Thursday, May 16, 2013

Health Nut

A few recent occurrences in my life have caused me to think deeply about body image and why our society is so obsessed with being thin and looking perfect. It seems so contradictory considering that our society also revolves around eating unhealthy foods and having a sedentary lifestyle. It is impossible to have a perfect body and also have the typical American lifestyle of eating fast food and sitting most of the day. And it's not just about being thin. How can most Americans not see that our lifestyle is what is causing increasing rates in preventable diseases like heart disease and cancer?

"Health nut." In my group of friends, I'm the one that's "crazy" for eating healthy. Literally, I've been called crazy, nuts, insane, weird  and even un-American simply for eating more plants than animal foods. I'm not even 100% vegan! I eat cake and even bacon sometimes. I enjoy sushi at least once a week. However, my effort to eat healthier is considered weird and crazy by other people. Shouldn't us "health nuts" be the sane ones? What is so crazy about me wanting to eat natural foods so that I can feel and look better and decrease my risk for disease? In her detox program, raw foodist Karyn Calabrese explained that we healthy ones are actually normal and everyone else is insane for constantly putting toxic foods and drinks into their bodies. However, society thinks that healthy people are "nuts" because we're not the norm. The good thing is, that the healthy lifestyle movement is gaining momentum and eating healthy is becoming more and more normal.

"You're lucky you're skinny." I can't even tell you how many times I've heard this phrase throughout my life. Yes, genes do play a role in the way your body looks, but they have a much smaller role in being overweight and obese than society thinks. The reason you are overweight because your family is overweight is due much more to lifestyle rather than genetics. If your parents raised you to eat unhealthy, it is very likely that you will continue eating unhealthy in adult life. My household was absent of junk food and my parents encouraged me to be very active in childhood. I was skinny in high school because I ran cross country and track and played basketball and was constantly active. I stayed skinny in college because my parents taught me to eat whole foods (instead of processed ones) in normal (instead of huge) portions. I am fit now because I do crossfit, train for races, and eat healthy food (most of the time). I'm not "lucky" I'm skinny, I'm lucky that my parents did not raise me in a typical American household with candy and milk. I do like the way I look but I would be lying if I said that I didn't stress out about it. There are times when I analyze every ounce of fat on my body or when I completely hate myself for indulging in a piece of cake at a party. I compare myself to other women and I also judge other women. I see magazine images and say "why can't I look like that?" All women, even the models in the magazines, feel this way from time to time. Our society idolizes perfect women, but perfect women don't exist.

"You guys are the reason." So is it because of men that women struggle with body image? Yes and no. We struggle with our body image not only because men idolize perfect women, but also because we let them. Magazines like Cosmo and Glamour that are written mostly by women include many photoshoped pictures of "perfect" women. Headlines constantly say "lose 5 lbs" and the covers are of women whose job it is to look good. If my career depended on looking good, then I would also look like a model. But my career is engineering and having abs doesn't really matter because no one can see my stomach at work anyway. Getting men to not idolize perfect women starts with us changing our own viewpoints. We also have to voice ourselves. I was on vacation with my boyfriend and guy friends last week and they were negatively commenting on less-than-perfect women on the beach. I said, matter-of-factly, "you guys are the reason women have body image issues." I don't know if they listened to me but the point is that men idolize perfect women because we let them.

"Wake-up call." People often talk about their "wake-up call" when they realize that they're unhealthy and  thus go on a diet or change their lifestyle to lose weight. The wake-up call happens for different people at different stages. It takes some people to be 100 or 200 lbs overweight or even to get cancer or heart disease before they are ready to realize that they need to get healthier. Because I had been healthy my entire life, my wake-up call came when I gained 10 lbs. and was feeling like crap because I started eating like my (very American) boyfriend. I read some books and did online research and decided to change my lifestyle and eat a more plant-based diet. Over 3 years later, I'm still with my boyfriend and he's even started eating salad before dinner (small steps). But you don't have to have a wake up call to change your lifestyle. The fact that a third of Americans are obese and disease rampant in one of the most advanced countries in the world should be a wake-up call for us all. You don't have to be overweight or obese to have a reason to eat healthier.

