The dangers of “thinspiration”

If you google “thinspiration” you’ll be linked to dozens of pages… tumblr, Pinterest, blogs… it’s mind boggling. Whether or not people want to admit it, the research is pretty clear that diets will ultimately fail for 95% of people. You can read more about that on my favorite website, Dances With Fat. This post is a good one as far as diet “success” rates go, but just search Ragen’s blog. She is a brilliant researcher, and she has a wealth of information about this topic. For a lucky minuscule minority, long term weight loss is possible. For most of us, short term weight loss will happen as a result of any diet, “lifestyle change” or even just the simple adaptation of healthier habits, such as eating more whole foods, veggies, fruits, etc and exercising regularly. But even with the maintenance of those healthier habits, most of us will inevitably regain the weight. Since so many are only adapting those habits for the sake of weight loss, the habits are often abandoned once the weight loss part fails.

“Thinspiration” is a concept I once bought into heavily (no pun intended). There are many variants on this idea. Some people look to those who’ve lost a lot of weight, and who have posted before and after pictures. Others just find any thin person and use pics of that person as “thinspiration.” There are so many problems with this type of behavior that I almost don’t know where to begin.

First off, comparing your body to anyone else’s is a dangerous game. There are a lot of companies out there counting on you to do just this, in hopes you’ll buy their products to make your hair look like X movie star’s hair, or your lashes like X model’s lashes. This goes even more so for the diet industry. Just think of all the celebrity spokespeople we see… Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Hudson, Sarah Ferguson, Sara Rue (who famously lost weight after being a rare successful plus-sized actress, and went on to be a spokeswoman for Jenny Craig). Never mind the fine print that cautions us that “results are not typical,” most of us have had moments of desperately wanting to that success to be our own. But our bodies are incredibly unique, and our genetic makeup is so varied. There is a real truth that few want to recognize, which is that body type is largely genetic. Some people can fight that, at least for a while. Most of us can’t, not long term. There are also things we’ll never be able to change, without surgery. My grandmother, mother and I all have identical body types. Short limbs, long torsos, big boobs, flat butts, no real waists and we’re prone to weight gain in the stomach. Nothing I do could change these things, unless I wanted butt implants or boob reduction surgery. Even if I’d ever managed to lose every last pound, I was never going to have the tight, taut flat stomach because despite the many fitness videos that try to claim otherwise, most fitness experts agree that spot reduction is not possible. I was thin once upon a time. I was told repeatedly by everyone, including my own family, that I was fat… but I wasn’t. I did, however, still have a belly. It was never flat, even when I was 5’2″ and 98 pounds, as in this picture.

Easter 1986

Just as you can’t know anything about a fat person simply by looking at her, other than the fact that they are fat, we don’t know anything about a thin person just by looking at her except that she’s thin. Society has badgered us into thinking this is the only acceptable way to look, and even worse has convinced us that this is the only way to be healthy, but it’s just not that cut and dry. We don’t know how or why that person is thin. Maybe she’s just naturally thin, and fortunate to be in the most desired societal weight range. Maybe she’s battling an eating disorder. Maybe she has a chronic illness. Maybe she’s engaging in unhealthy lifestyle choices to maintain weight loss. There are so many “maybes” it makes my head spin. The point is… idealizing a body type is just as dangerous as demonizing a body type. You simply cannot know, just by looking at anyone, that they are healthy. You just can’t.

The next problem with “thinspiration” comes when using before and after pics. You are buying into the idea that many people promote themselves when they are successful at doing anything. I call this the “if I can do it, anyone can!” myth. It’s such a nice idea, and it often comes from a place of good intentions, but it’s simply not true. If anyone could do anything someone else has done, we’d have a lot more gold medal Olympians. We’d have far more people who have climbed Everest. Hell, why stop at Everest… anyone who wanted to could climb all the Seven Summits. People like Lance Armstrong wouldn’t have to resort to doping to win because they could just ride on the “someone else did it, so can I!” train instead. Just because someone else has successfully lost weight does not mean you can, and it’s incredibly damaging to one’s self esteem to buy into that… because if you’re not in that 5% of long term weight loss success stories, you feel like a failure. I know. I was that person. I bought the hype. I actually think one of the worst things we do to children is tell them they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up. I understand the rationale behind it, but it’s just not true. We can’t ALL be astronauts. We can’t ALL be lawyers. We can’t ALL be thin.

If you want to try to lose weight, that is absolutely your right. You have every right to pursue whatever goals you want in life. Don’t let me, or anyone else stop you from trying, as long as it’s what YOU truly want. But please… do not look at other people as “thinspiration.” Your journey is your own. Your successes – which won’t necessarily come in the form of weight loss – are also your own. I’d never dream of telling someone not to try to lose weight. It’s your body and your choice to make, and ultimately if looking at pictures of thin people somehow inspires you, well then okay. Just as long as you’re realistic about it, so as not to set yourself up for disappointment and the sense of having failed. When you consider the facts, you’re a totally normal person, not a failure, if dieting doesn’t give you the long term weight loss you desire.

Whatever your goals are, whether it’s to lose weight, or to adopt the healthy habits that are part of Health At Every Size or to make no changes at all, I encourage you to look in the mirror tonight and say “I’m worthy of love from myself and those around me.” Every body is worthy… regardless of shape or size.

~JK

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