Ideal, perfect, just what it’s meant to be

I have gained weight of late. I am bigger now than I have been in perhaps a year. It’s not a huge change – most of my friends can’t notice the difference. But I notice it, and I don’t love it. It’s not a particularly pleasant feeling, when my jeans are tight and my favorite outfits don’t look the way they usually do. And it’s frustrating to know that just a few months ago – three, six, nine – I was slimmer than I am now. Because the slimmer I am, the better.

Right?

A few weeks ago, my roommate’s mother came to visit us. I hadn’t seen her since the last time she was in town, in April. During her April visit, as we walked to dinner, she asked me, seemingly concerned, if I had lost weight lately. I said that I hadn’t been trying to lose weight and that if I had lost any, I hadn’t noticed. On her most recent visit, the same woman noted that I looked really healthy, and that last time she had seen me, she had been worried about me.

What she was really saying was that she had noticed my recent weight gain. And she thought I looked better with a few extra pounds on my frame than I did in April, when I was the slimmest I’ve been in quite some time.

I mulled over her comment for a few days. It was hard to wrap my head around the concept that I looked better after gaining some weight than I did before. Because slimmer is better.

Right?

Slimmer is better. That’s the way we think about weight. Slimmer is better, and no matter how slim you get, you can always go further. You can always drop one more dress size. You can always lose one more pound. You can always look better, hotter, sexier, and you will, when you are skinnier than you are right now.

Except we know that’s not true. We know there is a limit to how much weight one can lose without compromising one’s health. And we know there is a point at which skinny starts to look bad – it’s the point at which it becomes and looks unhealthy. Even so, the doctrine of female beauty states that you can always do more be attractive. You can always exercise more and buy more makeup. You can never do enough. You can never be enough.

It had never occurred to me that I looked better after gaining weight than I did beforehand. The idea was totally foreign to me. Despite the fact that I spend my days thinking about, writing about and pushing back against the doctrine of female beauty, it was difficult for me to wrap my head around this concept, because it runs totally counter to the ideas that women are fed every day of our lives.

When I was about seventeen, during my freshman year of college, I wanted to lose a few pounds. So I emailed the campus nutritionist, who I had seen a few times before, to ask her advice on how to do it safely. Should I exercise more? How many times a week? Should I eat different foods? How much of each food group? She emailed me back that I could make those kinds of adjustments if I wanted to. And then she said something I’ll never forget (though I will have to paraphrase it, because the email has long since disappeared). She said, “just to challenge your thinking, it’s possible that if you are eating a balanced diet and exercising several times a week, you are already at your ideal weight. To lose any more would be fighting nature.”

That did challenge my thinking. A lot. The idea that my current weight was not just acceptable, but ideal – ideal, perfect, just what it was meant to be – was completely alien. The possibility that I was already at my ideal weight, that it wasn’t five pounds or half a dress size or an extra weekly workout away, had never occurred to me. That idea still challenges my thinking. On those days when I look in the mirror and take for granted that I need to lose a few pounds to reach my ideal weight, I have to remind myself of what that nutritionist told me. In a culture where women are told that they can always lose more weight, the idea that this weight right now is ideal, is a very challenging one indeed.

I have gained weight of late. I am bigger now than I have been in perhaps a year. But I eat a balanced diet and I exercise several times a week. This is what my ideal looks like.

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18 Comments

  1. Posted November 11, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Even I’ve felt that sort of pressure. No matter how much I work out or manage my diet, the proverbial spare tire always clings to my middle. I’ve discovered recently, however, that it may be due to a lack of testosterone production more than any lacking of willpower or otherwise on my part.

    My partner is currently seeking to lose weight, from a health standpoint, and I have to hand it to her. She is doing quite well. She’s lost fifteen pounds over the course of a month or so and on this pace will get to her target.

  2. Posted November 11, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I am so glad to see this article. A little over a year ago I started exercising regularly and eating better. And I did lose a bit of weight, but not much. Technically, my BMI is still in the “overweight” range, though not by much, and I feel healthy. I exercise several times a week, ran a half marathon in the spring, and try to eat relatively well. I thought my doctor would be impressed, but all she did at my last physical was punch in height and weight, and comment on how my BMI is still over 25 and told me to “watch the extra calories”. I wish I had this article with me because I would have liked to challenge her thinking, just as your nutritionist did yours, and say, “ it’s possible that if I am eating a balanced diet and exercising several times a week, I am already at my ideal weight. To lose any more would be fighting nature.”

