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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Stop Weighting…

I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time now. I’ve wanted to write it for a few weeks. Ironically, it hasn’t been written because I’ve been feeling too damn awful to focus on much of anything lately.

When I was 15, I had this idea about my 10 year high school reunion. Mind you, I was a freshman in high school at the time. I was going to be skinny. I was going to dye my hair blonde and let it grow really long. I was going to look so not like my 15 year-old self that people went “who is that!?!” I was going to enjoy the hell out of watching them all have their jaws drop.

Once I was thin, I’d find true love. I’d get married, have a couple of babies (without gaining any weight, of course). I’d be a famous Broadway actress. When I watch Glee, I can so relate to Rachel because that was my dream. Living in NYC, going to a performing arts college, and working towards getting on Broadway. Of course, I had to be thin, first.

“Once I lose the weight, I’ll do…” was my mantra. I spent so much time fantasizing about losing weight. I tried all the diets, though at 15, I was in the throes of my eating disorder. In fact, I’d spend over seven weeks hospitalized for it that year. The therapy at the eating disorder hospital was helpful, but only to a point… partly because I spent so much time envying the anorexic girls. Yep. You heard right… the most deadly mental illness to have, and I envied them. It’s funny in a very sad way, actually. Everyone looked at my weight and acted like, at 15, I was a ticking time bomb. But I know at least two of the girls I was in that hospital with died before they were 40, and it wasn’t because they were overweight. It was the anoerxia’s toll on their hearts. But I digress. Unfortunately, there were really no other girls like me in that program. Even the girls who were bulimic to start, and maybe 20 – 30 pounds “overweight (as defined by BMI charts, not me)” to start had tilted towards the “too thin to be healthy” side of things. The entire time I was there, there were two older women who battled bulimia and were what would be deemed “overweight,” but not one person was even close to my size. It made all my self-conscious issues a lot worse. There was also a heavy emphasis on me losing weight. My one friend, who was anorexic and at 5’6″ weighed 86 pounds, joked with me. We wished we could swap bodies for a while. I gained weight just looking at it, and she could lose weight easily. If only we could swap…

Fast forward a decade. I had found my true love, and GASP… I didn’t have to get skinny to do it. I wasn’t a Broadway actress, but I was living in NYC, on the Upper East Side, nonetheless. I was going to school, had chosen a major I loved. Life was good. We went to museums, we’d walk around the city. We did street fairs in the summer, and spent a long weekend in the Adirondacks each fall. We had a great dog, a beautiful apartment. Hell, we had a doorman. I grew up in poverty, the child of an addict… my life had changed so much, and it was so sweet and good. Except… I was still fat. And I was still trying desperately not to be fat. I tried all the trendy diets, and always wound up going back to Weight Watchers. I’d lose 25 pounds, and then it was like I hit a brick wall. I spent so much time thinking about what I didn’t have (a thin, socially acceptable body) I didn’t ever completely appreciate all that I did have.

At 26, I joined a gym. It took an enormous amount of guts for me to join a gym in my neighborhood where a size 8 was “fat.” But I did it. I went 3 – 4 times a week on average. Some weeks I went even more. It felt good. I didn’t know it yet, but I already had fibromyalgia. The symptoms were mild, and the main issue at that time was sleep disturbances. I associated it with the thyroid condition I discovered I had that year (and that, my friends, is why my weight loss journeys were so fraught). I followed WW’s plan. In the beginning, the gym was an awesome thing for me. I’d end it with a small drink from Jamba Juice… it was a ritual I enjoyed, even though it was hard. I couldn’t do anything but some weight training and the treadmill because everything else caused me pain. Which, of course, I blamed on being too fat. Turns out, that was the fibro. At any rate, the exercise boosted my mood, and in the first few weeks I loved it. Then I stopped losing weight. Again. The weighers and leaders at the WW meetings clearly didn’t believe me. I was cheating somehow, or not really working out. I tried all the “tricks.” I ate my extra workout earned Points. I didn’t eat them. I tried the Wendie Plan, where you eat under your Points some days and over on others (still balancing out to the actual total number for those days). I did everything right. Why wasn’t I losing weight? Didn’t my body know I had things to do??? Things I couldn’t do until I was thin???

I began to hate the gym. Oh, I still went. But instead of it being fun, instead of feeling exhilarated after the exercise, it became one more way I was a failure. Clearly, I wasn’t doing it “right.” I didn’t give up, though. I just hated every single minute of it. Even my post-workout Jamba Juice lost its sweetness. I became obsessive about the gym, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t losing weight. Yet again, I barely managed to hit 25 pounds lost (I remember this so well because the 25 pound mark earns a special “award” at WW). Then I hit the wall. I’d gain weight doing “everything right.” Or I just wouldn’t lose. It would go on for a few weeks, and then my resolve would crack and I’d wind up bingeing. Ironically, I often lost a tiny bit of weight the weeks I binged. But I hated myself. I felt weak, and like a failure. I remembered my 15 year-old self when I was in the hospital envying the “willpower” of my anorexic friends (that “willpower,” btw, was a topic the bulimic girls and I used to discuss frequently). I felt like I just lacked willpower. The WW weighers and leaders must be right. Clearly, I was doing something wrong.

