The Weight of Cultural Expectation

Our culture hails weight loss as a badge of honour. Although for some losing weight may require herculean discipline and determination, these bodily changes will not guarantee what all people are ultimately searching for – happiness, peace of mind, self -acceptance. On the opposite end of the pendulum, there are many who live with body dysmorphia which means that although slim, even skeletally thin, they see themselves as fat.

The question is – how much do you need to weigh or how much do you need to lose before you give yourself permission to accept yourself? Our pre-occupation with weight may stem from the fact that obesity is now at epidemic levels in many countries of the western hemisphere where food tends to be more affordable. It may be that weight gain has little to do with greed or overeating, and more to do with the hidden ingredients in our food – sugar, fat and salt whether natural or processed. Also, we lead more sedentary lifestyles now that most of us are glued to our screens.

When we celebrate weight loss, what massage are we sending to those who are overweight? After all, they are not less than, inferior, losers – just a few pounds heavier. We may look better when we are slimmer, or we may look worse – a lot depends on how much weight we lose and how we lose it. We must be weary of having our identity revolve around weight whether gaining or losing. Oprah Winfrey, best known for hosting ‘The Oprah Winfrey show’ and as the founder of OWN Network, has spent her career fixating on whether she was fatter or slimmer, but the truth is that for her millions of fans, it mattered not a jot. She was just as loved and admired when she was heavy as when she was a few pounds lighter. Despite her stellar broadcasting career, she was still hung up on her weight. 

The culture bombards us with images of women with perfect physiques – usually scantily clad. Slim physiques are a dime a dozen so it’s not these that assault our souls but the idealizing of them through headlines. Industries capitalise on slim celebrities by asking them to front their weight loss campaigns or just mentioning their names in headlines as click bait. For example, ‘Pilates expert shares three exercises for Kate’s lean figure – see results in no time’. The question arises – why should we all want to look like Princess of Wales, Kate Middleton? The article states she has “an enviable figure” implying that we should all envy it. [] Rather than idealizing certain body types and shapes, wouldn’t it be more realistic and ultimately more fulfilling, to discover the best body weight and shape for ourselves as individuals?

Despite the claimed progress of the women’s feminist movement, it seems that women are still judged for their physical appearance first and foremost. This  invariably tied to their weight. Inner attributes are very much discounted.

The obvious truth is often overlooked that you can be slim and unhappy. Does it really matter if you are a mesomorph, ectomorph or endomorph? What size actually translates as being culturally acceptable? The average UK women’s size is 16 yet most women of that size would be considered obese by BMI standards.

How mental breakthroughs lead to physical breakthroughs

We often think we must change the physical to affect our inner states, but the opposite holds true. Losing weight will not make us happier or more successful, although depending on how much weight we lose, and how we lose it, it may make us healthier. The weight we desperately need to shed is not physical but mental. As the poet, P.J. Bailey stated in ‘the True Measure of Life’, “we live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breath; in feelings, not in figures on the dial.”

Amber’s Weight Loss Journey

At some point in our lives we will face them – situations which seem to offer no hope for change; we feel hemmed in and trapped. We feel stuck in an endless cycle of repetition with no positive outcomes; bad habits are being reinforced not eroded. People in your inner circle may seem powerless to help you. Very often they are afraid of pointing out your issues in case you react badly. Amber’s was in a rut – she was morbidly obese, weighing 687 pounds by the age of 24.

All Amber needed was one mobilising thought – an epiphany, to wake her up to a new vision for her future. This came in the doctor’s prognosis of premature death if she continued on her current trajectory of weight gain. Furthermore, she did not want lose her boyfriend who had criticised her excessive weight gain. She was able to articulate those once dreaded words – “Help, I’m stuck!”

In order to access the bariatric surgery she desperately needed, Amber had to overcome her fear of flying – she was not used to going out in public and fared being laughed or stared at. But the reward would be getting to Texas where she could have her vital surgery. It resulted in an immediate loss of 17 lbs, but would not be recommended as the healthiest way to lose weight since it is only performed in extreme cases.

The light also took the form of an unexpected gift – the doctors offered to remove her sagging skin for free because she couldn’t afford it. When God sees you are making an effort toward a noble cause, he will rally all the forces of the universe to come to your aid. In this testimony of weight loss, it was literally a matter of life and death; a lot was at stake – Amber’s life.

But for many, the quest to lose weight is simply an attempt to satisfy cultural expectations. Carrying extra body weight carries burdensome associations – ‘lazy’, ‘ugly’, ‘loser’, ‘failure’ – to mention a few. those who despair of losing weight and the negative associations often go to unhealthy and extreme lengths to shed them, for example stomach reduction surgeries, diet pills, starvation which can lead to anorexia, bingeing followed by regurgitation which can lead to bulimia.

Once again, if we would only change our mindset towards a healthy lifestyle and healthy eating, over time our bodies would reduce to our ideal weight. The culture may reward us with short-term expressions of admiration or approval, but if we buy into this, we are in danger of setting up an unhealthy cycle of weight loss = good person, weight gain = bad person. Ultimately, the healthy takeaway must be that our value to ourselves, our families and society at large, has nothing to do with what we weigh.

Carla Cornelius

Dr Carla seeks to bring a fresh and thought-provoking perspective to today's popular culture. With her Ph.D. in Biblical Counselling, she invites readers to see the relevance of the Bible in addressing the difficult and disturbing issues of our times.