All the diets in the world won’t make you thin or happy unless you do “this”
I am a seasoned dieter. In fact, since the age of 12, there has never been a full week in my life where I did not deprive myself one way or another to lose weight. If there is a magic bullet out there, I have tried it. Over my lifetime, I have lost, regained, and then again lost the equivalent of a pickup truck or an adolescent elephant. At some level, I already know that my task is Sisyphean, but a few weeks ago, it was demonstrated to me clear as day. "My Fitness Pal," the app which I have been using religiously for several years to track my eating and exercise, has a handy progress feature. There in black and white, I saw the futility of my efforts. Point to point my weight was miraculously stable, save the 250 grams which is the weight of my hair extensions. But the line between the two points, five years apart, told a different story. Several peaks and troughs indicated plain as day the precise periods that I lost and then regained control over my eating.
Looking at this graph and the countless "no's" to bread, dessert, and yummy food that it represented made me a bit weepy. I felt the futility of my life-long efforts like a physical blow as I reached out for the bar of chocolate that I had resisted since Christmas. What is the point of all this hard work if the result is to stand still? What indeed?
In this day and age where everyone seems to have some sort of disorder, my daughters quickly diagnosed me with an eating disorder. I beg to differ. According to the image survey commissioned by the magazine, REAL only 3% of women in the UK are happy with their bodies. Six out of 10 women said their body image made them feel depressed. A total of 91% of women were unhappy with their hips and thighs, 77% with their waist, and 78% said they had cellulite. And of course, one can never be thin enough. 84% of those whose weight was considered normal for their height wished they were slimmer, by an average of nine pounds. Do we all have eating disorders? Perhaps. But if my daughters' diagnosis is correct, it would appear that I am in excellent company.
Of 5,000 women questioned, 73% said they thought about their size or shape every day. I am a dedicated member of that group, so much so that I rarely interrupt my obsessive weight/diet/shape thoughts to think of something else. Even when I do, the inner dialogue about what I am going to eat next never stops running in the background like a subroutine on a computer program.
Here is my favourite research finding from a Psychology today study completed in 1997. Participants were asked how many years of their lives they would trade to achieve their weight goals. The findings are astounding. Fifteen percent of women and 11 percent of men say they'd sacrifice more than five years of their lives; 24 percent of women and 17 percent of men say they would give up more than three years. I will not divulge the number of years I would personally give up, except to say that I have thought about this question, and I have a number of years in mind.
This line of thinking may appear obvious to some of you, but believe me, it is a breakthrough for many of us who are trapped in a dystopian world in which our shape determines every moment of happiness. It is an unusual place where thinness is a badge of honour bestowed to skinny people by both men and women. At the same time, fatness is something to be ashamed of; in fact, it is a reason to cover oneself in tent-like clothing and hide in the shadows. This society is lenient to a guy who cheats on his fat wife and he is even justified to leave her if she does not shape up. Bosses can deny promotions to fat employees as if fat can wrap itself around one's brain and strangle it, thus making the fat employee slow and dim-witted.
With thinness revered and fatness persecuted, you would be right to assume that changing your body shape to the ideal one would bring you, if not happiness, certainly respite from the persistent, obsessive thoughts of not being good enough. You would be way off the mark.
Here is what happens in real life when you reach your goal weight: Having reached the top of the totem pole, you are envied by your peers. To continue occupying this coveted position, you obsess even more about your weight. You feel that you need to make further refinements, because let's admit it, thinness alone is not enough. A toned butt, sculpted arms and a six-pack are the obvious next steps towards perfection and happiness. There is always something more to fix and your happiness always hinges on fixing the offending body part. Unfortunately, the quest for perfection is open-ended and happiness proves elusive.
Often quite the opposite happens. Your unsustainable trendy diet or gym schedule leads to slips, which lead to weight gain, followed by bouts of depression and more slips until the weight is back on. At this stage, many women give up. The seasoned dieters amongst us have a red alarm weight, and when we reach it, we jump on the bandwagon of the next trendy diet. The cycle repeats itself with the same predictable results.
I have thought about this long and hard, and I have reached a few conclusions on this all-important issue. First of all, I should clarify that I am probably too far along in my disorder ever to embrace the idea of a "real woman" body, one that jiggles, with little rolls of fat in all the wrong places. I will never be body positive, and I am convinced that body positive is an unattainable goal for most women as long as we are bombarded with images of beautiful THIN women. The fat women I know are resigned to their fate rather than at peace with their weight, and the two frames of mind are entirely different animals. These women would give their right arm to be thin, and I totally get it. There are, of course, some women who are truly happy in their skin, and I admire them and envy their serenity, BUT they are unicorns, and I have never met one in real life, only on Instagram.
With body positivity an unattainable state, the only thing left is to embrace the cycle of doom and give it an upbeat spin. Ladies I urge you to expect the volatility, rather than be surprised and discouraged by it. Allow a generous range of weight of five kilos or so before you embark on your next diet, giving yourself permission to enjoy some delicious food and even pig out on occasion without feeling so guilty that you don't enjoy it. When you reach the upper limit of your range, have a sensible plan on how to return to your acceptable weight.
Avoid the siren call of quick solutions. These are fraught with danger and almost certain to fail. Understand that it will take as long to lose the weight as it took to put it on. A kilo is 7000 calories, and most women who exercise moderately will burn 2000 calories in a day. Even on a strict 1000 calorie per day diet, it will take a week to lose a kilo. It is better to know in advance that each kilo will take two weeks to lose, and then you will not be disappointed. If you are older, it will take longer. We all know people who have lost seven kilos in a week. This is water weight. It is physically impossible to lose that weight in fat in a week without running 7 marathons in a row and eating only cucumbers. Knowledge is power.
Regular exercise is essential, not because it burns calories -an hour in the gym burns the equivalent of a piece of cake or three slices of bread. Exercise matters because it stops you from giving up when the weight starts piling on. Too much exercise is a bad idea because it is unsustainable in the long run, and it also makes you ravenously hungry.
A good set of scales is your friend. Once you stop weighing yourself, deep in your heart, you know that things in the weight department have gone pear-shaped, and you are unwilling to face the truth. Get on your scales with confidence and bravely face the consequences of that fantastic meal you had at that Michelin restaurant. Knowledge is power.
By embracing the cycle of lose/gain, you can permit yourself to enjoy life without feeling guilty because you reached for that warm crusty bread and dipped it in golden olive oil before appreciating its excellent taste and texture. Embrace the weight range and work with it. Allowing yourself to step off the wagon occasionally gives you control over how you get off. You can walk off at a scheduled stop or tumble off as the wagon speeds away. Which would you rather do?