Body Image, Obesity, and Yoga

For years I have struggled with two issues. Separately, they make perfect sense, but when viewed together, they contradict themselves. Let me explain here.

I completely agree that many of us need to learn to love ourselves, accept our flaws, and see beauty in dimensions that aren’t popular with the media. I whole-heartedly feel that society could learn to see hips, pudgy tummies, love handles, not-so-slender legs, and round cheeks as beautiful if we tried hard enough.

But I also know that childhood obesity has tripled in the last thirty years, and that two-thirds of America is overweight or obese (facts found here). And it doesn’t seem like the vital message of “love your body” is very often paired with “and treat it nicely”.

It’s a very fine line we walk here. There is a difference between noticing at age 15 that your hips are wider than your friends’ and noticing at age 25 that you’ve gained thirty pounds in the past year.

In the former, the most healthful choice would be to understand that everyone’s body is different and not berate yourself about your natural body shape.

In the latter, that might very well be the case, too. Maybe you’ve gained weight because you’re pregnant, you were underweight to start with, or you went on medication which made it unavoidable. Or maybe you started a new job and buy your lunch at a drive-thru five times a week now and are having problems finding nutritious meal alternatives. My concern is that as a society, we overlook the difference here.

I worry about both groups. My heart goes out to the people who have poor body image and self-esteem just because they are shaped differently, and are otherwise healthy. I fear for the people who are marching towards the danger zone on the BMI index, all the while maintaining a strong, healthy body image because they see the extra weight as just part of who they are.

I have bounced back and forth between the two groups myself. In the past five years I have made great strides towards positive body image, but it hasn’t been easy. Right now, I’m about 10-15 pounds above the weight I consider “healthy” for my body. It’s easy to use that “I’m beautiful the way I am” idea to justify lots of things, like forgoing exercise and eating too much junk food. “I’m beautiful the way I am”, at least for me, can turn into “I don’t need to worry about my weight”, which is what I call anti-dieting. And it is just not always the case, unfortunately.

http://news.stanford.edu/news/2006/december6/gifs/eating.jpgAt other times in my life, it’s been the opposite. I have denied myself food when I was hungry (and not just for an hour), and forced myself to exercise when I needed rest, which stems from the other kind of pressure, the “I need to look like Beyonce” pressure. For an example, check out this website, but brace yourself – it’s painful to look at.

Self-guilt and shame do nothing for either situation. If you shame yourself into losing weight, even when you need to, you will put it all back on eventually. If your diet is only a punishment, you will someday return to your old habits.

This is where I see that yoga hits the nail on the head. “Honor your body” would be a perfect goal for our society – much better than the polarities of “love yourself the way you are” and “you need to look like Beyonce”. In many ways, honoring your body is more difficult than dieting or anti-dieting. It requires body awareness, serious introspection, and analysis of the “am I really hungry or do I just want ice cream” sort. Honoring your body allows for those occasional treats, but also teaches us to feed ourselves what we need, when we need it, and sleep and exercise at a reasonable rate.

So that is my mission to try to trim off these 10-15 pounds. I will count calories, but I will also treat my body with the respect it deserves. I will eat when I am hungry and try to exercise self-control when confronted with food that is ultra-tempting (ice cream and French fries!). And I will let you all know how it’s going. : )

Namaste,
Jamie

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9 responses to “Body Image, Obesity, and Yoga

  1. You’re right, it is a very very fine line and whilst I am a huge adovocat of all women loving themselves exactly as they are, we cannot ignore the obesity issue.

    I think part of the problem is that the answer to the obesity question goes a lot deeper than just losing weight, I just wish I had an answer to how to help the west be happy. Yoga’s a good start though I guess :)

    Good luck with your weight loss, and be kind to yourself my dear xx

  2. oh herein lies the problem. I think the societal pressure to look perfect is disproportionately put on women vs men (with eating disorders affecting 90% women).
    I’ve been thinking about this recently with how it relates to yoga. And I’m not so happy with how yoga is portrayed in the media. Our yoga roles models are bendy, super thin women… it’s weird.

    a very thoughtful post Jamie. :)

  3. You’re absolutely right, Jamie. I think, in yoga, we can tweak this “love your body as it is” attitude, which falls short of promoting a healthy lifestyle and starkly contradicts the dangerous message of the media, to something more like “love your body by taking care of your body.”

    Great post, and good luck in your healthy weight-loss endeavor!

  4. Great post Jamie, I completely agree with Rachel above and couldn’t have expressed it better.
    “Honor your body”, love it!

  5. Wow! You just put into words (so eloquently) the dichotomy that I have been feeling for years. I think so many of us who struggle with our weight just try to put it out of our minds as much as possible and like you said, consider it part of ourselves. We try to think of ourselves as ‘cute & curvy’ girls while at the same time avoiding mirrors, the beach and jeans shopping lol because it’s easier to just avoid the whole issue and pretend its not there rather than take a good look at how we are disrespecting our bodies through our actions. Definitely food for thought.

  6. Thanks everyone. I was worried about this post because I didn’t want to come off sounding harsh and judgmental, just honest and candid. Glad you enjoyed my thoughts : )

  7. Ya, I don’t know why I get so “upset” when I see people treating themselves so badly. It isn’t that they are overweight, cause hey, I’m overweight too…but it just knowing that they aren’t doing anything to stay healthy. I love how yoga brings that awareness of food and health and feeling good. I know that I can’t, but I always want to make people do yoga so they can know that feeling too. Very thoughtful post.

  8. GreenVeggie911

    Great post, and possibly one that every woman can relate to!

    I’ve found that part of the solution is to “honor your body”. If we can shift our focus from trying to eat to “lose weight”, to eating to nourish our bodies and improve our health, most will naturally lose excess body fat in the process. This has worked for my clients time after time.

    The shift from emotional eating (“I HAVE TO LOSE WEIGHT!”) to more intellectual eating (“I want to eat this orange (rather than candy) because I’m eating to nourish my body”) is more calming as well. And we all know that deprivation never works! Instead of being grouchy about all of the things that you “can’t” eat, make a list of 10 things that you could eat to build a healthier body!

  9. So, so true and resonant for me. I could have written this post (well, lots of your posts).

    It echoes something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately on a more general level (as it relates to pretty much EVERYTHING): finding the right balance between self-acceptance and self-challenge. On the mat and in every aspect of my life: relationships, eating, weight control, fitness, work, play, avocations, etc. I want to accept myself (or my partner), but that doesn’t mean entirely letting things remain as they are that could really benefit from improvement, challenge, progression.

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