    • Posted November 15, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      Rita, my doctor (and phys ed teacher) used to use the BMI too – and since then it’s been proven to be totally inaccurate:

      http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/64577.php

      You’d think this would be something doctors would clue into…I say if you’re feeling good and you’re healthy (weight or fat =/= unhealthy!) then you’ve got nothing to worry about. :)

    • Posted November 15, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

      I completely agree with Tino. BMI is not accurate all the time for it does not take into account muscle versus fat (muscle weighs more than fat yet takes up 1/3 of the space). I wouldn’t take what your doctor said toopersonal either because doctors aren’t always experts on nutrition or exercise. My father is a physician and only had a one semester class in nutrition, and I’ve had a physician friend who didn’t even know that BMI does not take muscle vs fat percentage. That is not to say all, there are some very excellent doctors out there rounded in many areas and I don’t want to stereotype. And regardless of that, some new studies have been published that even if you are what some consider overweight, if you exercise and eat right you can be much healthier than someone who is model thin but doesn’t exercise and smokes, for example.

  3. Posted November 11, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. I can really relate to this right now as I am also currently heavier than I have been in the past. As a committed feminist I try and try to instill healthy and body positive messages in myself and others, but the notion that I still should be skinnier just won’t go away.

    I’ve also been wrestling with the fact that when I look in the mirror right now, I like the way I look more than I did when I was smaller. This creates cognitive dissonance in me because it’s really hard to conceive that I actually look better at a heavier weight.

  4. Posted November 11, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    This is just so beautiful. And what a fantastic reminder to love our bodies as they are.

  5. Posted November 11, 2010 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Bah. A pox on Western society’s obssesion with being thin. Yet another pox on Western society’s obssesion with making sure that men such as myself feel guilty for wanting to anything other than “thin” or “does not care about his weight”.

    I was monstrously overweight in high school, 5’8″ and 350 lbs. When I finally got sick of being sick all the time, I took up running. In a year I dropped from 350 to 180. Extreme, yes, but there you have it. I was bombarded with “Wow!” and “Whoa!” and “Look at you!” So I kept up running for a few years, going so far as to enter marathons almost every weekend.

    At some point I picked up a barbell in a gym. Things have never been the same since.

    Almost a decade later I weigh 220 lbs, my bodyfat is only 6-10% higher depending on the time of year (I lose more in the winter, isn’t that nuts?), and I’m stronger than ever. And I feel freakin’ great. All of my size Extra Small shirt and size 30 pants are gone, replaced with Large and 40, respectively. I love and care for myself and wouldn’t take back being thin for anything.

    Ahh, but then there is society.

    “Are you on steroids?”

    “Wow, whoa, look at you . . . you . . . you really let yourself go!”

    “Why do you DO that to yourself?”

    And my favorite: “I liked it more when you were thin.”

    Screw thin. Find your happiness and find your HEALTH. Above all else that is what daily exercise and proper diet are about. Society can hate me all day for loving and accepting myself. I’ll see society at the bench press and we’ll see what’s what!

  6. Posted November 11, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    I became involved in the fat acceptance movement after I lost weight. It sickened me to see how much better everyone treated me for shrinking down to an acceptable size. The difference was drastic, like night and day. It was totally messed up, totally unfair.

    Of course, it’s hard to undo all that social programming when it comes to myself. But I’m working on it.

  7. Posted November 11, 2010 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this. I wish I could have read this at twelve.

  8. Posted November 11, 2010 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    I dropped about ten pounds during my sophomore year of college. I wasn’t “trying” and I wasn’t healthy, but this tends to happen when my depression/anxiety issues get so bad that I avoid the dining hall. It freaked me out enough that I got some help. I’m now back at my normal weight and much more healthy, physically and mentally.

    Unfortunately, my parents don’t share the sentiment. I think they view the weight loss as some sort of personal achievement and are disappointed that I gained it back.

    Society: much more omnipresent and oppressing than just the main-stream media.

    Anyway, thanks for this piece. I still need reminding sometimes.

  9. Posted November 11, 2010 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    You know, for thin girls there’s the flipside to that as well. It’s the

    ‘are you getting enough to eat?’
    ‘how do you feel about your body? Any concerns?’
    ‘You’re a bit thin, have some more to eat. . . ‘

    And my favorite, after eating any meal at all that fills my belly:

    ‘Woah! When did you get pregnant!?’

    On the one hand, society expects thin, beautiful girls. Because of this I never had body image issues as a child, but as a teenager and into adulthood friends and family will ask me these questions. Yes, I eat a well-balances diet three times a day (AND snacks!) and yes, I’m exercising regularly. And people ALWAYS notice the food baby.

    There is no perfect, ideal, acceptable body type. There is nothing a woman can do to make herself acceptable to society. If you’re thin, you’re ill; if you’re curvy, you’re fat; if you’re muscled, then you’re too masculine to be attractive.

    • Posted November 14, 2010 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      Teeheehee. Food baby. That one always makes me chuckle.

      I liked this post, but I actually enjoyed all the comments it’s generating even more. I think it’s vitally important that we be constantly refocusing the conversation about “thin/pretty” to “healthy, whatever that means.” Because there’s a lot of b.s. out there about sizes, for people in both camps, and it needs to be drowned out with healthier models. (pun not intended.)

  10. Posted November 11, 2010 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this. I wrote about my own body changes a few months ago (Confessions of the Formerly Thin), and it’s always good to be reminded that others go through the same thing, and that we shouldn’t be in a constant struggle to lose, lose, lose. These days I’m living in Japan, where it seems that everyone is tiny, and I do find myself feeling more self-conscious about my widening hips and larger stomach. But I put little post-it notes with healthy body image messages next to all my mirrors, eat well, and exercise to feel good (not to lose weight), and so far I manage to feel good about my body 90% of the time.

  11. Posted November 11, 2010 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this.

    I lost a lot of weight a couple of years ago and I had a friend who would comment on it every week. I eventually had to tell her that while she thought she was complimenting me, what I felt that she was telling me was that she only saw me as my weight, and we should be close enough to go past that.

  12. Posted November 12, 2010 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    I’ve gone up and down on the scale but now I’m about 50 pounds heavier than I was at age 20. I don’t feel physically any different except for the fact I have to buy bigger sizes and it’s often a pain to find them. The attention I’ve gotten has plummeted, but this is rather a relief than a worry, and could be due to my age since I was at least 30 pounds thinner just a couple of years back and still didn’t get the same level of attention as I did at 20. The things I notice most are the amount of space I take up on a bus or subway seat (but then, why in the world bother with single seats when there are benches the buses could install) and the irritation of not finding clothes I like that fit me. As for people: perhaps they are being polite and minding their own business, as CR can do (thanks, all!). I haven’t heard a thing. And also, I haven’t been listening…

  13. Posted November 12, 2010 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    This is wonderful. It’s always encouraging to read articles like this. I’ve put on a few pounds in the past year or so and at first I didn’t care much and told myself this is me and I just need to be happy with it. Well, lately I haven’t been feeling so great. Trying on clothes that fit fine not too long ago that are now too tight is upsetting. I know I need to exercise again and stop eating junk food, too, but it seems the worse it gets the harder it is to force myself to get motivated. I know I need to find the discipline now, though, before I continue to get worse.

  14. Posted November 12, 2010 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    I love this reflection. I have to say that the fact that weight is commented on so much plays such a huge and frustrating role in emotional issues connect with weight. Until I came to college, I was always extremely thin with no effort. I didn’t even think about weight because I was so thin so effortlessly. My freshman year, I probably gained 15 or 20 pounds, and I was devastated. When I went home to visit my “friends,” one of them literally said to me “Well, we all agree you’ve gained the most weight.” I remember how much I cried and sobbed, how disconnected just that one sentence made me from the people I’d grown up with. The next year, I focused on my health and I lost a lot of weight. I’ll never forget how many comments I got about how good I looked, how much BETTER I looked. It sticks with you. When I gained that weight back a year later. I felt that much worse. I couldn’t stop thinking about that great time in my life when I was skinnier and everyone said I looked better.

    And now again, I’ve lost all that weight and more, but it’s certainly not because of a healthy lifestyle. The weight loss is a result of an inability to eat caused by my anxiety; daily tasks like eating are impossible. Again, everyone comments how good I look. Really? And that hurts too, because it’s a physical marking of the emotional disrupt I’ve been going through, and when I look in the mirror it looks to me that I’ve disappeared and I feel my body deteriorating. But I’m being affirmed daily by people commenting on my body. And now I that I’m working through my anxiety issues and regaining my appetite, every time I eat a proper meal I can’t help but wonder right away if I shouldn’t let go of my anxiety so that I can stay “skinny” or “beautiful.”

  15. Posted November 15, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been struggling with body acceptance myself lately. Playing a varsity sport where the weight in the boat really matters and that extra 10 pounds can be the difference between winning a race and not even placing, I’ve felt an individual pressure to lose weight for my team in a way I never have.

    My coach is fantastic about not pressuring people in that sense, instead focusing on test times and how people are improving. This is a HUGE improvement from when I played basketball in my freshman year, which ended up with knee surgery and significant weight gain from a lack of support and the coach telling captains outright how much weight she thought each player needed to lose. (Then again, she was fired halfway through my freshman year, so it shows how much the team thought of her in general.)

    Being the tallest and probably the largest girl in the program is difficult at times, particularly if you’re not pulling good enough times to actually participate in races. Feeling like you have 30 pounds on the next “big” girl is difficult, especially if that feels like the reason you’re not in the boat. That motivation to keep the boat moving quickly is a great reason for me to keep on the leaner side of my healthy weight, but once that isn’t there it’s easy to feel as if I should just be content with being the team fatty.

    At 6′ and fluctuating between 185 and 195, it really feels as if I’m not in control of how much I eat or weigh, but the team mentality is in control. In some respects it’s good, because when I’m in the boat I think about how much each chocolate chip cookie is worth versus a gold medal at States, basically leading to better food choices. But when I’m not in the boat that depression sets in and I feel like my body follows suit.

    I can’t help but feel that if I don’t become more accepting of my doughy-looking 195 pound self I’ll just end up in the same emotional place I was at 235 pounds two years ago.

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