Thursday, December 11, 2014

Q&A Thursday: Body Image & Weight Loss

Today's question is in regards to my post last week about my weight loss.

I am curious about your overall philosophy about weight and body image. I have heard several people (well-known bloggers, included) share strong opinions that, in essence, it doesn't matter how much you weigh; it matters that you love yourself, and it is a bad thing to focus on weight loss and the number of pounds you are or want to be. Personally, I think this is silly, but I can't pinpoint why, and I don't know where my personal opinions even originate. It is possible I simply have given in to "society's" messages of beauty and thin women?

I'm so grateful to be answering this question.  I understand what you are saying.  I've read some blogs of women who are adamant that to even think about losing weight is a betrayal of their body.  I remember one saying something like "I exercise to thank my body, not to change it," which is a nice sentiment, but if you think about it, the whole point of exercise IS to change your body -- to get your heart pumping, to move your muscles, to build a stronger heart and better blood carrying capacities, to build your muscular endurance, to build fitness.  If weight loss doesn't come along with that or isn't the main purpose, then fine, but the very act of exercise does change the body in positive ways.  It is a gift you give your body and a gift you give those around you who are the beneficiaries of a stronger, healthier you.

As I thought through your question more, I decided there are six principles of body image I believe in:

#1  Our bodies are God-given gifts.  We are stewards of them.  

#2  Our world today is awash in harmful messages that encourage indulgence, exploitation, abuse, self-hatred, and extreme behaviors regarding our bodies.  

#3  We should work to have a loving attitude towards the body we have been given, whatever its limitations or its current condition.

#4  One of the purposes of life here on earth is to learn how to be masters of our appetites.  

#5  Regular, consistent exercise is a better indication of health than body size or shape

#6  Caring for the body is only one of many good things we should be doing in our lives.  Wisdom and order is needed in knowing where to put our efforts.  Caring well for our bodies makes it possible for us to do more in other aspects of our lives.

I'll cover each principle in turn.

#1  Our bodies are God-given gifts.  We are stewards of them. 
I believe that our bodies are given to us to house our spirits.  Our spirits lived with God before we came to earth.  I believe that God is our Father and that life here on earth is a blessing and a gift.  We are given the ability to choose the direction of our life and our body is the vehicle for that.  Some bodies are stronger, healthier, and more physically beautiful than others, while others struggle with deformities, disabilities, and other limitations.  Whatever our personal limitations, God expects us to do the best with what we have been given.  I believe we will one day be held accountable for what we have chosen to do with and to our bodies.  Do we treat our body as the gift it is, or do we constantly put ourselves down, focus on our supposed flaws, or covet someone else's hair, shape, or fitness?
Children naturally find so much joy in having a body -- can we learn from them?

#2  Our world today is awash in harmful messages that encourage indulgence, exploitation, abuse, self-hatred, and extreme behaviors regarding our bodies.  

Our media is absolutely obsessed with promoting an obsession with female beauty that focuses on youth, specific shapes that most are not genetically programmed to have, and sex appeal.  It can be hard to raise daughters in such a world.  One of the best talks I've ever heard on this subject is from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland.  He says,

