Jessi Arrington on looking good wearing whatever WE think looks good

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Some people said this talk wasn’t intellectual enough for TED. Other’s said that everyone already knows everything that Jessi had to say. (some even found it relevant to point out as critique that Jessi was so happy, “ditzy”, as if happiness can’t be combined with a valid point. jeez.) But everyone also knows that models are photo-shopped and STILL we compare ourselves to them more often than not. We need reminders, examples and ideas about alternative ways of looking at “looking good”. Somewhere in the middle of her sparkling talk, Jessi says she spent a whole lot of her life trying to be herself AND fit in. We all need to solve that conflict, and it’s great to see how someone else has done it.

Jessi has a blog as up-beat as herself at http://luckysoandso.com

What does someone with an eating disorder look like?

This week I’ve been writing a paper for which I did some research on the representation of people with eating disorders on the Internet. It wasn’t really surprising, but still somehow threw me, how the overwhelming amount of images on the internet are pictures of skinny girls. And that’s when you do a search for images with the term “eating disorder”. Most people who have an eating disorder are not underweight, and although many of them are young women, many are not. Men, older women, and people of all weights can suffer from eating disorders, and as long as we have this simplified perception of eating disorders we will make it difficult for everyone who doesn’t fit the image to get the care they need or even dare to ask for it. So this week I’m posting this picture that I found that is one of the few symbols out there for a broader understanding of eating disorders.

All these people suffer from a serious life threatening eating disorder

Book review: THE BEAUTY MYTH by Naomi Wolf

Naomi Wolf’s book is a classic. It was written as a feminist manifesto in 1990 to wake the world up to the fact that as some restrictive laws and practices have given way to more rights for women, so other – more hidden – restrictions have appeared to take their place. Wolf describes the beauty myth as a powerful belief system where a woman’s worth is measured by her beauty, and where the standards of this beauty are set so that a woman has to spend extreme amounts of money and effort to achieve it, yet still inevitably fail in the end because she cannot stop aging. The point, Wolf proposes, is to keep women preoccupied, insecure and most importantly, away from any real power in society.

The book becomes a bit repetitive after the first chapters, but is an easy read so I still recommend reading the whole thing. It gives a good insight into feminist critical thinking, and, because of it’s manifesto-like character, has a really clear message. I do think it’s important to remember that what Wolf is proposing is something between theory and opinion, and that although it is based partly on research, it also makes some logical leaps and some sweeping generalizations. But sometimes the clarity of the message demands some artistic freedom. And the message is as important today as it was when the book was written.

Wolf follows the impact of the beauty myth on phenomena that range from a micro- to a macroperspective. How it influences both real work opportunities (i.e. women being sacked from jobs as news anchors because they have lost their looks) and the most intimate sphere of identity and self-esteem, both how women are judged by others and how they judge themselves. She compares the beauty myth to cults and strict religions, where nutritional purity has replaced sexual purity and vigorous exercise and self-starvation has replaced religious self-flagellation. The sins of today, according to Wolf, are not explicitly sexual, but nutritional pleasures with sexual undertones. To atone for those sins, and to conform to the ideal, women are expected to endure severe discomfort and pain, in the name of beauty. Because she’s worth it?

According to Wolf “the beauty myth countered women’s new freedoms by transposing the social limits to women’s lives directly onto our faces and bodies. In response, we must now ask the questions about our place in our bodies that women a generation ago asked about their place in society”. Twenty-three years after the publication of The Beauty Myth, where are we when it comes to myths about beauty, youth and their connection to the idea of success and high status? Cosmetic and weight-loss surgeries have kept increasing. Eating disorders, although partly because they are better understood, have shown an increase in both women and men, just like Wolf predicts in her book. Is it getting better, or worse?

I feel tempted, in one way, to say that things are worse. I would say that the beauty myth has morphed with something that today we could talk about as the “health myth”, where we are led to believe that thinness and fitness equals health and any kind of imperfection easily translates to unhealth or abnormality. That’s dangerous and skews our understanding of what health is really about. Sometimes, when I explain to personal training clients that an overweight person can be fitter and in better “shape” than a normal-weight one, I feel like I am met with a blank stare. When health and beauty are intertwined like this the myth can be defended against earlier arguments – it’s not about something as silly as appearance, it’s about health. It’s sinful to be unhealthy, causing huge costs to society through health-care. So the myth keeps it’s moral normativity.

