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Our Weighty Obsession
Did you know that 80 to 90 percent of eating disorders actually begin with a diet? There are healthier and happier ways to deal with our preoccupation with weight.

Cathy, the beloved goofy girl of cartoon-strip fame, used to sigh, “Wake me up when I’m a size five.” Last October, on the high fashion catwalks of Spain, size zero models were uninvited. This was refreshing, but sobering, because one in three didn’t make the cut.

Three billion women worldwide are not natural stick figures, but far too many of them wish they were.

The Canadian story

A whopping nine out of ten Canadian girls and women say they are unhappy with their bodies “in some way or another,” according to the Canadian Health Network. They fret because they think they are too round, too tall, too short, too … something. Girls as young as nine reportedly take measures to control their weight.

“We are flooded with information telling us that we can shape our lives by shaping our appearance,” says Merryl Bear, director of the Toronto-based National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC). “For women in particular, this usually takes the form of dieting. When we feel unloved, ineffective or out of control, we try to take back control.” Part of NEDIC’s mission is to provide Canadians with information on eating disorders and weight preoccupation.

And Canadians are preoccupied. Our weight obsession feeds a diet industry worth an estimated $100 billion a year. In her Diet Book for Smart Women, Susan Estrich, after listing many laudable accomplishments, announces that no career high made her “prouder, happier or more fulfilled” than her size six figure—maintained by rigid control. Diet programs aimed at Christians are also part of this growth industry, with titles like What Would Jesus Eat? and Slim for Him, among many others.

As a family doctor, Barbara Powell often struggles to reason with girls she believes are at risk for eating disorders. “On one occasion, a young 12-year-old girl actually had a fashion magazine with her. She seemed not to want to believe me when I told her those pictures weren’t real,” reports Dr. Powell.

The Media Awareness Network Site, a Canadian online source dedicated to promoting critical thinking in young people about the media, reports that women’s magazines have more than ten times the ads and articles promoting weight loss than men’s magazines do, and over three quarters of women’s magazine covers have at least one headline about how to change your body.

Diet dilemma

Yet, for many, the very solution we come up with to lose those pesky pounds can actually cause more weight problems.

The Saskatchewan health department reports that 80 to 90 percent of eating disorders actually begin with a diet. Yo-yo dieters force their bodies into a protective “starvation” mode. Their metabolisms learn to use each calorie very efficiently. Thus, once they relax, they quickly regain lost weight.

Should they just forget dieting and get more exercise?

A recent University of California study reported that when women were advised to accept themselves, eat what they really wanted and exercise vigorously, they ended up, two years later, weighing the same as women who dieted. But they were healthier and happier than the dieters.

Beyond the scale

Most health professionals rely on the body mass index (BMI) to determine if a person’s weight is healthy. Because the BMI takes into account both height and weight, health professionals prefer it to recording weight alone.

Normal BMI readings are 19–25 and have the least number of associated health issues. Between 25 and 30, people are considered “overweight,” which may or may not impact their health. Obesity, which is a genuine health issue, begins at 30 or more. (The rejected models often scored an abnormal BMI measurement of 18 or lower. Low BMI readings are associated with serious illnesses.)

The good news is that, increasingly, women are fighting against the obsession with being super-thin. Actor Patricia Arquette refused studio demands to lose her postpartum weight for her TV role as a psychic detective. “If this part was a supermodel or anorexic, then OK,” she explained. But her character is a mother of three in a stable marriage. Shouldn’t she look like it?

Our culture’s dieting mania has been shown, again and again, to be harmful to ourselves, to our children and to our health. Self-acceptance, active living, healthy lifestyles and healthy self-image are counter-cultural choices we must make every day.

Denyse O’Leary (www.designorchance.com), a science writer, is the author of Faith @ Science and By Design or By Chance?, both of which won the Canadian Christian Writing Award. Her most recent book, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (co-authored with Mario Beauregard) was published in August 2007.  She can be reached at oleary@sympatico.ca.


Originally published in Faith & Friends, October 2007.



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A ministry of
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada