Beautiful Bodies

edited swing hair

I recently read Kimberly Rae Miller’s memoir Beautiful Bodies. The first few chapters are great, and it’s an interesting, quick read. It gets a bit disjointed in the middle (I skimmed a bunch), and she has trouble focusing on her central premise. But it’s a revealing look at a woman who began her first diet at age 7.

Age 7. One of the statistics she cites is that 1 in 4 girls have dieted by the age of 7 and 80% of 10 year old girls have been on a diet (a 2015 review by Common Sense Media as described here). I didn’t dig into those statistics or studies; perhaps they are exaggerated. Miller explains how she first learned her body was too big and she should restrict food: she heard her mother negatively discussing her own weight. 

Miller realizes, “I have come to rely on the structure and hope diets provide as a way of anchoring myself in the world. When there are no rules or promises to life, a diet provides them.” While she explains dieting is her only real hobby, she describes dieting in almost religious terms. 

Miller explains that America’s first diet movement came from the Rev. Sylvester Graham, who warned that “diet, health, and morality were inseparable.” I remember thinking as a young teenager that I was so fat and incapable of limiting my food that what I was doing was a sin against God. My body was a temple, right? I equated thinness with righteousness, and I’m not alone. 

Check out this article from the New York Times about fat bias. Then look at the comments section. People express incredibly judgmental thinking and felt completely justified in complaining that fat people take up too much space and if only they did what the commenter did, then they, too, could be thin. The article explains that fat discrimination is one of the few that most people agree is okay — it’s okay to say terrible things about fat people because they deserve it and, clearly, shaming them is for their own good. Want to learn more about fat bias? This American Life ran this interesting podcast called “Tell Me I’m Fat." 

The weight-loss industry is worth $60 billion a year, Miller explains.  Dieters regain weight 97% of the time, which means first, that’s great for business! Also, it means it doesn’t matter which diet you choose because it’s not going to work long-term. The refrain from the Health at Every Size Movement is that we don’t fail at our diets; diets fail us.

 I’m not anti-diet so much as I am against diet culture. This culture tells us we have to be thin, rewards thin people, and sends many of us on lifelong struggles to attain a weight that is not necessarily the best for our bodies. Diet culture is anti-diversity. Diet culture allows me to feel shame about my body and then grants me the license to shame others (even if only in my head). 

Should you give up dieting then? Yes, actually, most especially if you’ve been chasing a certain weight your whole life and torturing yourself over it, as Miller has been. If you are always wanting to be just five pounds thinner, is that really worth your time? Should you be ashamed to be a size 12 as if a size 8 is somehow morally superior? 

Eat well, move well, sleep well, and let your body do what it needs to do. If you’re not eating well, moving well, and resting well, then a diet may make a temporary difference in your weight but it won’t make you any healthier. 

How do we eat well? If you’re stuck, go with Michael Pollan’s basic advice to eat food, not much, mostly plants. Keep it simple. Want to seal the deal? Take a breath and say a quick prayer before you eat and again at the end of the meal. Do your best to focus on nourishing yourself — your body, your mind, your emotions, your spirit — because all of you gets to delight and be nourished by the food. Do your best not to hope that eating well means you’ll lose weight. Do your best not to overthink your food choices. 

This New York Times article is another look at both the diet industry and the effect of diet culture on one smart, educated, accomplished woman. 

This summer I gave up my scale. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I weighed. Every day, I wondered. Finally I decided it was easier to weigh myself than to keep thinking about it. I weighed about what I guessed I would. I immediately began stories in my head about what that weight meant, how it was different than a year ago, and what it would be like to weigh a bit less. I don’t know yet how to get beyond this so that I really truly don’t care what I weigh. I know it doesn’t matter. But I haven’t let go of it. 

Yesterday I listened to a podcast, Life Unrestricted (tagline: Free yourself from being obsessed with food & exercise). Meret and her guest, Isabel Duken Fox, pointed out that women will say that they love other women’s bodies but hate their own. Women will say it’s okay for others to be fat and they look beautiful as they are, but on our own bodies, no amount of fat is okay. Meret and Fox called bullshit on this. When women are hating their own bodies, they’re hating women’s bodies. We’re kinder to others to their face, perhaps, but deep inside, we believe fat is wrong and it isn’t beautiful. If we believed our bodies were beautiful at every size, we’d believe it about ourselves. 

Diet culture is my culture. It’s part of my DNA. It has stolen happiness from me because I’ve allowed it to do so. The way out of suffering and hate is probably love but here’s the process: pleasure. Pleasure is a process of noticing and enjoying. Pleasure is an antidote to shame, a balm against worry and negativity. Fuck beauty and being beautiful. Pleasure is wholly, healthily, enthusastically engaged in the moment. Pleasure is possible for each of us at every size.