On the other hand, when Wolf wrote her book, we didn’t even have the internet yet. Twenty-three years is a long time in that sense. Although the huge proliferation of the computer and web-industry has made it easier to globalize the beauty myth and thin ideals far faster and further than before, it has also created a platform for all those speaking against it, connecting people from different cultures, demanding attention across the planet. Alternative rolemodels and ways of thinking can easily be found online if you look for it, and publications from all over the world can spread rapidly. There are positive signs everywhere, from photography-projects depicting beautiful, ordinary naked bodies, to discussion groups and posts on facebook that depict the growing wish of both men and women to be seen and heard as humans, not as objects. More and more people get into yoga and meditation to find a new relationship between mind and body. Is the time coming when men and women together will fight the big, invisible and greedy powers that have managed to keep up barriers between the genders for such a long time? Is this the new wave?

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Why would anyone want fast weight-loss?

Any walk down the street, or short browse around the internet, or quick glance through a magazine is likely to confront you with an ad saying they will help you lose weight FAST. Have you ever thought for a moment that there might be anything strange with that? Well, I have, and it irks me how much is wrong with this idea that losing weight fast would be great.

Health reasons? First of all, losing weight fast usually means losing a lot of useful tissue, like muscles, and subjecting the body to nutritional deficiencies and dehydration. Low-calorie diets or diets that create a state of ketosis often make you tired and highly strung, at least for a couple of days, often more. Luckily, in the short term, this usually isn’t dangerous for healthy people, but it also doesn’t have a lot of benefits apart from the short moment of pleasure stepping on a scale at the end of it (in the long term fast weight-loss can have quite nasty effects like osteoporosis and negative effects on brain tissue). Secondly, for anyone struggling with health problems because of overweight, as little as a 5% permanent reduction in weight will have significant benefits, but whether this permanent reduction happens at a faster or slower rate makes little difference. However, the permanency of fast weight-loss is much less likely than with slower weight-loss. Why? There are many reasons, but one is that permanent weight-loss requires some new habits, and it is much easier to build a new habit over a period of time than suddenly. Also, the methods of fast weight-loss don’t usually work very well as the basis of new habits, because they are often socially awkward (not being able to eat the same as others) and not very enjoyable (refraining from all/many of your favorite foods), and sometimes even outright extreme (eating only cabbage soup or meal replacements). What kind of new habits can you form with those kinds of things? Not many.

Appearance? A lot of people want to lose weight because they want to look “better”, fit into their old clothes, or some other in many cases completely acceptable esthetic and personal reason. But why fast? Most people we meet in our daily lives are either people that know us well and have seen us tens or hundreds or thousands of times (like ourselves, our colleagues or close ones), or people we might never see again (like people in the street). If we want to change how people close to us view us, the best strategy, again, is permanent change – not sudden. People close to us often resist sudden change since it is a kind of threat to the relationship, regardless of whether it’s a positive change or not. Relationships give us a sense of safety, and sudden changes in people we have meaningful relationships with disrupt that feeling – which is one of the reasons people who lose weight might sadly notice that people around them don’t always share their enthusiasm over the results. People in the street won’t really notice us much whatever we may look like.

The only situation where it might make sense to lose weight fast is if you will soon be meeting someone for the first time that you are expecting to be working/living closely with and you are COMPLETELY sure that your weight is a significant factor in this relationship and your professional/personal characteristics are less important. Not a very likely, nor recommendable situation, but none the less a potential one. However, I don’t think this rare reason justifies the amount of fast weight-loss ads.

