Archive for August, 2013

Body Image and Nutrition

I guess most people would call me fortunate, and say I have no right to talk about this issue. I received a stream of recessive genetics- blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. Most people assume I’m healthy just because my waist is small. But I’m also only 5’2″, have a small bone frame, and grew up on a small farm, which gave me muscle mass.  All of this is more important that my waist measurement or the number on the scale. Those are only very small indicators of health, and in some cases they don’t apply at all. Society puts dualistic negative imagery concerning an ideal body that has nothing to do with health in our heads, and it’s harmful to everyone. And since we are all society, it’s important to know how we hurt each other and ourselves and do our part to change it. Which is why, even if it won’t be well-received, I’m writing about this.

To the people who pay attention to body image stuff, it’s common knowledge that the media is putting out a harmful image, especially of women. This article that I read yesterday written by a former Vogue editor stated that some models have eaten tissues to fill up their stomach. And they think passing out and being hospitalized is normal.

This is clearly detrimental.  Apparently models have also started getting breast reductions to look pre-pubescent, which doesn’t even make sense. From what I remember in high school, all the women on TV were supposed to have implants. The modeling industry is trying to stop this; they pledge not to use models they know are suffering from eating disorders. That’s all well and good, but I don’t know how they actually propose to regulate that. And the damage is done.

It’s probably a chicken-egg situation, but we see smaller and smaller people on TV and in magazines while people (at least in the US) are getting bigger and bigger. I don’t know if the media wants to promote a body type the opposite of the trend so people are dissatisfied. I don’t really care. All I know is that it’s an unhealthy dualism. Because while there is an obesity epidemic, (and the use of the word “epidemic” here makes me cringe, because diseases are epidemics- it’s scary when a lifestyle becomes an epidemic), eating disorders are also becoming more common. Because in promoting an unattainable image, we think that’s normal and natural. It causes body dysmorphia, which is the fancy way of saying we have a skewed view of what’s normal that negatively impacts us. People start to think that starving is beautiful and perfect but also normal and natural. And anyone who looks differently is an ugly, unworthy minority.

This is not just a physical problem. The body dysmorphia and eating disorders are also psychological. People convince themselves that if they eat from someone else’s plate, it doesn’t count as eating. I had a friend who tried to eat my cookie, even though she refused to eat more than half of hers. She also started losing her mind, because your mind isn’t going to function when it’s too concerned with making your body survive. Two people with eating disorders have tried to diagnose me with something, even while eating consistently bigger meals in their presence.

And, because we love unhealthy duality in this culture, there is counter movement. Big is beautiful. Curvy girls are better than sticks. Real women have curves. Say no to size zero. Everyone is beautiful. The first and the last are positive sentiments. The middle ones are not any more helpful than the modeling industry.

See, as soon as we select one body type to be the ideal, we ostracize a huge part of the population. People are shaped differently. Women are shaped differently. The emphasis should never be on trying to attain an ideal image, but on being the most healthy you you can be.

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Things like this are so negative, and it should be insulting to everyone. First off, there are naturally smaller people. It’s insulting to men, because different men prefer different natural body types, which kind of goes along with different natural body types existing. I think it would be insulting to not be called a real man for liking  smaller girls and that someone would presume what type of woman you prefer if you are a real man. Also, this image implies that women should look a certain way because men like it. Forget looking the way you want to look, forget even thinking about a six pack, because real men like soft curves! (Credit to my friend Allison for some thoughts on this) No, this isn’t better just because it’s promoting the opposing viewpoint.

As an aside, I’d also like to say that most naturally petite women have curves. They may not be as noticeable, because you notice their petite-ness and not that they have proportional bodies. Or proportional means small curves.

Like I said, the emphasis should be on embracing your natural body frame and nourishing it, taking care of it because you pretty much have to live in it. Big is beautiful. Queen Latifah is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen. She’s always my default example, maybe it’s because she seems to shine. She’s radiant.

Yes, beauty does come from the inside. To me, it does shine from the inside just like a weird, contagious sunshine. One of my favorite quotes from Roald Dahl describes it perfectly: “If I person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it.

“A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”

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I think it’s the smile.

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However, this does not mean you don’t have to be healthy. A skinny person can be unhealthy as easily as someone who is not skinny. And health should be the goal, because it will enable you to live the best life you can live.

