I will never forget the night my 6’3″ tall, slender brother and his even taller, slender friend bought two tickets for the 7:15 p.m. showing of the movie “Troy,” starring an unusually ripped and rippled Brad Pitt. At 10:30 that same night my phone rang, and I heard my brother say to me, “My friend and I have decided that we need to go to the gym. We think we need to get in shape.”
They went out for a night of light cinematic escapism and came back with body esteem issues. Two perfectly healthy, well adjusted, intelligent, funny, fit, and loving human beings had not changed that much in just three hours — at least on the outside. But something on the inside had obviously changed.
The American Heart Association reports that as of January 2010, 58 percent of Americans want to improve their health this year. Compare that with the more than 70 percent of women who resolve to lose weight each year, and the 95 percent of successful dieters who turn right around and pack it all back on — and then some — within five years of concluding their diet.
Add to that my brother’s “Troy” experience, and I can’t help but wonder — could we perhaps be confusing our obsession with sleek thighs, six-pack abs, toned behinds, and smaller sizes with something called “health”?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines “health” as a “state of complete physical, mental, and social well being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” To the WHO, health is a fluid, ongoing, ever-evolving, multi-level process which has less to do with appearance and more to do with comprehensive bio-psycho-social functionality.
Consider this — when we are little, we are aware of our body as a functional entity. It runs when we want to run, jumps when we want to jump, sleeps when we want to sleep. As long as it works, we are perfectly happy with it.
As a child, I was of this mindset myself until a few weeks into my sixth grade year, when my best friend since kindergarten informed me in front of a cafeteria full of our peers that I was “too fat to fit into the social circle she wanted to run with.” She then requested – politely – that I refrain from telling others that we knew each other. Stunned into silence, I could only nod and acquiesce.
In that moment, any such working definition as I may have had of “health” ala the WHO instantly changed. In fact, in that moment, health on any other level was no longer of any consequence — size was all that mattered. I was “too big.” I needed to “get smaller.” If I didn’t do this, I was in danger of never being accepted, wanted, valued, included, loved. Sadly, I even found myself feeling grateful for the heads-up, accompanied as it was by such crystalline clear-cut instructions for what to do about it.
I had no idea that my former BFF’s obsession with shape and size was as far removed from health as Alaska is from Antarctica. She was insecure. She was attempting to pawn her insecurity off on me. She tossed me a boomerang of self-doubt and fear, and I, ever the loyal and well-meaning friend, unwittingly caught it. I caught it to the tune of a fifteen-year battle with the deadliest of all adolescent psychiatric diseases — an eating disorder. It is only in recent years that I have come to understand that I am not alone in that.
As a society, we are making it into a national pastime to keep catching others’ boomerangs. We watch a television program featuring thin actors, and we catch the media company’s leveraged doubt about ratings and advertising dollars. We hang out with a friend who orders a carb-free lunch and we walk out with two doggie bags — one with our tasty leftovers and one with her boomerang of self-loathing in it. We look in the mirror, compare what we see with the malnourished, airbrushed supermodel on the cover of last month’s high fashion magazine, and our forehead smarts from where our own boomerang of body fear has hit us right between our own eyes.
Size Does Not Equal Health
Through my recovery process, I have since learned the hard way that “size” does not equal “health,” that all bodies are not meant to look the same, and that that is not just okay but as it was always supposed to be. I have even learned to like it — to appreciate variety in my own body and in the bodies of others around me. I have also learned what happens to a boomerang if I don’t catch it — it returns to its owner, who then has the chance to confront her (or his) own health versus size issues face-to-face. This is a gift, not just to the boomerang’s owner but to myself. For this reason more than any other, I now throw boomerangs back on a daily basis.
Today, eschewing the constant boomerangs of BMI (body mass index) measurements, department store mannequin comparisons, peer commentary (compliments or otherwise), or the never-ending stream of diet and weight loss advice coming at me from every possible medium, I now return to the basics of health as defined by the child-me, with a little help from the WHO.
Today I know the difference between health and size, and I much prefer to focus on the former. Do my knees work? Yup. Elbows? Sure do. Can I run, jump, play, and sleep soundly? Sure can. Do I have the energy I need to do the things I want to do and dream the dreams that matter most to me? I do. Would I like to be a hair thinner? Sure, sometimes I do. Do I care that a part of me that (inexplicably) fondly remembers fifteen years of eating disordered hell still wants that? Not particularly. Do I listen to her? Of course — she is a part of me and deserves my respect — but I only listen to empathize, give her a hug, and express sadness that her wishes cannot be fulfilled. I listen, and then I explain to her again that life isn’t always fair, we don’t always get everything we want, and sometimes hard choices — like the choice between health and size – must be made. I gently remind her that that is not only what it means to be an adult, but that is also what it means to be a human. Especially a human living in this size-obsessed world, a world that has forgotten that health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well being, independent of shape or the number on a scale.
Then I hug her one more time, reassure her that she is never alone on her journey, and hand-in-hand we set off once more on our shared adventure to find and experience “health” free from any stray boomerangs… or any taint of “smaller.”