In this same vein may I address an even more sensitive subject. I plead with you young women to please be more accepting of yourselves, including your body shape and style, with a little less longing to look like someone else. We are all different. Some are tall, and some are short. Some are round, and some are thin. And almost everyone at some time or other wants to be something they are not! But as one adviser to teenage girls said: “You can’t live your life worrying that the world is staring at you. When you let people’s opinions make you self-conscious you give away your power. … The key to feeling [confident] is to always listen to your inner self—[the real you.]” 8 And in the kingdom of God, the real you is “more precious than rubies.” 9 Every young woman is a child of destiny and every adult woman a powerful force for good. I mention adult women because, sisters, you are our greatest examples and resource for these young women. And if you are obsessing over being a size 2, you won’t be very surprised when your daughter or the Mia Maid in your class does the same and makes herself physically ill trying to accomplish it. We should all be as fit as we can be—that’s good Word of Wisdom doctrine. That means eating right and exercising and helping our bodies function at their optimum strength. We could probably all do better in that regard. But I speak here of optimum health; there is no universal optimum size. 
Frankly, the world has been brutal with you in this regard. You are bombarded in movies, television, fashion magazines, and advertisements with the message that looks are everything! The pitch is, “If your looks are good enough, your life will be glamorous and you will be happy and popular.” That kind of pressure is immense in the teenage years, to say nothing of later womanhood. In too many cases too much is being done to the human body to meet just such a fictional (to say nothing of superficial) standard. As one Hollywood actress is reported to have said recently: “We’ve become obsessed with beauty and the fountain of youth. … I’m really saddened by the way women mutilate [themselves] in search of that. I see women [including young women] … pulling this up and tucking that back. It’s like a slippery slope. [You can’t get off of it.] … It’s really insane … what society is doing to women.” 10 
In terms of preoccupation with self and a fixation on the physical, this is more than social insanity; it is spiritually destructive, and it accounts for much of the unhappiness women, including young women, face in the modern world. And if adults are preoccupied with appearance—tucking and nipping and implanting and remodeling everything that can be remodeled—those pressures and anxieties will certainly seep through to children. At some point the problem becomes what the Book of Mormon called “vain imaginations.” 11 And in secular society both vanity and imagination run wild. One would truly need a great and spacious makeup kit to compete with beauty as portrayed in media all around us. Yet at the end of the day there would still be those “in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers” as Lehi saw, 12 because however much one tries in the world of glamour and fashion, it will never be glamorous enough. 
A woman not of our faith once wrote something to the effect that in her years of working with beautiful women she had seen several things they all had in common, and not one of them had anything to do with sizes and shapes. She said the loveliest women she had known had a glow of health, a warm personality, a love of learning, stability of character, and integrity. If we may add the sweet and gentle Spirit of the Lord carried by such a woman, then this describes the loveliness of women in any age or time, every element of which is emphasized in and attainable through the blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Jeffrey R. Holland)
#3  We should work to have a loving attitude towards the body we have been given, whatever its limitations or its current condition.

I think Elder Holland hit on this principle above, but I wanted to add an analogy.  Imagine, for a moment, that you have just purchased a new home with a beautiful yard.  You are so excited because you know that this yard has so much potential.  It has room for your kids to play games, room for you to host gatherings and build friendships, and space for quiet contemplation.  But the yard also has some problems.  Parts of the soil are pretty infertile, some parts have been overtaken with weeds, and other places need some good shade trees.  With limited time and money, you can't fix everything the way you want it to be right now, but you can do some things and you are anxious to get started.

Now, for a moment, imagine that this yard isn't a yard at all but rather is your body.  You've been given a gift that will allow you to serve others, to build friendships and even to create life.  It isn't perfect, it has flaws and problems, some of them more visible than others, but it is a great gift and it has great potential.

Now think about some of the philosophies that women have about body image as it relates to the yard.  How about the idea that if you love your body, you would accept it exactly as it is and never notice the flaws?  Think about this in terms of your yard.  Would you decide that if you were to focus on improving your yard, that would show ingratitude towards it?  If you cut the grass and pull out the weeds, are you showing hatred towards the yard?
I don't clear the brush because I hate my yard, but because I enjoy it and want to make it better.

What about having an unhealthy obsession with how you look?  Can you imagine someone becoming so obsessed with their yard that they spend hours in it daily, making sure that it never shows a flaw?  Maybe they never let anyone see it unless it has been recently trimmed and weeded.  Maybe they decide the fact that leaves fall from some of the trees is unacceptable, so they replace the tree with an artificial one.  The might decide the grass isn't green enough and so they need some artificial turf installed and some plastic flowers.  They might neglect the many, many other things that should be part of their lives in their obsession with their yard.  They might subscribe to all the latest magazines with page after page of Photoshopped yards showing what perfection should entail. They might decide to rip out parts of the yard and replace it with the plants that a celebrity's yard has.

