate’s ice cream that was calling her from the freezer. The thought of these foods make her stomach feel hollow and her heart feel deprived. She curls into a ball, reminding herself that this feeling is preferable to the gluttonous bloat she used to experience.
Jennifer wakes at 6:00am and pulls herself out of bed and heads to the gym. She heads straight upstairs to the cross-trainer and does a hard 45-minute session. She showers, changes and gets the subway to her office.
She is insanely busy at work – filing briefs, making copies, and responding to countless emails. Before long it is lunch time. She heads to the park and has her signature Diet Coke with left overs from the night before – egg noodles, broccoli, and chicken. The sun is shining and the meal is good. On the way back to work she grabs and apple.
The afternoon is slow and she laments that maybe she should have worked at a slower pace in the morning. She spends the afternoon on facebook, writing a piece for her blog and looking at graduate schools that she is going to apply for. She walks past the receptionist’s bowl of candies a few time and is successful each time at not grabbing any.
She heads home and is greeted by her two flatmates laughing and watching TV. She plops down, feeling exhausted, and agonises what to have for dinner – I’ve been so good all day; I wish I had the energy to make a big salad. She succumbs to ordering a take away, panang, her favourite Thai dish. She eats it while watching TV with her flatmates.
Afterwards she feels the urge to go to the bathroom and be sick. She doesn’t, distracting herself with a long phone conversation and reading a book by her favourite author. Eventually she turns off the light and lies awake, composing her meals for the next day until she finally falls asleep.
While both Susan and Jennifer have almost identical diets, exercise routines, and obsessiveness about food, physically they couldn’t be more different. Susan is worryingly thin and you can trace the blue veins under her pale skin until they disappear under her microscopic tank top. Jennifer on the other hand is obese and has been so since she was a young girl. Her eating and exercise routine isn’t something new that she has started to try and lose weight, this is the way it has also been and the battle she has always fought.
It is strange that people would think of Susan as being anorexic, but not Jennifer. Some would look at Susan and think ‘she just needs to eat more…she is skin and bones’ while others would feel jealousy, wishing they could be her. But with Jennifer the general feeling would be that she ate too much. If only she ate more salad and was more disciplined she wouldn’t be so ‘grotesque’. But despite her size, isn’t she very clearly suffering in the same way as Susan?
I remember when John Prescott, the then Deputy UK Prime Minister, came out and said that he suffered from bulimia. The press had a field day and everyone was making comments like ‘yeah he’s got bulimia…he just forgets to throw up’. It was this big joke that someone who is overweight or obese could be bulimic, as it didn’t fit in with our expectations of what someone with this disorder should look like.
As I have talked about before, body shape and body size are really poor predictors of health. It is also a really poor predictor of how much food someone eats or how much exercise they do. I know plenty of people who are rake thin and eat endlessly and others that eat a few crackers and a lettuce leaf but put on weight.
In a society that is driven by looks and impossible body standards are you one of the ‘lucky ones’? Are you able to be strict, disciplined, and fanatical and get that ‘killer body’? While I’ve got nothing against people who want to look good, there is a big difference between aesthetics and health. People’s idea of ‘getting healthy’ normally translates to attempting to look like what society accepts as hot or sexy, while totally negating health. Six pack abs and low body fat doesn’t mean squat when it comes to real health.
I was talking about this recently with a nutritionist friend. She told me that last month she had been really ill, in bed for a week and not in a good way. She had a high fever, was having bouts of diarrhea every 15 or 20 minutes and got to the point she was even passing blood. Not pretty. As you can imagine her appetite was off and she wasn’t really eating for the whole time.
When she finally got better and left the house she was surprised by people’s reaction. They were all complementing her on new thinner look and kept asking her ‘what’s your secret?’ She didn’t think the response ‘shitting blood’ was the appropriate answer even if it was factually correct. While I haven’t seen the film, she said it was akin to a comment in the movie The Devil Wears Prada where one of the girls remarks ‘I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight’.
It seems thinness, by any means, is considered a step in the direction towards health. From my perspective we need different yardstick and a total change of focus.
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Chris Sandel is the founder of www.seven-health.com. He is a nutritionist, working with works with clients on a one-on-one basis, as well as creating online trainings and products about health and nutrition. He is the author of The Health Trap: Why "Healthy" Eating Isn't Always Healthy which is available on Amazon UK and Amazon USA.
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