The question of bodies

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Our society is deeply confused about bodies and what they should look like. While many of our ideas of ‘what is attractive’ are rooted in health, many of those ideals have gotten seriously skewed – not just in the recent past, but over centuries, even millenia. What’s changed, though, is that we’re constantly exposed to people who appear to fit those ideals, and so we can get caught in a loop of thinking we’re imperfect and horrible.

Even the medical research is iffy: it’s clear that some kinds of food choices put us at risk. So does not exercising. But the research says that’s true for everyone. It doesn’t change because you’ve magically passed some point on the scale. Research also increasingly shows that we can’t change someone’s weight – either direction – just by trying. Not for long, anyway. (Links to further info below.)

Me:

As I said on the skyclad question page, I come from a long line of European peasants good at surviving famines. I was a very active teenager, and quite active into college (regularly walking a couple of miles a day, just to get from point A to point B.)

But in my late teens and college years, I put on a fair bit of weight. In hindsight, it seems like part of that was the very earliest of flares of hypothyroidism, combined with a fair bit of stress (cortisol, one of the main stress hormones, encourages our bodies to hold onto resources in case we need them later.) Add to that a couple of medications in my history (steroids for asthma) that affect metabolism, and a couple of attempts at dieting and.. well, my body’s current set point is not what it was when I was 13. And is probably never going to be there again. Funny how that works.

Because of that, I’ve been reading about the size acceptance movement since I was in college (so going on 15 years now.) Along the way, I decided I had better things to do with my time, my energy, and my life than hate myself or hate my body. There are certainly things I’d love to change, but for me, my list starts with new lungs (without the lung scarring and asthma I’ve had since childhood), and weight by itself is actually pretty far down the list.

Even more to the point, a lot of recent research is suggesting that at least some of what we’d thought about weight and health is .. well, not true. it’s become clear that on and off dieting can cause a number of problems (and has a low long-term success rate), and that how our bodies pick a weight is more complicated than we’d originally thought (And besides: we’re human, not machines. Our bodies have quirks.) More on that in the links below. My own choice has been to do my best to treat my body well, as much as I can – but not to worry about the number on the scale by itself.

What I do:

I do my best to listen to my body.

If I have a strong craving for something, and it lasts more than half an hour or so, there’s probably a good reason for it. If I’m not hungry, there might be a reason. If I am hungry, I should eat something that makes me feel reasonably full.

I do think about what I eat.

I’m coming off a year of extreme stress and a lot of other physical considerations that have changed what I’m hungry for, when I’m hungry, and how much exercise or activity is reasonable. Eating nourishing whole foods has helped a lot, so I mostly do that.

But I don’t obsess.

If I’m really hungry, I eat. Even if that’s a food choice that I would normally do differently, or it includes stabilisers and preservatives I generally don’t seek out. Occasionally, that means fast food. Sometimes it’s a packaged meal that’s more processed than I’d like. Sometimes it’s going out and getting the thing I’ve got a major ongoing craving for, even though it’s not the thing I’d rationally pick.

I move in ways that work for me.

Sometimes that’s going walking. Sometimes that’s swimming. Sometimes that’s dancing around at home. And sometimes it’s taking a day off. (I got better at these last year, when there were times when any exertion left me lightheaded and good for nothing for a couple of hours). I listen to my body, and I don’t overdo it.

How’d I get there?

A lot of my  thoughts about body shape and size in the last five years or so have been shaped by the ideas of the Health at Every Size movement. Linda Bacon, a nutritionist at UC Davis, came up with the original phrasing.

From her website, she says that Health at Every Size is about:

  • Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes.
  • Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite.
  • Finding the joy in moving one’s body and becoming more physically vital.

People come at it in different ways, and adapt what they need to: someone with a chronic illness or a disability is probably going to go at joy in movement differently than someone without those things.

Resources:

Some resources you might find useful in exploring this include:

The FAQ at the Shapely Prose blog. While the blog is no longer getting new posts (Kate is off doing other things now), the entire site has great stuff. Read the comments on the posts for lots of tips and ideas. The FAQ itself has some strong language, but lots of great information.

Resources on Linda Bacon’s website.

We’re so messed up about bodies that we don’t even always have a good idea of what body types look like. There’s a great project on Flickr collecting photos and identifying them by height, weight, and BMI. As you’ll see, there’s a huge variation, and many photos probably don’t fall into the category you might have guessed.

The Fat Nutritionist talks about issues of nourishment, nutrition, and weight. Again, read the comments. They’ve got lots of great bits, including in the comments. I particularly recommend her if you’re trying to figure out how to fit the various ‘food rules’ into your life and coming up short. Some posts I especially like include:

And, from the skyclad page, let me repeat those resources:

A few great books

These both get rave reviews for helping people look at body issues. Two Pagan-focused titles are Dianne Sylvan’s The Body Sacred (I’ve known Sylvan online for years) and Yasmine Galenorn’s Crafting the Body Divine. They take some different approaches, but both give some great ideas on getting more in tune with your body.

People trying to get in touch with joyful movement often love Gabrielle Roth’s Sweat Your Prayers, an approach to moving meditation that’s all about finding how your body wants to move.

[last edit: October 28, 2011]

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