One of my reading goals for next year is to read books that feature body-positive themes. I don’t know about you, but as I approach my fortieth year, I’m exhausted by battling my body. I’m exhausted by viewing foods as “good” and “bad” and feeling either virtuous or full of self-loathing depending on which I eat. What I seek is clarity on what really matters, peace with myself, and the pursuit of health even if it doesn’t result in weight loss. I want a healthy relationship with food and I want to move my body in ways I enjoy. Sounds simple when you read it yet (for me) it’s actually anything but.
So I began my reading resolution a bit early with Harriet Brown’s Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight – and What We Can Do About It. It’s a slim book, just 274 pages, including 60+ pages of notes and index. You can tell that she’s done her research. But you can also feel how deeply personal this issue is for her, both as a woman and as a mother of a daughter who battled anorexia.
A sixth-grade “wellness” class kicked off both her anxiety about eating and her interest in health. Though her weight was normal, she started to worry about being fat. She cut out desserts, telling us she’d learned that sugar was unhealthy. Over the next six months or so, her restricting took on a life of its own, and eventually turned into full-blown anorexia that nearly killed her.
What I really liked about this book was the way Brown made me rethink my assumptions about weight and health. I’d already thought that being overweight does not automatically equate to poor health, because people can still be active and have healthy blood tests yet still carry extra weight. Conversely, some people are naturally thin but don’t exercise at all; they may have chronic health problems too. The first chapter is devoted to chipping away at the four most common myths (or lies, as she puts it) about weight and health: 1) That we’re all getting fatter and fatter; 2) Obesity can take at least a decade off your life; 3) Being fat causes heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other illnesses; and 4) Dieting makes us thinner and healthier. The last one gets its own full chapter.
Dieting can make people thinner for a while – six months, a year or two, maybe three. Which, coincidentally, is about how long most studies follow dieters, and how they claim success. In reality, your change of maintaining significant weight loss for five years or more is about the same as your chance of surviving metastic lung cancer: 5 percent. …only 3 to 5 percent of dieters who lose a significant amount of weight keep it off.
You’d never know any of this from reading the weight loss research, or talking with most researchers in the field. In fact, when I asked the University of Alabama’s David Allison about dieting research, he insisted that studies do show success after five years, ‘just less than what we’d push for.’ I told him I was aware of only one research project that followed dieters for five years or more, the Look AHEAD project, a ten-year study of people with type 2 diabetes. I asked Allison to point me toward other studies that followed dieters for five years or more, regardless of their findings. He couldn’t come up with any.
Brown wants her reader to question what they think they “know” about weight and health. Who controls the purse strings for weight loss drug research? Do doctors feel and exhibit obesity bias towards their patients? Does yo-yo dieting eventually destroy a person’s metabolism? Is prodding kids and adults into weight loss by any method necessary, including shaming, worth the emotional and physical risks involved? These are some of the issues Brown addresses. Besides including her own life long experience being 50-ish pounds “overweight” and yo-yo dieting over the years, and her daughter’s experience, she also includes interviews from people who have struggled with unhealthy behaviors and attitudes about weight, both their own and those of others around them.
The big takeaway for me from this book is the pursuit of health at any size. “Normal” eating includes a range of foods and behaviors, and is much more flexible than most of us allow for ourselves. We should all be giving ourselves permission to enjoy food, to seek a balanced diet, to engage in fun ways to move our bodies. There is a lot of money to be made by the diet, pharmaceutical, and medical industries, not to mention women’s magazines, in keeping people dieting and hating themselves. Brown wants us to be able to think critically about weight and health, not blindly swallow all that the diet and medical industries tell us. As she points out, there is still that science simply doesn’t know about weight loss and the human body (like how to keep us thin, for one.) It is a highly individual process.
I consider this a good, solid book to put in your body-positive arsenal. There are so many passages I jotted down from this book that I’d love to share with you, but in the interest of brevity I’ll end with one of my favorites:
We’d do better for ourselves and our children if, instead of pushing diets and surgeries and medications, we looked at real-world strategies for eating more fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep, dancing and playing sports, and other joyful physical activities. And especially if we supported those things for everyone, no matter what they weighed.