Or what if you don't go to that extreme, but you often think and worry that your yard doesn't measure up to anyone else's.  When your friends are over and compliment you about your beautiful flowers, do you point out that you hate your yard and wish it were better?  Do you point towards the areas that need to be improved and say, "Now, if I could just lose those ten ugly bushes over there, then I'd be truly happy with this yard."

It's an interesting thought exercise, isn't it?  We could probably go on with different problems women face in regards to body image (and if you think of more, feel free to share them in the comments!), but instead, let's return to that adequate and wonderful yard and think about what a healthy attitude towards it be?  To me, a healthy attitude would involve seeing it as a blessing and an opportunity and making use of it to bless my life and the lives of those around me.  It would involve spending time regularly tending to it, cutting the grass, pulling weeds, trimming bushes, planting flowers.   The point of this would be yes, to change the yard, but more importantly, to show that I am a good steward of the gift I've been given.  Occasionally,  I might decide that I have the time and energy to work on some of the bigger problems in the yard -- I might tear out some of the ugly trees, build a fence, or cut out those ten ugly bushes that have always bothered me.  But I'd also not be obsessed with how my yard looks or in constantly comparing it to other people's.  I'd learn to be patient and realize that things like shade trees take time to grow.  I'd make use of my yard in the meantime and not obsess about some future day when I will finally be happy with the way my yard looks.

I'm sure you can see from the paragraph above what I think a healthy body image looks like.  It means accepting and loving your body the way it is, yes, but also understanding and knowing what things about it require attention and being willing to work on those areas.  It doesn't mean that you hate yourself when you are overweight or when you eat too much junk food, but it does mean understanding that having a healthy body does contribute to a better life for you and those around you and working within your own times and seasons to build towards a consistent, healthy lifestyle.  It means not obsessing about ten pounds here or there, not worrying about what others look like, not trying to artificially change something, and being happy just to be alive.

Like with our yards, there are some things we really can't change about our bodies.  You can't change the climate in a yard in Maine, for example, to be like the climate in Florida.  And so it would be ridiculous to try to make your yard look like one in Florida.

No matter how much weight I lose, I will always have extra skin around my middle.  My skin there has been stretched eight times to create life and it's permanently stretched.  In fact, because I grew so much with the twins, I've even had extra skin below my big belly on subsequent pregnancies.  I also have a lot of stretch marks.  None of these things bother me a bit.  They don't interfere with my life or my ability to function.  I don't think they make me ugly, though they do mean my body will never conform to the pictures I might compare them to in magazines, if that kind of thing mattered to me.

I kind of like my extra skin and my stretch marks, and maybe even some of my extra weight.  They are a sign, like the gray hairs I'm starting to find on my head, that I've lived.  I've used my body to bring nine wonderful souls into this world.  I've used my hands to nurture them, my feet to carry them to wonderful places, and my belly and breasts to give them life and nourishment.  I've lived a physical life these thirty-seven years.  I've filled my days.

Someday, I will be resurrected and I wonder if those marks will remain.  I find it significant that when Christ was resurrected, He showed his body to His disciples and friends with the nail prints in His hands and feet.  I'm sure He could have chosen to remove those marks, but to His disciples and to all of us, He retained them as a symbol of His love and sacrifice for us.  My own marks are not quite as deep and didn't cause me as much agonizing pain, but they are also meaningful.

#4  One of the purposes of life here on earth is to learn how to be masters of our appetites.
We learn from the scriptures that we are here to learn mastery, to choose to do the right thing even when it's difficult and to face temptation.  We work to overcome lust and greed.  We try to avoid covetousness.  We work to become masters of our tempers and our jealousies.  These are all natural feelings, appetites that we have simply because we are human.  But as we work to become master of these things, we can learn to be patient even when we're tired, to respond kindly when someone is rude to us, to be happy for someone who gets something we had hoped for instead of jealous, etc.

