“I’m glad I got you and not the bigger one.”
I was working as an intern to become a registered dietitian (RD) when a patient said this to me. I was in his hospital room to chat with this man about how to eat healthier after a heart attack. He was talking about a dietitian who was training me, and who yes, would be classified by body mass index (BMI) as overweight. I wrestled with it for a bit, but then decided to just tell him what I had learned: that the “overweight” RD was from a family that really struggled with weight issues. That she had been treated for an eating disorder growing up. That she ate healthier than me, was fitter than me, and could take the nine flights of stairs in the hospital where I was training like it was no big deal. That she was probably the better of the two of us to be in his room.
His response: “Wow, that’s amazing. Good for her. But I’d still rather talk to you.”
Sadly, not much has changed since then. We say we want to be “healthy” or “strong” when what we really mean is that we want to be “skinny.” We hear that what we eat impacts how productive we are at work, and we become obsessed with discovering superfoods and macros and diet hacking our way to unattainable career perfection. And despite all of this work, we still criticize our own appearance all day, every day – because no matter how fit we are, or how much our cholesterol and blood pressure levels have improved, we still struggle to move past the idea that healthy = skinny.
I have had to explain to many clients that even when they have a healthy body fat level and are physically fit, they will still not be the size that they imagine is ideal. Other clients who struggle with painful medical issues are regularly lauded and asked advice by friends who see their body size and assume the client has discovered some special technique to be healthy. Or, a women’s body has fallen into what her particular peer group and family has deemed as “too skinny,” for which she will be subjected to a constant barrage of uninvited advice and passive aggressive commentary. If we are to move past a subjective ideal of size as equaling health, it will take a concerted from all of us to break this stressful, toxic mold.
Stop Looking In The Mirror
Yes, you will probably have better luck at making sure your shirt is buttoned properly and there is not lettuce stuck between your teeth if you look in a mirror. Use a mirror to get ready in the morning and to check in with that suspicious lettuce situation after you eat. Do not spend 5 minutes looking and adjusting yourself in the mirror every time you head to the office restroom, or whenever your reflection pops up in a storefront window. A quick check often leads to additional assessments of our size, which leads to dissatisfaction among even the fittest of us. It is difficult to be productive at work if we can’t get the thought of our body size out of our heads.
Raise Each Other Up
We all know people who have talked about their “wake-up call” after someone commented on their weight and went on to a better, healthier, wealthier life. And yes, that can happen. But after being in this game for seventeen years, I can tell you that this story rarely plays out well. Negative comments about body size can increase risk for depression and binge eating, and actually increase resistance to making nutrition or exercise changes. Those who as children had adults making negative comments about body size to them may be dealing with significant body image issues going back decades and are unlikely to make adjustments because you have suddenly decided to be “concerned” about their health. Instead, providing support and using positive comments about appearance can help us all get past the fear of being judged on a subjective factor like size instead of our actual work performance.
Let Your Nutrition Fuel You, Not Rule You
Articles abound on how to make smart nutrition decisions to fuel your busy days. Many of these articles provide great information. However, there is a fine line between planning out meals to feel better and to have more focus, versus planning out meals to stay within a strict clothing size (is that even possible with current manufacturer sizing practices?), or refusing to deviate from that meal plan for any occasion. I see more and more clients who have developed an unhealthy obsession with eating a specific way, known as orthorexia. Being focused on one specific size or shape as healthy can serve as gateway to this overly restrictive lifestyle, but orthorexia often goes unrecognized because the person – you guessed it – “looks healthy”. If you start to see that every decision you make at work and home is determined by your meals and eating habits, take a step back to reassess whether you are letting your food choices rule your life.
The saying “it takes a village” rings true when fighting against the urge to see one body size as ideal. One of us alone will face a difficult journey in combatting the constant barrage of images telling us what size we should be. Too big? Bad. Too skinny? Bad. Too muscled? Bad. Not muscled enough? Bad. It will take all of us together to decide that living a good life means yes, eating decently and getting some exercise, but also being happy with we are today and using food and exercise as a way to enhance that happiness, rather than as one more stressful part of our lives. It is one thing for each of us to believe that our body size does not define us. It is another, more powerful thing all together if we extend that belief to our coworkers and friends.