"Why are you on a diet?" I also often hear this from friends and acquaintances: "Why are you eating so healthy? You're already so skinny." This logic is extremely flawed. I am fit because I eat healthy. People even get offended when I tell them about my healthy eating. For example, if an overweight person passes on a cupcake and says "I'm on a diet," you don't think twice about it. But if someone healthy-looking passes on the cupcake because they're trying to eat healthy, it makes you feel bad about the cupcake that you're eating and then you pressure the healthy-looking person to eat the cupcake. (By the way, I never pass on a cupcake.) I constantly feel pressure from other people to eat the unhealthy food so that they won't feel bad about their own choices. People can get extremely uncomfortable when I'm eating a salad and they're having pizza for lunch. My co-workers have even admitted to not inviting me to lunch because I won't like anything at the restaurant (i.e. they don't want to watch me eat salad while they have a burger).  The overweight person that is trying to eat healthier and lose weight is inspirational (e.g. Biggest Loser) and I commend them but the real healthy idols in our society should be the people that have managed to stay healthy the entire time and reject the typical American lifestyle. I have a hard time convincing people to eat healthy because I've always been at a healthy weight and don't have an inspirational weight loss story. And people also think that I'm naturally thin due to genetics or because I'm some sort of super woman. Well, the truth is, that many people in my family are overweight and I work really hard to stay healthy. Being healthy in America is not easy and I struggle with it every day because I'm constantly going against the norm.

My point with this post is that healthy and fit people get that way through hard work (not genetics or luck) and that everyone struggles with body image because of our perception of perfect women. Being healthy is not easy and there are many days that I want to give up and just eat an entire pizza and not workout for a month. And this happens, I eat a bunch of unhealthy food and don't go to the gym for a week. But then I remember that I stay healthy because I want to live a long life without disease and not because I need to look a certain way. I remember that the women with "perfect" bodies are that way because it is their job. I remind myself that there is more to me than my looks. I realize that I'm not the crazy one for being healthy and that my peers will realize this when they're bed-ridden at age 60 and I'm still running marathons and climbing mountains (see below). 


  1. I'm coming at this from a guy's angle. While we aren't facing the same pressures as women with out body image, the societal issues still exist. For most of my life, I was probably a bit on the heavier side. Being 6'3, I could carry it okay. At my max I was 220. But I got tired of that. Took up running and loved it. Now I'm 40-45lbs lighter and cant believe what I used to look like... and that it was just fine at the time. Positive influences are almost a must to get through the journey.

    When I get the- oh but you are skinny, i want to scream, yo, its hard work, not luck. Its not a diet, its a lifestyle. Like today there is pizza and cake at work for lunch and I am getting weird looks for skipping. I don't want to feel weighed down by noon. If I do something yummy, its on my terms.

    As for body image, I work in a very competitive environment workout wise, so there are a ton of gymrats here, muscle milk and that ish at half the desks. As a runner, I have to always deal with the jokes, but at least we are all healthy (even though I can't make my shirt bulge at the seams with muscles! lol)

    1. Yes, I agree that men also face body image issues, I was just writing this from a woman's perspective. Also, studies have shown that, even in an office environment, attractive and thin people get hired and promoted more frequently than less attractive or overweight people with the same qualifications. The way you look definitely affects your daily life and people judge you constantly on your outward appearance. I think this is unavoidable and a fact of human nature but it is important for us to reconsider why we're so obsessed with weight loss. It should be about health and not just about looking good or fitting into an ideal body image.

    2. Definitely! I loved your post!

  2. Loving this post.... now if only I could be as disciplined as you to be healthy!

    1. I'm not as disciplined as you think. I used to be strict vegan and I quit doing that because it was too stressful. My goal now is to make an EFFORT to be healthy. Every little or big effort I make counts more than the bad things I eat or the workouts I miss. So try to mentally reward yourself for all of your healthy efforts instead of punishing yourself for bad decisions. For example, "today was a good day because I ate a healthy salad for lunch" instead of "today was bad because I had a cupcake after dinner." Thinking this way by adding healthy things to your life instead of giving up the unhealthy will motivate you more. But like I said in the post, being healthy in this society is not easy and coming to terms with that fact will make putting in the effort seem easier and more worthwhile.


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