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Body Image

Our Body Weight, Ourselves

Why can't we be happy the way we are, the way we look? 

For many women, weight is a complicated, emotionally fraught issue. Many of us feel stuck between our knowledge of the importance of healthy eating and our desire to accept ourselves.  

I spent so many years endlessly dieting and trying to be skinny, skinny, skinny. It was so freeing to finally stop and accept my body.  As I reach middle age, I know I should eat better, but as soon as I put any restrictions on what I can eat, I feel deprived and instantly crave the very foods that are bad for me.

While there are clear health risks to being overweight or obese, the solution most often proposed—for individuals to diet and lose weight—oversimplifies complex realities. We live in a world where highly processed, refined foods are cheap and readily available. Processed foods are far more profitable to the food industry than whole, unprocessed foods, and ads incessantly push fast food, soft drinks, and other high-calorie, low-quality products. The government subsidizes the production of grains including corn and wheat, which are used primarily to make corn sweeteners and refined carbohydrates, but not far healthier foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts, thereby creating artificially low prices for the foods that are worst for us.

In addition, people’s exercise and activity levels have radically declined. Changing technologies and lifestyles mean that fewer people engage in sustained physical activities. Television, computers, the lack of public safety in cities, suburban sprawl, and cuts in physical education programs in school mean that many of our of us spend the vast majority of our days sitting. This is in stark contrast to only fifty years ago, when most labor was manual and chores of everyday living demanded that people moved their bodies throughout the day. These factors, along with other economic realities and food politics, have translated into greater numbers of overweight or obese people. In 1980, just under half of U.S. adults were overweight; by 2000, this figure had jumped to 64.5 percent.19

Dieting is a big industry in North America, with estimated annual revenues of $35 to $50 billion.20 Many of us struggle endlessly with our weight. Yet this chronic dieting has not slowed the rise in the number of Americans classified as overweight or obese.21 Dieting is notoriously unsuccessful at producing substantial long-term weight loss: The majority of people who lose weight regain it within five years.22  In addition, preoccupation with thinness and dieting are risk factors for the development of serious eating disorders. 23

Given this dismal reality, what can we do?

  • Focus on a healthy diet, not dieting.  "Dieting" implies deprivation.  Instead, we need to adopt lasting ways to meet the needs of our changing bodies.

  • Learn to tune in to your body's cues.  Paying attention to what we feel can help us learn to eat when we're hungry and stop when we’re full.

  • Increase exercise and movement.  Add short periods of activity to your day.

  • Make small changes in your diet, like substituting a whole grain cereal for processed breakfast cereal or tofu or beans for red meat in a main dish.

  • Don't let your weight determine your self-esteem.  The number on the scale tells you one thing: how much you weigh.  It says nothing about your value as the person or your chances of happiness.

  • Aim for healthy habits -- choosing healthy foods and exercising regularly -- and let your weight stabilize where it will.

  • Learn to accept and even appreciate your body.  Body shape is not as changeable as we are led to believe.  Genetics plays a strong role: most of us will never look like supermodels, no matter what we eat or how much we exercise.

  • Advocate for changes in our food system.  Join your local food co-op.  Become involved in community-supported agriculture.  Get your local Y or school to substitute healthy foods for the junk food in the vending machines.  Educate yourself and your community about nutrition and the politics of food.

End of excerpt
Excerpted from Chapter 12: Eating Well in
Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause  © 2006 Boston Women's Health Book Collective


19. Craig Lambert, "The Way We Eat Now," Harvard Magazine, May-June 2004, accessed at http://www.harvardmagazine.com/on-line/050465.html on June 14, 2005. [back to text]

20. Marion Olmsted and Traci McFarland, "Body Weight and Body Image" from Women's Health Surveillance Report: A Multidimensional Look at the Health of Canadian Women, BMC Women's Health4, suppl. 1 (2004): S5.  [back to text]

21. Lambert. [back to text]

22. Wayne C. Miller, "Fitness and Fatness in Relation to Health: Implications for a Paradigm Shift," Journal of Social Issues 2 (1999):207-19. [back to text]

23. Kelly M. Vitousek, "The Current Status of Cognitive-Behavioral Models of Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa," in Frontiers of Cognitive Therapy ed. Paul M. Salkovskis (New York: Guilford Press, 1996), 383-418. [back to text]

Excerpted from Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause, © 2006, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.

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