I accidentally published this piece on Tuesday night before it was finished. My bad! It already got a couple of comments (thank you Kate-Em and Porcelina!), which I can't guarantee will come back, so my apologies. Here's the final version.
Generally speaking, I'm pretty happy with my body. That's not to say that I don't have insecurities, but I know that I'm strong and healthy and fit, and I've largely come to accept the parts of my body that I used to obsess over. I'm also steeped in the culture of feminism and body positivity, which I think gives me a positive framework for critically assessing the ideas of body image that I'm presented with.
Despite all that, it still does my head in sometimes when I see someone who is... well, perfect. And yes, of course there are many different ideas of perfection, but I think most people understand what I'm talking about. It's the modern ideal, that Victoria's Secret body - long, slender legs, slim but curvy hips, perfectly flat stomach, full but perky breasts.
Even though I know it's patently ridiculous to compare myself to someone like that, it's hard not to. I read a lot of mainstream fashion publications, the kind of thing that's aimed at a style-conscious, fitness-conscious, young, urban woman. Article after article talks about how to work out or how to eat to get that kind of body.
Reading these articles, you start to get the impression that there must be something wrong with you if you can't work out for an hour or two a day, or stick to a restrictive diet. I guess that's how they pull you in, though. You have to feel optimistic about your "transformation" or you're not going to want to pay someone to tell you how to exercise and what to eat. There's a lot of language about how anyone can do it as long as they have enough willpower, how you just have to reframe your thinking so that it's not a "diet," but a "lifestyle change."
The thing is, is doesn't work that way. There are a lot of factors that contribute to weight, some of which you can control to some degree, like diet and exercise, and some of which you really can't, like genetics, or the makeup of your gut flora. As nice as it would be if our bodies were simple machines, and actually followed the whole "calories in/calories out" equation, we're beginning to understand that weight is incredibly complex.
Both my mother and my grandmother dealt with serious thyroid disorders, and both of them were overweight or obese. I've seen firsthand how someone can restrict their calories down to nothing and still find themselves gaining weight.
That's not an issue that I've had to deal with, although I do have blood work done every couple of years to make sure my hormone levels are normal. My own personal experience is basically the opposite - my weight is really stable. I weigh 155 lbs, and I have for years now. On the one hand, it's great that I don't really worry about getting much bigger than I am right now; when I gain weight, and I do, it comes off as soon as I start eating a little better and exercising more. On the other hand, I find it practically impossible to lose weight either. As soon as my weight dips down below about 150, I'm hungry and cranky all the time until I gain it back.
This may not necessarily be true across the board, but on places like Instagram, or the fashion-oriented websites that I read, it's all about "how [insert name of very thin person here] eats every day!" And it's always something like this "Healthy Eating Challenge," which is hilariously restrictive. Like, I worked out the calories on some of these, and you could easily end up coming in under 800 calories a day if you follow it to the letter. That is neither normal nor healthy, despite the fact that it's being presented that way. When you normalize eating that way, you're normalizing an eating disorder.
Sometimes those messages do throw me for a loop, but I think I'm well equipped to handle them most of the time. I do worry about younger women, though, or people who don't also have a counteracting message of body positivity coming in their other ear. I'm all for a healthy diet and exercise, but I think we need to work harder, as a society, to stop thinking of mere thinness as the greatest marker of good health.
There is a lot of good, sensible writing about diet exercise out there, if you know what to look for. If someone's telling you to cut out an entire food group, it's probably bad advice. If they're touting some kind of miracle super food or supplement, it's probably bad advice. If they're telling you things that you already know - don't eat a lot of processed foods, watch your sugar, eat more vegetables - it's probably good advice. It may not be a silver bullet, but it's the sort of thing that keeps you going for the long haul.