When we’re struggling with something, be it weight or anything else that makes us feel unhappy, we are in a slightly weakened rational state. The way that advertisers use that to sell weight-loss products is a well known fact but it is just so deeply unethical. They get really smart people to sign up for programs that were never going to work. Here I have to say though, that the problems lie far deeper than with the aggressiveness of advertisers. Most people who administer fast weight-loss programsare not trained to know anything about the psychology of nutrition or habits or the premises for creating change. They are seldom even trained to understand how the human metabolism works. Luckily, there is a big and ever-growing number of people, both scientists and practitioners who do know more, but sadly, because of their belief in slow and steady, well-founded change, they are decidedly unaggressive in their approaches and, thus, often go unheard and unseen by the person walking down the street, reading a magazine or browsing the internet.

slow progress

Some great links about eating

There are a lot of professional people and organisations out there advocating for a positive relationship to our bodies, a natural, balanced, and relaxed way to relate to food and exercise. Here are some that I recommend:

  • The Fat Nutritionist is just great – the attitude, the discussion, the facts, the sheer fun of reading the posts, the real-life acceptance that she expresses, I recommend this to everyone.
  • Beauty Redefined is a modern, feminist blog that challenges the societal ideals of thinness and the pressure to control our bodies. Great stuff.
  • Men Get Eating Disorders Too is the website of the UK charity by the same name  that works to raise awareness about men’s eating disorders, something that’s understood and noted much less than women’s ed:s.
  • Eat What You Love – Love What You Eat by Michelle May, MD and author of a book with the same title writes about mindful eating and presents a lot of practical, easy to use knowledge on eating. This is more like a self-help blog, but it’s unuasually well founded, based both on broad experience and research.

Is obesity really a disease?

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The American Medical Association has recently voted to recognize obesity as a disease. This has caused a stir and a large debate as to whether the AMA are, in fact, making a very big mistake. These articles in BBC news and Time magazine are a good start if you want to get an overview of the general issues raised by the AMA decision. What happens when a third of a country’s population is suddenly diagnosed with a disease? Will it make it easier to get help? Will it remove stigma or increase it? Does anyone except the pharmaceutical companies (and the rising number of clinics offering bariatric surgery left right and center) actually profit fom this? Also, a very good point raised by sports nutritionist John Berardi – are doctor’s really qualified to treat as complex a phenomenon as obesity? And if they’re not – who is?

The simplest problem with the new status of obesity as a disease has to do with diagnosis. Obesity is defined using the BMI, a weight index that has inherent flaws. It does not take into account what the weight is made up of (muscle or fat tissue), nor other factors that mediate whether obesity is a health risk or not. There are many overweight, healthy people who still fit the diagnosis of this new disease. This alone should have been reason enough not to go ahead with the decision.

This is an incredibly multifaceted issue that spans at least the areas of medicine, politics, economy, sociology and psychology. Considering just one recent study in the medical journal Obesity proposing that people who are obese are treated differently (and less helpfully) by doctors, a shift in the allocation of responsibility could have some positive effects. Seeing obesity as a disease may remove some of the stigma connected to obesity, as the concept of disease contains the idea of something that’s externally caused and takes some of the blame off the individual. On the other hand, disease is also something that sets you apart from society and from healthy people; this might have a marginalizing effect on people suffering from obesity. If, however, it means that insurance companies will be under pressure to step in and cover some of the medical bills it may be good news for those suffering from obesity-related health problems.

It is interesting to note, though, how many issues the decision is raising and I can’t help but get the feeling that the AMA has possibly not thought this through in all of it’s aspects. However that may be, other countries may follow suit, at least as implied by this article commenting on the remarks of the president of the Canadian Medical Association.

Articles on yoga and body-relationship

Sometimes, I find it hard tojustify my position on eating. I often don’t remember where I’ve read something, and there are so many good articles out there, both scientific and popular. I hope this blog can be a good archive for some of those articles, and I’m starting with an interesting and inspiring piece in the Huffington Post about how yoga helped one person to find a new way to relate to her body after suffering from an eating disorder. Now the point to take isn’t that yoga is the answer to anything, but it’s one answer, and it worked for this person. However, this blog post by the Casa Palmera treatment center for addictions and eating disorders write about some of the reasons why they think yoga in particular might be a helpful way to work with eating disorders. Body-relationship almost alway makes up part of any weight-related project or problem, not only eating disorders, and should not be overlooked. What this woman managed to do, through yoga, was to negotiate a new and more functional relationship to herself and her body that in turn helped her build on her recovery.

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