In Part 1 of this series I wrote that America’s “weight loss” conversation paints a distorted picture of the problem and encourages a kind of criticism that can injure as often as it heals. There are several elements to my critique. First, the repetitive barrage of the message that “Americans need to diet” is bad medicine for girls and women who have already internalized the fear of being considered ‘fat.’ It’s not only the level of obesity that is alarming, it is the internalized voice in girl’s and women’s heads “I’m unattractive,” “I’m fat, ugly,” “Nobody will ever want to be with me,” and “I’m lazy, disgusting.” Research shows that 97% of women are “cruel to their bodies” every day and girls between ages 11-17 are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of nuclear war, cancer, or losing their parents.
The “diet” message disproportionately hurts girls and women. It’s a message that rarely confronts the powerful objectification of women and women’s bodies perpetuated by our mainstream culture. Delivering the “diet” message without addressing this fact may cause more harm than good.
Related to this fact is another fact—not everyone overeats; not everyone is too fat. About 8 million Americans have an eating disorder, mostly women, and about half of all Americans personally know someone with an eating disorder. And while the health risks related to obesity are real, the health risks of having an eating disorder are arguably worse. The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate of ALL causes of death for females 15-24 years old. While estimated 300,000 deaths per year are due to the obesity epidemic, an estimated 480,000 die of eating disorders.
Third, the “Americans need to diet” message puts all the focus and blame on individuals and parents of children for the problem. But, the data is quite clear—diet programs don’t work! The $60 billion diet industry has at most a success rate of 5-10%. That means more than 90% of all people don’t lose weight or they gain it back. It is time to stop perpetuating the myth that if people work hard and follow their diet regimen or program they will lose weight. It’s simply not true.
Why don’t diets work? One reason I have uncovered in my own work and research is that people naturally resist criticism and shame. Telling people they are fat and need to lose weight is simply an ineffective method of getting people to actually do so. Without some deeper psychological and critical thinking this message will not only be ineffective but will cause people to be even more ashamed of themselves than before by dieting and failing, over and over. Simply saying “Americans are too fat; Americans need to diet” is likely to have this same shaming effect.
Our concern with people’s weight needs to be thought about and spoken about by elders not critics. We need the whole truth—that many women and girls suffer from this message, many people don’t need to lose weight, and that this message, simply put, does not help. To those who are stuck on this message, I say, “Please, a little more critical thinking, a little more psychological perspective, a little less criticism, and a whole lot more love.”
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I am the author of Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. Signed copies of the book are for sale on my website: www.talkingbacktodrphil.com.
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