This is a loaded question. It triggers debates and emotions. Recently I accidentally triggered emotions around this question. Certainly that is the last thing I want to do. But I am human like the rest of us, I can always do better and learn more. So I want to talk about it. Society, the health profession, and our bodies all have different answers to this question.
When I taught sociology classes I would often show the film “Killing Us Softly,” most recently updated in 2010. Jean Kilbourne explores how advertising teaches us beauty standards that are unattainable. White women are almost always airbrushed and often dismembered (adds showing only a belly, a behind, or legs). In addition to inspiring harmful eating disorders, these messages create shame when not achieved or unachievable. And it is not just body size that is scrutinized, every part of the body is judged. Men also receive judgement and scrutiny.
More recently we are seeing models that more closely represent average people. Plus sized models and models of color can more easily be found in the pages of catalogues and magazines. However, the numbers of these images are not proportional to the numbers in society. In addition, they continue to be airbrushed and represent the most physically appealing people within their group.
We are also seeing more conversation about the problems of fat shaming and bullying. However, wages for overweight women continue to be lower compared to the average. There are not easy answers when addressing societal issues.
One of the first things I was taught when getting certified as a vegan lifestyle coach is that I need to make it very clear to clients that I am not a health professional. That I need to always refer medical questions to the doctors of my clients. This is fair, but doctors rarely talk to patients about nutrition or how to achieve a healthy weight in a healthy way because they don’t always have the training to do so. In fact, some doctors will “fat shame” patients and cause more harm. Dale Carnegie wrote and taught about how no one wants to be told they are wrong and will only become defensive when it happens. We naturally defend ourselves. If our doctor fat shames then we are much less likely to continue to seek care.
An RD (registered dietician) taught me that a healthy weight for women is 100 pounds when five feet tall. Every inch above or below five feet adds or subtracts five pounds. This means that at my 5’4″ height I should weigh 120 pounds. She was very clear that there was little wiggle room on the healthy weight unless someone had a lot of muscle mass. For men the rule is 106 pounds at five feet tall and seven pounds for every additional inch. The healthy weight for a 5’4″ man is 134 pounds. Are these weights realistic when following the Standard American Diet? For many the easy answer is no.
Do I weigh 120 pounds? Nope. Does it bother me? As a product of U.S. society, of course it does. I, like many U.S. women, have an unhealthy relationship with my weight. I am not overweight or even close to the boundary of overweight as outlined by BMI calculators, but I am not 120 pounds. As a teenager and into my early 20’s I was underweight. In large part due to my mother, who is underweight with her size 0 goal at 5’5″. She has always told me I am not small, even when I am. I also have endometriosis that causes lots of bloating and can make my body swell two sizes overnight. I do not have a diagnosed eating disorder, but it is something I think about.
What do our bodies think about the ideal weight question? When we think negative thoughts and feel bad and/or depressed about our bodies and weight, we are actually supporting inflammation in our bodies that helps us gain and retain weight. Oops.
It might sound corny, but we have to be positive and kind with ourselves to support weight loss and maintain a healthy weight. We have to have confidence that we can take control of our health through the foods we eat. We have to avoid foods that trigger inflammation, like animal proteins and processed foods. And we have to increase eating anti-inflammatory foods, aka plants.
Know and believe that you are valuable and that you can achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Society may be teaching us otherwise, but a whole food plant based diet has been shown to achieve and support a healthy weight and reverse chronic disease that is our body responding to chronic inflammation.
Feeling discouraged or don’t know where to start? An Everyday Vegan can help (that’s me).