“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” –Thoreau

14 August 2011

Super Slim Me

Last week, I had the opportunity to watch a rerun of the BBC special Super Slim Me, which followed television presenter Dawn Porter on her quest to achieve an American size zero, or what the British apparently call "Hollywood Zero." She wasn't doing it with the intention of remaining that size-- this isn't one of those obnoxious reality weight-loss shows-- but rather as an extreme example of what being a size zero actually means.

Ms. Porter had three months to drop from an American size 10 (UK size 12) to a size zero, and she was monitored along the way by doctors and nutritionists. Losing that much weight so quickly is inherently dangerous. She had to cut back to 500 calories or less each day, and she began a strenuous exercise regimen. At a certain point, she even resorted to trying out some of the Hollywood "fad diets" which other celebrities have famously used-- Beyonce's maple syrup beverage, for example, and the Cabbage Soup Diet.

The weight did indeed fall off, but at a steep cost; her hair and skin became dull, her mood was unpredictable, and she was terribly miserable throughout the process. When Ms. Porter interviewed celebrity stylists and personalities in the U.S., they told her honestly that being a size zero was crucial to one's success in Hollywood. Zero is the gold standard, the brass ring: achieve that, and new doors will be open to you. They also admitted that maintaining that size is hell, that they're hungry all the time and obsessed with the scale. I'm not sure they'd have been as honest if an American interviewer had been asking the questions.

I've been bothered by this super-slim phenomenon for years. I have friends and colleagues who've been told that losing weight was critical to their success as actors. Heck, I've been told that myself. I've begun to think, in my cynical mid-twenties, that any female actress who believes she doesn't need to lose the weight is kidding herself. We all succumb to the pressure of the film industry eventually, or we stay poor, starving stage artists. Devil or the deep blue sea.

But I received some eye-opening advice from a colleague at my current day job. I was eating a hotdog for lunch in the staff room, and I commented about how "bad" it was for me. He stopped me immediately. "Don't do that," he said. "Don't think of your food as 'good' or 'bad.' Don't do that to yourself." I wasn't sure what he meant. He explained: "Food is energy, it's nourishment, it's food. There is no 'good' food. There is no 'bad' food. If you allow yourself to label it that way, you just set yourself up for negativity and failure."

You know what? He is right. There is no bad food. So long as we are eating lots of different kinds of things, so long as we eat when we're hungry and stop when we're full, then we are just eating food. When did Americans begin to develop this adversarial attitude toward nourishment? When did food become the enemy? Why do we idolize people who control (read: severely limit) their food consumption?

There's a prevailing theory in the U.S. that we have to stop eating as much as we want in order to be healthy. But the Japanese eat as much as they want, and they are healthier than we are. Perhaps the real issue is that we don't celebrate food enough! We don't allow ourselves to explore the billions of different foods the world has to offer, and what we do eat gets consumed in our cars, in front of our TVs, or at the bar. We don't stop when we're full because we're too distracted to notice that we feel full. And how can we know that we love "healthy" foods like sushi, or nicoise salad, or tandoori chicken if we've never even tried it?

Those foods we think of as "bad" are very cheap in the U.S. Our government subsidizes the creation of chicken nuggets and french fries because those industries provide our country with many, many jobs. Simultaneously, our media outlets tell us that we have an obesity "epidemic", that we're too lazy, too gluttonous, too fat. The mixed messages wreak havoc on our self-esteem and our collective psyche. Those who can afford to eat the most delicious food in the world won't touch it, in an effort to reach and maintain a size zero. Those who cannot afford it don't even know what they're missing. They pile on cheese and chocolate and salt, and they pile on pounds too. More is better when it all tastes the same anyway.

I'm tired of Hollywood actresses claiming they eat normally, and models saying that they are "naturally thin." Naturally slim exists. Naturally 5' 11" tall and an American size zero does not. Women cannot naturally maintain a body mass index under 17, and anyone who claims they do is lying. These lies are damaging to the person saying them, and to the audience hearing them. And they need to stop. It's one thing for an Olympic athlete to maintain such a low body fat percentage-- I'd argue that level of physical training can hardly be called "natural" anyway-- but size zero is another matter entirely. Unless you are very short, size zero simply isn't healthy. To reach such a small size, women are sacrificing the health of their bodies and minds. And most women know, realistically, that they'll never achieve that super-slim ideal, and so they give up before they've even begun.

We believe we have to go to war with our bodies if we want to be fit, but that simply isn't true. We have to stop "conquering our cravings" and "controlling our portion sizes." We need to stop fighting with our food. We need to start eating passionately. We need to savor every bite, and learn to love our healthy, functioning, miraculous bodies. What more can we ask for?