Meanwhile, I kept putting off things I wanted to do because they’d be easier, or because I wouldn’t look stupid (aka fat) doing them once I lost weight. After about 6 or 7 months of regular gym visits, I hurt my knee. I blamed it, of course, on my weight. So did my doctor, who, by NYC standards was fairly fat friendly (and that’s why I saw her). The physical therapist, however, who was not American (and I suspect therefore less predisposed to the “it’s your fat” argument), told me the problem was that the muscle in my thigh was so tight, it actually pulled the knee cap, causing an injury. I didn’t know it yet, and wouldn’t for five more years, but I’d just had my first fibromyalgia related injury. To this day, there are times when my thigh muscles (particularly the left one) get so tight they pull the knee cap. This meant no more gym. I could only do the treadmill, and suddenly that was taken away from me, too.

Fast forward another decade. I’m now 37. I dieted repeatedly until 2007, when, after having moved away from NYC (and away from so much fat hating), something in me finally “broke,” and I just knew I couldn’t do it anymore. I spent 18 months working with an eating disorder therapist on Intuitive Eating. It made so much sense. I stopped getting weighed. My weight stabilized. I didn’t really lose much weight, but I stopped the endless cycle of “lose 25, gain 35.” I felt so much better emotionally. I discovered I hated half the foods I binged on. I also hated half the foods I’d forced myself to eat when on Weight Watchers.

I stopped waiting to do things, but… unfortunately, I stopped waiting too late. The fibromyalgia had taken a strong hold on my body, and so many of the dreams I had were crushed. Not by being too fat, but by being too sick. When we first moved to Colorado, I had a dream of climbing a 14er (that’s a mountain over 14,000 feet). It turns out my body doesn’t do well over an elevation of 11k, so that dream would likely never have been realized anyway (and elevation sickness is irrelevant of physical fitness, for those uninitiated with life at high elevations). But I had the dream, and I tried to “train” for it, and realized… it would be too damn painful. I couldn’t do it. It’s not a matter of “suck it up.” It would mean risking injuries.

Today I am in the worst shape of my life. It has little to do with being fat, and much to do with being sick. It is endlessly frustrating to want to do things, to try to do things and to have it hurt so much I shake, and wind up near (or actually in) tears. I think back to the 26 year-old me… to the 15 year-old me… and I want to shake myself. I want to scream…

STOP WEIGHTING.

My body was strong. It did amazing things, and I beat it up over the ONE thing it didn’t want to do… lose weight. I wasted years of health on a fantasy of being thin.

So here is my message to all of you. Regardless of whether or not you still want to actively pursue weight loss, something that is a very personal choice, STOP WAITING TO LIVE. If you have a dream, go for it. Start trying today. You might lose the weight and find you can’t do it for some other reason. You might not lose the weight, and miss your chances… like me. I could’ve done so many things I was waiting to do, and now I’ll never get to do them because of the fibromyalgia. Even if I were to somehow magically lose weight today, my pain is not related to my weight. It wouldn’t make much, if any, difference.

I lost my chance. Don’t make my mistake. Stop weighting. Stop thinking of the things your body can’t do, or the things you think it shouldn’t do (like wearing a bathing suit). Go out there and celebrate all the things your body CAN do!

There are other dreams I have now, ones unrelated to my weight. I just hope the fibromyalgia will let me realize those dreams. I won’t stop fighting, though. I know all too well what happens when you don’t fight to make a dream reality. So, I keep trying. Whether or not I ever get there is irrelevant, really. At least I’ve stopped waiting to try. Finally.

~Jessica

Hi there.

Some years ago I blogged in my “real life,” but it’s been a while. I blogged as Maeander from The Pretty Face back in my Weight Watchers dieting days. Then later, when I first discovered Intuitive Eating I realized I needed an entirely fresh start with a more… positive blog url. Eating My Cake was born, where I blogged as Juliet. Now, with Weighing My Mind I am blogging as myself. Just me. Just Jessica. Oh, my real last name isn’t anywhere on this site, but the truth is I’m not hiding this blog. I’ll share it with people who really know me (or think they do), along with people who only know me online (and often better than those who know me in real life). Some people won’t like what I have to say. I can’t help that. I’m responsible for my feelings alone. I know I am opinionated. I’m also tired. Really, really tired… of what? Glad you asked, since it’s what this blog is all about, really.

I am tired of the feeling that being fat is some sort of crime against humanity. In 2007 I began to work with an eating disorder therapist. I’d battled my weight my entire life. I was put on my first diet at the oh-so-impressionable age of 8. My aunt, who was responsible for that diet, will tell you to this day that she never deprived me. I, as the person on the diet, have another take on that. But I’ll save that story for another time. I believe she meant well (which is progress for me, because for years and years I didn’t). She was misguided and her actions set me on a destructive path of disordered eating that would be a way of life for me for over two decades.