The number on the scale can be a general indicator of health, but not always. Muscle weighs more than fat. The obsession to eat the least amount of calories possible is also misleading. Calories and fat are necessary for existence. Calories are our fuel, without putting something in our bodies we can’t function. And a certain percentage of your body needs to be made of fat, for cushion and just regular functioning. For women, the absolute lowest percentage for survival is 10-12. You’re not even supposed to approach those numbers if you want to be healthy. Anywhere from 14-31% body fat in a woman is varying degrees of healthy. I had a fitness nut talk to a group of us in high school about this and how important it was to realize that we shouldn’t strive to be models. He measured our body fat percentage. I had somewhere between a 25 and 30%, I think. So healthy, but could eat better and exercise more. The percentage numbers are lower for men, because they don’t have certain areas- the curves- that are necessary for women. Someone with a body fat percentage of 15 or 20 could weigh a lot more than you’d think, because they have a lot of muscle mass. The number on the scale is not the important part.

There are also different bone structures. I was told by this same fitness person that an easy way to tell is to take your thumb and middle finger and put them just above your wrist. If they overlap, you have a small body frame, if they touch, it’s a middle-sized bone structure, and if your fingers do not touch, you have a large bone structure. I don’t know how true this is, because I think after a certain point you will gain weight in your wrist and hands. But generally speaking, your goal weight range varies a lot. Someone my height with a medium bone structure, should definitely weigh more to be healthy. So, BMI can be a useful tool to measure health, but it’s not always accurate.

The final thing he impressed upon us was what happens when you don’t eat. When you’re really hungry, your body goes into starvation mode. It burns fat to fuel itself. It also converts muscle to fat to fuel itself. This is how you can get to the point when you’re so hungry you’re not hungry anymore. And if you starve yourself, the muscle converted to fat is most of your muscle. He said the models he’d measured had more body fat than any healthy person he’d ever seen. Some of them were in the 50s. That’s half fat. They just didn’t have enough energy to have muscle mass. And, at first anyone who’s starved themselves (this could mean anorexia or just someone who skipped a meal because of work) your body doesn’t trust you. It stores some of the fuel you gave it as fat because it doesn’t think you’re going to give it fuel again. This is how people working office jobs stay overweight even though they don’t have time to eat at least 3 meals a day.

A body is constantly running, especially when awake. Logically, it’s important to give it fuel often, whether that’s in 3 large meals or several smaller meals throughout the day. (Different people say different things. In France, where they have some of the best heart health, they only eat three big meals. People here say it’s better to eat lots of small meals, since your body is running constantly, kind of like keeping your car close to half full to keep the engine parts running well). But in any case, it’s unhealthy to go more than like 8 hours without putting something in your system, especially if you have the means.

Food expert Michael Pollen’s advice is generally pretty good to follow: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. He spoke at my university in undergrad, and it was one of the most eye-opening, dynamic speeches I’ve heard. Cognitively, I knew most of the information he was saying, but experiencing a speech like that is almost a workshop, which is different than just knowing something in your head.

As horrible as it is, fruits and vegetables are the best thing for you. Anything that goes bad is better for you than anything full of chemicals to make it not go bad. I’m the worst example of this healthy eating thing, but it’s a part of growing up. The best chicken I’ve ever had was four years ago from my back yard. Free range, all natural, high school boy’s farming experiment chickens. So local and organic, if you can afford it is way better. This is also logical, because it’s the way we were built to eat. They say it’s better to spend that amount right now on food  is worth more than paying for medical costs later. An ounce of prevention. It’s something useful to always keep in mind, but I know that’s hard when you’re living one a college student budget.

France has this sort of PSA advertisement called manger-bouger. It means eat-move. And it really is that simple. EVERYONE needs to eat. It doesn’t matter what your natural body type is or what type of body you’re trying to get. The diets people promote usually involve starving yourself of something your body is used to, so of course it’s going to be unsuccessful. It would be sufficient just to change from giving your body empty calories to giving it nutrient-rich calories. I’m the prime example of how hard it is to do, but if you’re going to take the effort to change your eating habits, change them to something that makes sense. And EVERYONE needs to exercise. It’s good for your heart and  your psychological well-being. Even if all that means is walking.

If you’re beautiful on the inside, you are beautiful. But taking care of your physical insides is important, because it’s how you show everyone your nonphysical unattainable beauty. Manger-Bouger. Eat and move. That’s the goal to keep your insides healthy. Give your body fuel. Use all the fuel you give it. It’s a constant cycle, and there’s some area we could all improve on. So worry about the improvements you need to make, and recognize just because others have different struggles within these issues doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

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