The Disordered Side of “Tackling Obesity”
As you’ve probably guessed, I have been hella busy for the last few weeks. It’s been a mad patch at work – which I’m not complaining about, because mad for me usually means I get to do a whole bunch of fun stuff – but I’ve been having to work hard to squeeze in me-time around everything else.
However, I read this article a couple of weeks ago, and frankly, it took me a few days to process exactly how I felt about it. Here’s an excerpt:
Teens who were once overweight or obese are at a significant risk of developing an eating disorder as they lose weight, but identification and treatment of the condition is often delayed because of their weight history, researchers say.[…]
It’s a “new, high-risk population that is under-recognized,” says Hagman, medical director of the eating disorders program at Children’s Hospital Colorado, who was not involved in the new report.
The kids she sees in this condition “are just as ill in terms of how they are thinking” as they are in terms of physical ailments, she says. “They come in with the same fear of fat, drive for thinness, and excessive exercise drive as kids who would typically have met an anorexia nervosa diagnosis. But because they are at or a even a little bit above their normal body weight, no one thinks about that.”
These cases are no surprise, says Lynn Grefe, president of the National Eating Disorders Association. “Our field has been saying that the more we’re pushing the anti-obesity message, the more we’re pushing kids into eating disorders” by focusing on size or weight instead of health and wellness.
Now, I don’t want to go all I-told-you-so on things, because I’ll admit – I didn’t say this outright. And I don’t for a second want to suggest that making an effort to get healthy is a bad idea, because for me, it’s been life-changing in an amazing way. I couldn’t walk; now I can deadlift my own body weight. It’s all good.
However, this situation seems to me like the logical piecing together of a puzzle I’ve been trying to figure out for a while. The body shaming; the designed-for-failure diet culture; the snarking, the control issues and the lack of focus on all-round wellbeing… It all kinda adds up to this worst-case scenario.
And I’ll admit – part of the reason that I was a little torn on my thinking when I read that was because it took me back to a patch when I first began to try to lose the weight. It’s easy to get obsessive, or evangelical, about a certain mode of eating and living when you’re seeing results, to a point where you’re going out of your way to stick to it. That, in itself, is a necessary part of the weight loss process – after all, you’ve gotta make changes in order to generate change. That’s fair enough.
But for me, personally, when I was still figuring out where I stood on the whole method front… I certainly found myself bouncing back and forth between extreme “diet” behaviour – be that swearing off carbs, or living on juice, or whatever – to bingeing and purging when I’d trip up. The logic would be that I’d made one mistake, and as such, I’d failed on such a heinous level that I’d punish myself by eating until I needed to be sick, and then starve for all of about… Well, the rest of the day, and maybe some of the next morning.
But you get the idea. It’s disordered eating, in flash forward. Especially as that one binge could then lead to several days of self-sabotage, be that with more food, drinking, smoking… Whatever. Long story short, it was unhealthy behaviour, and even now – two years on – I know myself well enough to be all too aware that it’s always a risk if I get my priorities mixed up.
The only thing that keeps me from that, really, is the fact that I’ve internalised plenty about the idea of moderation. Accepting the fact that from time to time, I’ll make mistakes, or fall down, or fail, or god dammit just eat cake – which I refuse to believe should ever be considered a failure, by anyone – means I’ve got the barricades up against that kind of behaviour.
If, on the other hand, I’d lost a significant amount of weight by subsisting on minimal calories, or an extreme diet of any description – this could very easily be a different story. In a sense, it’s only the fact that I’ve utterly failed at sticking to a fad diet of any kind – like 90% of people, according to the man behind Slim Fast – that’s stopped me, with my tendency to go to extremes, from ending up in exactly the same boat as the teens this study talks about.
And this is where it all comes together. Because if we’re enforcing extreme diet behaviour for obese people – see, for instance, the Biggest Loser – because fat is bad – implicit in our media asshat snark culture – then it stands to reason that the high-fives-all-round response to weight loss has the potential to lead down the disordered eating route. Because extreme diet behaviour is disordered eating. It doesn’t matter how much you weigh – if you’re not eating in a natural way; if you’re starving, skipping meals, cutting food groups or eating everything from a sachet – it seems to me that the term ‘disordered’ still applies, because it isn’t aligned with good health. In one way or another, it is messed up.
And because it’s out of line with what we, as humans, are supposed to be doing, it’s unsustainable without some kind of psychological effect. If you’re a teenager who’s finally escaping from years of ‘fat’ playground taunts, there’s a chance it’ll end up like that study suggests… But I don’t think this is something that’s exclusive to young adults.
And that’s why we need to be more critical when we’re talking about extreme weight loss victories. I love a good before and after just as much as the next person, and I’ll admit – I will, occasionally, watch things like the Biggest Loser (with the curtains closed) if there’s nothing else on the telly. But if we’re uncritically cheering on weight loss at any cost, then we’re still buying into a) the diet industry and b) fat shaming. And if that’s the case, then we’re still doing it wrong.
Because weight loss is a long journey, and one that isn’t easy – but done right, and done because you want to, it can be incredibly rewarding. I value my health passionately nowadays, because I haven’t always had it, and I love being able to do stuff my old-self couldn’t. But we need to be more compassionate, more understanding, and more attentive to the ways people around us are going about their own changes – because if it’s not something that can be reasonably kept up for a lifetime, chances are it’ll end in one of two ways: failure (in the diet’s own terms, that is) or decades of unnatural eating behaviour.
So let’s escape the idea that fat people losing weight is always a good thing, and focus on what’s right for the individual. Let’s move on from the idea that eating disorders are only for ‘skinny’ people. In fact, let’s stop buying into weight and size, and buy into our own individual health and wellbeing instead. Because a better life is the only reason in the world you should ever want to change.