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Stop telling me to go on a diet

January 03, 2013|By Alexandra Le Tellier
(Illustration by Wes Bausmith…)

I hate the season of New Year’s resolutions. Even if you don’t make any pledges, or proclaim that you’re above this annual practice, you can’t avoid resolution-mania. Every media outlet is saturated with reminders to get in shape -- physical, financial or otherwise. And every social media feed has everyone you know and their mom and your mom echoing the same yearly promises.

I’m at optimist at heart. I should love the idea of a fresh start and renewed intentions. But instead, I cringe through this time of year when we collectively punish ourselves during a month of shame and self-loathing.  

I especially loathe all of the pressure to lose weight. I didn’t gain any weight over the holiday season, or in the last year for that matter -- yet, here I am feeling bad about my body, which I was perfectly content with in October.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

On Tuesday, the Journal of the American Medical Assn. published a study that should have all caused us to rejoice: being moderately overweight  may actually be good for you. Reporting on the study, The Times’ Rosie Mestel wrote that “people classified as overweight, with a BMI of 25 to 29.9, died at slightly lower rates -- not higher -- than those of so-called normal weight.”

In an Op-Ed for the New York Times, Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession With Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health,” put this finding in context:  

To put some flesh on these statistical bones, the study found a 6 percent decrease in mortality risk among people classified as overweight and a 5 percent decrease in people classified as Grade 1 obese, the lowest level (most of the obese fall in this category). This means that average-height women -- 5 feet 4 inches -- who weigh between 108 and 145 pounds have a higher mortality risk than average-height women who weigh between 146 and 203 pounds. For average-height men -- 5 feet 10 inches -- those who weigh between 129 and 174 pounds have a higher mortality risk than those who weigh between 175 and 243 pounds.

Good news, right? We can stop starving ourselves? Not so fast, warns Campos, who also writes:

There is no reason to believe that the trivial variations in mortality risk observed across an enormous weight range actually have anything to do with weight or that intentional weight gain or loss would affect that risk in a predictable way.

He giveth, and then he taketh away. Not that it really matters. As an Op-Ed in our Opinion pages points out, our drive to lose weight has more to do with satisfying societal pressures than losing weight. On weight-based discrimination, Abigail Saguy writes:

Yale researchers have shown that weight discrimination in the United States has increased dramatically in the last decade and is now comparable in prevalence to rates of reported racial discrimination, especially among women. Multiple studies have documented weight bias in employment, healthcare, education and public spaces — unequal treatment based on stereotyping fat people as lazy, unmotivated, sloppy and lacking in self-discipline and competence. Heavier women are not only less likely to be hired and less likely to earn a higher salary compared with their similarly qualified thinner peers, but they are also less likely to marry or to marry a high-earning spouse. Unlike thinner women, who can more easily climb the social and economic ladder, heavy women face the prospect of downward social mobility.

When I was doing research for a book on the social understanding of fat, several heavy women told me they were often reproached for eating in public. Some tearfully shared stories of having had people actually throw food at them. Other researchers have documented a practice called "hogging," in which young men sexually prey on fat women and then, during the sex act, have their male friends jump out of hiding and humiliate them. Heavy women are routinely ridiculed in advertisements, television and film. Even children express negative attitudes about their heavier peers, a tendency that has gotten worse in the past 40 years.

Reading Saguy’s piece (you can read the whole thing here) makes me regret the last 20 years I’ve spent on a diet -- and contributing to the problem.  But she does suggest just the sort of resolution that’ll help me atone for my ways. And for once, it’s not the sort of promise designed to make people feel bad about themselves.

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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier

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