I'm sure you can see where I'm headed with this one.  It takes diligence and work to become better in any aspect of our lives.  Improving our fitness and overcoming poor eating habits is no different.  And just like some of us are more prone to temper or jealousy than others, some of us have more trouble controlling our cravings for sweets and our aversion to exercise.  But whatever challenges we have been given, we can change, improve, and work to overcome them.  It might not result in the skinniest of bodies or the best-balanced diets, but it will make us better than we were before, and that counts for something.

I do want to add that one thing that's hard about weight is that it's such a visible thing and for some, it's so easy to judge that someone who is obese must be lazy or eat too much.  But you can never know from where you stand what that person has been through or what background they come from. And they might be masters of attributes and passions that you struggle with.  There are also real medical, mental, and genetic problems that make weight loss virtually impossible for some.  I wish we could all accept and love each other without the judgment.

One thing I love about God is that He is all-knowing and loving and that He understands what circumstances we've been given and expects us to do the best we can with what we have, not compared to some artificial standard set by someone else.  I read a while back a book about a woman who grew up in an abusive home, with a mother who was pretty neglectful, had a tough temper, and had some mental health issues.  The daughter grew up with hatred towards her mother and really struggled to forgive.  Then one day, she spoke to a wise leader.  She told him about her mother and shared with him about her mother's background.  This mother had grown up with horrible physical and sexual abuse from her own father and was damaged as a result.  "I see," said the leader, "so in many ways, your mother was your savior."  What?  thought the author.  Didn't you hear about the abuse and neglect I endured?  How could she be my savior?   Then the leader pointed out that this daughter had never had to suffer from physical or sexual abuse and that though her upbringing was far from ideal, her mother had saved her from the abuse she herself had suffered.  Though she hadn't provided a perfect environment, she had improved greatly the atmosphere in her own home from the one she was raised from.  From that conversation, the author was able to see things in a new way and begin to forgive and heal.

I share that story to point out two things.  The first is, for some people, weight loss and fitness may be the least of what they have to deal with in trying to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.  The second is to point out that some of us may have come from tough backgrounds where healthy eating was never modeled.  It's much easier for those who have had balanced nutrition and regular exercise modeled for them to incorporate those naturally into their lives than for those who have grown up with emotional eating, fast food and constant snacking.  Where ever you are, please know and accept yourself as a child of God and understand that He knows where you can and should make improvements and where you may just need to be content with being better than the generation before you.
#5  Regular, consistent exercise is a better indication of health than body size or shape
I've read a lot about fitness and exercise over the years.  I love to learn and so I've read a half dozen books on running and training, a couple of books about exercise, and I've subscribed to Runner's World on and off.  One very encouraging principle that I've seen many times is the fact that despite our culture's obsession with BMI, regular exercise is a much better indicator of health than the number on the scale.

Here's a sampling of articles:

Research that does tease apart weight and fitness — like a series of studies conducted by Steven Blair at the Cooper Institute in Dallas — shows that being fat and fit is better, healthwise, than being thin and unfit. Regular aerobic exercise may not lead to weight loss, but it does reduce fat in the liver, where it may do the most metabolic damage, according to a recent study at the University of Sydney.
“More often than not, cardiovascular fitness is a far more important predictor of mortality risk than just knowing what you weigh,” said Glenn Gaesser, author of “Big Fat Lies” and director of the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center at Arizona State University.
In 2005, an epidemiologist, Katherine Flegal, analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and found that the biggest risks of death were associated with being at either end of the spectrum — underweight or severely obese. The lowest mortality risks were among those in the overweight category (B.M.I.s of 25 to 30), while moderate obesity (30 to 35) offered no more risk than being in the normal-weight category.  (New York Times -- this whole article is really good)

Researchers analyzed nearly 100 studies that included more than 2.8 million people. While obese people had a higher risk of death -- particularly those whose BMI was 35 or more -- overweight people had a 6% lower risk of death than those of normal weight. 
"Because this bias against weight has been so prevalent, it's really been unquestioned, and I think this concept that thin is healthy and fat is not healthy is clearly not true," said Michelle May, a physician and author of "Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat."

