Following the path to happiness through weight loss. Is there any bigger fairy tale fantasy out there?
I bought in to the Fantasy of Being Thin from an early age. It's an idea I'm working hard to let go of, with some difficulty, because no matter how rational or logical I try to be about it, the idea that being thin or losing weight is the solution to all your problems is reinforced left, right, and centre. See, we're sold on the idea that life will begin when. You will be good enough, worthy enough, WHEN. When you lose enough weight. When you are thin enough. When you are strong enough, healthy enough, fit enough. So, weight loss and/or the body becomes the focus, and if that happens, you often tend to put your life on hold. Waiting. Just waiting until.
Weight Stigma is about buying the magic beans. Believing that, if you can just lose enough weight, you'll climb your beanstalk to find whatever it is you're lacking. Happiness, love, acceptance, health, money, fame, revenge. So, you work and you work, and you climb that beanstalk, and all you find is yourself, in the clouds. Without having enjoyed the view on the way up, at all.
It is a pervasive sentiment. And it's not just in the obvious places like media or industries which stand to profit from people feeling bad about themselves. It's, well, everywhere. In fact, years ago when I was in counselling - clearly talking about body image as a direct connection to low (damn near non-existent) self esteem - the therapist suggested that perhaps I would be happier if I lost some weight. Yeah. This happens in real life. The fantasy was reinforced by a professional: the key to accepting yourself is ... to change yourself? "Most healthcare providers and therapists want nothing more than to relieve suffering and enhance the health of our patients. Both patient and provider may think the obvious solution is to try to leave the stigmatized group and try to lose weight. But participating in the illusion that weight loss is possible, desirable, and the only way to have a good life, is to perpetrate weight stigma."
The topic of Weight Stigma and Psychotherapy was addressed as part of Weight Stigma Awareness Week. The article called "Surprises when you venture off the eating disorders island" is about how so deeply ingrained the belief is that weight loss leads to happiness, that even well-trained psychotherapists recommend it, despite evidence that such a suggestion (or judgement) has the opposite effect. In other words, the fairy tale is retold; the therapist is selling magic beans.
And, I think, buying in to this fantasy that weight loss is the solution to all of life's problems leads to self-sabotage. I mean, there are lots of reasons that we take ourselves down, when we go against what we think we really want. (It's called cognitive dissonance, and I've written about it before). Maybe it's an esteem or confidence issue, when you really think you're not good enough. But, more often, I think it's because we have internalized a message that is so ubiquitous that it is reinforced and repeated in all areas of our lives: that getting thin is the answer. What happens when you get there, or when it becomes within view, and you all of a sudden realize that it is NOT the answer to all of life's problems? It's only the answer to some health issues.
One of the best pieces I've come across that helps me to combat those kinds of suggestions, one I go back to often, is Kate Harding's post on The Fantasy of Being Thin. It's what I need to remind myself of often. It's even more honest than the generic "love your body, love yourself" message that abounds in marketing campaigns and women's magazines. She lays it on the line: focusing on weight loss as the answer to life's problems (ie: the things we don't like about ourselves) only masks those problems.
"All of those concrete things you’ve been putting off? Just fucking do them, now, because this IS your life,
happening as we speak. But exhortations like that don’t take into account magical thinking about thinness, which I suspect is really quite common. Because, you see, the Fantasy of Being Thin is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable. It is about becoming an entirely different person – one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the fat you has. It’s not just, “When I’m thin, I’ll look good in a bathing suit”; it’s "When I’m thin, I will be the kind of person who struts down the beach in a bikini, making men weep.”
Changing your weight in the hopes of changing your identity? Doesn't work. It's magical thinking at its beanstalk best. Or worst, really.
So, self-acceptance - acknowledging who you REALLY are, and what you REALLY want - is more than body acceptance, even though the two often intersect. And this is a hard pill to swallow. The magic beans of "change your weight, change your identity," where all your hopes are pinned on weight loss, they're much more palatable. Because, when you buy the magic beans, you don't have to examine your true self.
A huge part of health and fitness, to me, is working on letting go of the idea that losing weight will somehow change you into someone you're not already, and on accepting who you are right at this moment. Frankly, it's the reason I insist on getting pictures of myself doing active, fun, adventurous things. I still don't love how I look in them, but I need the proof, the reminders, that I summited a mountain, went rock climbing, white water rafted, worked at camp, travelled the world, and I did it while being varying degrees of fat. That comes directly from having read The Fantasy of Being Thin. Not waiting until the end of my weight loss journey for my life to start.
Is something holding YOU back? What Fantasy have you bought into, that thing that you're waiting until, before you feel whole? What's at the top of your imaginary beanstalk? Because, if it's keeping you stuck where you are, it may be time to chop that thing down.
Taking ownership over your own actions and not playing the victim, it's a little bit like throwing away the magic beans, picking up a rake and a hoe, and tending to the garden you have.
But uppermost in our minds is the final destination. On a certain day at a certain hour we will pull into the station. There will be bands playing, and flags waving. And once we get there so many wonderful dreams will come true. So many wishes will be fulfilled and so many pieces of our lives finally will be neatly fitted together like a completed jigsaw puzzle. How restlessly we pace the aisles, damning the minutes for loitering ... waiting, waiting, waiting, for the station.
However, sooner or later we must realize there is no one station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip. The station is only a dream. It constantly outdistances us.
"When we reach the station, that will be it !" we cry. Translated it means, "When I'm 18, that will be it! When I buy a new 450 SL Mercedes Benz, that will be it! When I put the last kid through college, that will be it! When I lose the last ten pounds, that will be it! When I have paid off the mortgage, that will be it! When I win a promotion, that will be it! When I reach the age of retirement, that will be it! I shall live happily ever after!"
Unfortunately, once we get it, then it disappears. The station somehow hides itself at the end of an endless track. "Relish the moment" is a good motto. It isn't the burdens of today that drive men mad. Rather, it is regret over yesterday or fear of tomorrow. Regret and fear are twin thieves who would rob us of today.
So, stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, climb more mountains, eat more ice cream, go barefoot oftener, swim more rivers, watch more sunsets, laugh more and cry less. Life must be lived as we go along. The station will come soon enough.