In 2006, I was doing Weight Watchers for probably the fourteenth time. This time, due to a recent move to a rural area, I was doing it entirely online. My body was tired. Years of yo-yo dieting had taken their toll. Add to that various medical issues that make weight gain easier and weight loss harder, and it was a recipe for disaster. I wasn’t losing much weight, even being “perfect.” And let’s face it, “perfection” in anything is fleeting, if even achievable at all. With dieting, “perfection” comes at a bitter price… you wind up crashing and burning, and in many cases – including mine – binges soon follow. Weight gain follows, often more than is lost in the first place. When I – yet again – failed at Weight Watchers I felt despondent. Why couldn’t I do it? I mean, Weight Watchers is the “non-diet” in the dieting industry. You can “eat anything” as long as you count your Points! I had WW leaders who would “tsk tsk” at me. Who didn’t believe I was truly trying, even when I was. Even when my feet ached from walking more miles than I should’ve been attempting. Even when my stomach rumbled because I denied it food when I was truly hungry. I told myself I didn’t know what “hungry” felt like. I told myself it was not true hunger. I failed to realize that my body believed itself to be starved. I failed to realize that it wasn’t my failure. Even WW, as wonderful as it declares itself to be, comes with the “results not typical” disclaimers. Even WW results in far more failures than success stories. So, really… who is failing? The dieters? Or the diet?

Frustrated, I talked to my doctor. She recommended I talk to the dietitian who worked in the same office. So, resolved to figure something new out and desperate for a new path, I went and talked to Kathleen. She put me on a diet. *facepalms* Oh, like most diets, it was masquerading as a “lifestyle choice.” In the end, however, the goal was weight loss. There were “exchanges” to track. There were “meal plans” to inspire me. It didn’t last long. Something inside of me, something deep within, was simply… broken.

In 2007, while researching symptoms my husband had, of what we’d ultimately discover were multiple sclerosis, I discovered a listing of fibromyalgia symptoms. I was stunned. I’d been living with nearly every symptom on the list since late 2001. Like most of the doctors I’d seen, I blamed my weight. I figured I was just “fat and lazy.” I’d heard it enough growing up, after all. Maybe it was true. I’d ignored the pain. The fatigue was harder to ignore, but in 2002 I’d been diagnosed with hypothyroidism (which turned out to be Hashimoto’s Disease). So, I had an explanation for the chronic exhaustion, but I was still ignoring the sleep disturbances. Why? Oh, because I’d been told by an ENT in New York City that I “likely” had sleep apnea. After all, I’m fat. I snore. Combine the two and it seems to be all many doctors require to assume it’s sleep apnea. Only a sleep study done in the summer of 2006 revealed that I had only ever-so-slightly more sleep apnea episodes than a “normal” person would have had. It wasn’t sleep apnea. They did notice some unusual activity in my sleep, though. I didn’t properly cycle in and out of the stages of sleep. This was barely mentioned, but I now believe it is alpha wave intrusion, which is quite common in patients with fibro. It explains why I dream nearly as soon as I fall asleep. It also explains why I’ve not had a single night of sleep where I don’t remember at least parts of my dreams in years. In fact, I usually remember my dreams in vivid, technicolor detail. I wake up feeling as though I’ve spent the night active. It’s a horrendous way to live. Sleep and I used to be good friends. Now we’re enemies.

I think that my diagnosis of fibromyalgia, along with my husband’s MS diagnosis, made me realize life is short and bittersweet. At the same time I was also undergoing fertility treatments in an attempt to live our dream of being parents. It would never happen. I have polycystic ovarian syndrome, which I knew when we began trying to conceive. What I wouldn’t figure out until nearly two years into the process is that I also have endometriosis. The combination pretty much damned me, and after over two years of heartbreak I couldn’t do it anymore. In the fall of 2007, desperate for some clarity and help coping with both the infertility, the fibro, my husband’s MS diagnosis and, maybe more than anything, my struggles with dieting, I found a therapist. Bonnie specialized in eating disorders. I was so nervous the day I went to meet her. I fully and completely expected her “treatment plan” to involve a weight loss program of some sort. I was wrong. She introduced me to Intuitive Eating instead.

Why am I here now? I had “retired” from my IE blogger days in 2009. I didn’t feel like I had anything more to say (ha, never trust a Jersey girl when she says that). Well, as it turns out, I do. I have a lot more to say.

This week I’ve been inspired by a telesummit hosted by Anne Cuthbert. In particular, Ragen Chastain’s talk really inspired me, as have the blog posts I’ve read from her since. It made me realize that I have more I need to work through, more to learn… and more to share.

I welcome you on my journey. I hope it helps you as you take your own journey. Just remember, each of us has to find our own path. My journey is not for you to take anymore than yours is for me to take. We can learn from each other along the way. We can share our stories and adventures. Ultimately, though, when the time comes to continue along the path… only we can take the next steps for ourselves.

~Jessica