The researchers examined data on 43,265 participants enrolled in the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study between 1979 and 2003, who filled out questionnaires about their lifestyle and medical history and also underwent physical exams, blood tests and a treadmill test to gauge their cardiovascular fitness. The researchers categorized obese participants as “metabolically healthy” if, aside from their weight, they didn’t suffer from insulin resistance, diabetes, low levels of good cholesterol, high triglycerides and high blood pressure. Nearly half of the obese participants in the study qualified as metabolically fit.
Compared with obese people who had at least two of the above markers of poor health, those who were obese but metabolically healthy had a 38% lower risk of early death from any cause. In fact, those who were fat but fit had no higher death risk than metabolically healthy normal weight participants.
I find these articles so encouraging.  To me, they say, no matter what your weight or your weight goals, if you start to move more, you'll be healthier and stronger.  They also confirm Elder Holland's quote above, "We should all be as fit as we can be—that’s good Word of Wisdom doctrine. That means eating right and exercising and helping our bodies function at their optimum strength. We could probably all do better in that regard. But I speak here of optimum health; there is no universal optimum size."

Speaking for myself, it's been a lot easier to love and accept my body and its size (even while trying to lose weight) when I'm exercising regularly.  It's hard to be down on a body that's thirty pounds overweight when that same body can cross the finish line of a marathon, hike several miles carrying a toddler on its back, or successfully nurture and give birth to a perfect little baby.

So, no matter where you are today, exercise!  Exercise to change your body and your health. Exercise will help you have more energy, live longer, and feel better, no matter what your size.  If you lose weight, great.  If not, you can decide for yourself how much of a problem weight is in your life and how much effort you need to put towards losing at this point in your life.  You may need to make other changes to realize weight loss.  But weight loss or not, exercise is awesome.

#6  Caring for the body is only one of many good things we should be doing in our lives.  Wisdom and order is needed in knowing where to put our efforts.  Caring well for our bodies makes it possible for us to do more in other aspects of our lives.

I think this one is self-explanatory.  Becoming too obsessed with weight or fitness is unhealthy because it takes away from living a balanced, happy life.  It is possible to become too obsessed with eating and exercise.  It's also possible to be not obsessed enough.  Finding your own balance for your own season in life is your own challenge.  Being fit may not mean running for you; it may mean walking and hiking with your kids.  It may be that your life is full of stress right now -- you might be moving, have a new baby, have a child with a disability, or be having relationship problems.  Weight loss may be a bad idea for you to take on in the midst of that kind of stress.  It may have to wait for a better time.  Over time, though, as you develop good habits of eating and exercise, you'll find things that work for you.  And you'll find that taking care of your body gives you more energy to take care of the other things in your life.


Thanks again for your question, BJ.  I hope my answer was helpful.  And now I'd love to hear from you, dear readers.  What are your thoughts about body image and weight loss?  What have you found to help you develop good eating and fitness habits?  How have the times and seasons in your lives meant differences in the kinds of things you do to take care of your body?  Any point you think I missed?


Liz Wheeler said...

This is so great! I will make exercise a higher priority, even just a little bit. Sometimes I think, "well, if I can't fit serious exercise in today, then I'll just skip exercise all together," whereas even just a 20 minute walk with kids in the stroller is better than nothing. The other thing I've learned is that if someone really is trying to lose weight, changing the quality and quantity of food they eat will give the best results over exercise. I say that simply because people start exercising to lose weight, don't have success and give up. It's best to keep the exercise as it gives you strength, stamina, health, but weight loss is 90% about the food you eat.

Jenny Evans said...

Love the yard analogy. Filing it away for a future FHE. I think we've done the best we could to raise our girls without an unhealthy emphasis on looks/weight (we've never even owned a scale and always talk in terms of health vs. looks), but they get exposed to those messages anyway through school, advertising, and other people. Good to have a concrete metaphor our kids can relate to - and we make them work in the yard all summer so they can definitely relate to this!

bjahlstrom said...

Thank you SO MUCH for answering my question! I love the thought you put into it. It helped me a lot.


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