Heroism and Weight Loss

fat-supermanI’ve been thinking about writing this post for some time.  Everyone who reads this blog is probably aware of my distaste for weight loss in the media.  I know many find shows like the Biggest Loser to be encouraging but for me they are the opposite.

What bothers me is they paint fat people as bad, and reformed fatties as good and that just isn’t true.   As I often say,  ‘a lot of people lose weight in prison’… Losing weight is hard enough without having these types of morality judgments thrown in our face.

So that’s media but this post is a slightly different take.  I would like to talk about how we as a culture often couch weight loss in heroic terms and how this is almost never helpful.

Just the other day I was watching a show and the reporter asked the man how he had ‘overcome his heroic battle with weight loss’.  This is not uncommon phraseology for our average conversation. All of us, including myself, have used such phrases when talking about weight loss.

What’s wrong with that you ask? I mean losing weight is really hard.  Why is that not heroic?

Well, let’s start with some definitions-

Over on about.philosophy.com author Kendra Cherry asked her readers How Do You Define Heroism?  Pretty much every response is something like this:

“A hero is a person who would risk life and limb just to save people or a person. these people standout as brave intelligent and loving. these people need to be recognized”

So what are the elements of being a hero:

1. They are brave

2. They are worthy of recognition

3.  They are loving

4. They risk their own safety to help other people

It is this last aspect that is the most common thread in all the responses.  Another reader says:

“Heroism is when you act out of the kindness of your heart. Whether you’re helping someone on homework, or helping someone who got hurt, the main thing is that your helping someone who is having a hard time”

So, heroism clearly involves being unselfish and serving your fellow men and women especially when doing so is difficult.

indexHow does weight loss fit such a description?  I can’t think of any other change of appearance that is lauded in such ways.  For example, if someone gets a face lift they are often derided, criticized but I’ve rarely heard that when gastric bypass is done.  Why is one surgical enhanced change heroic and another isn’t?

You could say that gastric bypass is required where a face lift is not? Well, the research from the Health at Every Size movement would strongly disagree with that assertion, but even if you accept that gastric bypass is necessary I don’t see how it is heroic?  If I break my leg and have surgery on said leg (essentially fixing a problem in my body like GB) does that make me a hero?  No, it makes me a person with a broken leg that was fixed.

I can see no part of weight loss that involves risk to help other people. You can help people get in shape or encourage them to enter a race, but that’s not really the weight loss, that’s your service in the community and amongst your loved ones.  Anyone should be lauded who serves others no matter their size.  That is worthy of the hero label.

What about athletes? Who are they serving and we call them ‘sports heroes’?  One could argue such a term is misapplied to professional athletes but I would counter that most athletes are participating in a team or cause greater than just themselves.

For example, an Olympian is certainly worthy of individual applause but also their gift of performance on behalf of their country makes it worthy of the hero label.

There are a few sports like golf that are truly individual events and then I would say they aren’t really heroes but simply exceptional.  We like them because they are good at something and we are not. Nothing wrong with that!

But I hear you saying ‘Rachel it’s so hard.  Shouldn’t we be encouraging?’.  My answer is ‘of course, we should’.  However, there are lots of hard things we do in life that aren’t really heroic.  If I am a PHD candidate and I complete my thesis am I lauded as a hero? I’m encouraged, congratulated, cheered but unless there’s a disability or something extraordinary I rarely hear the kind of language we apply to weight loss for any other ‘hard thing’ in life.

Why? Because the diet industry in America is a 20 billion dollar industry.  They want you to spend money and what better way to get someone to spend money than to either make them feel really good or really bad about themselves.  A tepid, lukewarm person never bought anything.  They have a vested interest in convincing us that we need to change and that if we make said change we can be the hero.

Now, you might suggest that I am focusing on mere semantics and poor word choice.  I would argue back that according to the Huffington Post the average American woman has dieted 61 times by the time they are 45 and that’s starting at 16 (I would start much younger- 81% of little girls in America have dieted before the age of 10).

Assuming some marginal success in most of those diets, the average woman has been the hero 61 times,  and then fallen sometimes quite speedily off of her pedestal.  Then to make matters worse 35% of women gain more than they lost on said diet.

So, now we aren’t really a weight loss villain (to use the cannon of terms) that is probably reserved for sinful foods and the companies who pedal them but we are something even worse- the fallen hero.  I mean think about what that means.  61 times the average woman not only feels let down with her own frailties but is no longer the inspirational tool for her family and friends.  I’ve felt it and I bet most of you have too.  It is devastating.

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I actually remember one time my sister telling me ‘you can’t gain the weight back because then you wouldn’t be this person that we admire’.  She was very little and didn’t mean to hurt my feelings but is that not what all of us go through on the roller coaster of weight loss? 2012 I was at my peak of fitness and weight loss, then I had a personal crisis, chronic pain and a herniated disk in my back.  Things changed and so did my body.

I’m not making excuses.  That’s just what happened.  I felt guilty for a long time.  Like I’d let everyone down, which is insane when you really think about it.  What had changed was something in my body.  My other actions were exactly the same.  I still swam my races, I still blogged.  I still worked.  I still held book club and spent time with my friends.  I still traveled.  All of it.  I can’t think of one thing for other people I could do in 2012 and couldn’t or didn’t do in 2013.  So why did I seemingly let them down?

Because I wasn’t the hero anymore. 

That’s why this language about our bodies is so important.  It can have devastating repercussions that can make us feel like failures, and we already feel that way because of the way we look.  The language just piles on. And sometimes it is not just language.  I have friends who’s parents were vocally disappointed in them for their weight loss struggles. Instead of sympathy and encouragement they received pity and disgust.  (Luckily my parets have always been pretty good about letting me live my own life)

What worries me most is if being the fallen weight loss hero is hard for adults, imagine what it must feel like for a child who has so little control over his or her bodies in the first place?  That I do know.  I remember vividly the feeling of disappointment after diet, after diet, not only frustrated at not looking the way I wanted to, which is hard enough for a young girl, but letting everyone down in the process.  For goodness sakes, now these kids are even letting down the President.

So, in a perfect world where everyone took all of my advice what would I suggest? How would I encourage others in this hard thing called weight loss? I would treat it like the accomplishment of any other worthy goal.  ‘that’s great’, ‘I can see you worked very hard’, ