Wellness Wednesday: The Thin Myth

Do you subscribe to the Thin Myth? The idea that life will be better after you lose weight? Todays post is a reminder that fantasy isn't always reality.

The Thin Myth: The not always happy reality of weight loss

This American Life is one of my favorite podcasts, so when I learned their recent episode was about rethinking fat, I had to listen immediately. Other than a twinkie joke that was in very poor taste, I thought it was really well done. They included interviews with two authors who discussed their experience being fat, as well as a piece on a weight loss program at a Christian college which basically could have been called pray the fat away.

Sandwiched in the middle was a piece featuring Elna Baker, a writer and stand up comedian who shared her story of losing 110 pounds. I don't want to give too much away, but I could share every detail and it wouldn't be anywhere near as heartbreaking as hearing it come from her own mouth. You can listen it here or read the jist of it here.

Her story starts as most weight loss stories do. She grew up in a larger body, and although she had been pretty content with life, she hit a place right out of college where she was struggling to find a job in the TV industry and realized that despite having lots of male friends, she had never been in a serious relationship. She saw her thinner friends get boyfriends and jobs and all the things she wanted and wondered, "is it because I'm fat?"

So, she went on a diet.

In a short period of time, she lost 110 pounds. Soon after, she got some of those things she wanted, including an intro level job at a TV show and dates with cute guys. But it wasn't all happy. Despite getting these things she wanted so deeply, she was so heartbroken and disillusioned after realizing she had been treated differently because of her size all her life.

The part that made me cry (while running outside no less..it got weird), was when she realized that although she got so many of the things she wanted, she actually felt less secure in her body. Part of it was the extra skin for which she had four excruciating surgeries to remove. She notes "I still look like a flying squirrel when I raise my arms." But the biggest source of her discomfort was the fact that she still felt like "old Elna" was the "real Elna." At one point she says she would feel more comfortable wearing a fat suit. Based off a few conversations with clients and friends, I think this is a common feeling among those who have lost a significant amount of weight. I imagine it's similar to the feeling of being a lottery winner or becoming famous. Suddenly, you have this thing that other people want. People like you and want to be around you, but is it genuine? Do they like the real you?

In the end, she wonders if she would have been happier had she never lost the weight.

"I was happy when I was overweight. I had no idea I should feel sad. I was free before. I had trained myself not to care what other people thought, and I had done a good job of it."

She had recently read Lindy West's book, Shrill. Lindy was the fat acceptance activist who opened the show. In reading her book, she realized Lindy got all the things she had wanted - an attractive husband, a highly desirable job, a book deal. She got these things after choosing to accept her body as it is, not dieting.

Essentially, every day since I became a dietitian (and many days before), I have talked to someone who wants to lose weight. Some want to lose pretty minuscule amounts. Others have more significant goals. Some say health is their motivator, others say aesthetics.

Everyone who wants to lose weight has some dream of what life will be like in their new, smaller body. Some have pretty intricate fantasies, while others are tied to the loose notion that life with just somehow be better. In reality, as someone who has been 10 pounds heavier and 10 pounds lighter than I am now, I can tell you 10 pounds doesn't change a damn thing. Having never been in a heavier body, I hesitate to comment on that. From what I know from the experiences of others, while some aspects of life may improve, it often brings a new set of issues to light. Elna's story is the perfect example. 

The thin myth is dangerous because it's why so many people get wrapped up in weight loss goals to the point where they do dangerous things to achieve it. It's why health takes a back seat to a number on the scale. Not only that but daydreaming about this thin fantasy life is a complete and total distraction from present day life, which is probably quite nice if you're actually living it, undistracted by dreams of a thinner life. When you can see weight loss for what it is, just living in a smaller body with all the good and bad of your present day life, you'll stop wasting so much time fantasizing and actually start living.

One thing that's always life changing for the better? Choosing self acceptance and making lifestyle changes that honor your health.In my practice, we put weight loss to the side and focus on nourishment, health and making peace with food. You may lose weight as a result (or maybe not -  who knows what your natural weight is), but I can guarantee you that your life will be happier and healthier as a result.

Are you stuck believing in the thin myth? Ask yourself what specifically do you think you'll gain by losing weight? Get as detailed as possible. Now, fact check. Are these really things you have to lose weight to achieve, or could you start to pursue them now? Be honest with yourself. What would you lose or compromise or lose by going on a diet? Is it worth it?

When you critically think about the thin myth you've been telling yourself, weight loss starts to lose it's aura of importance. Deprioritizing weight loss isn't the same thing as giving up, it's simply giving yourself the space to discover a genuinely happier and healthier life, not one in which health and happiness relies on an arbitrary number on the scale.

Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!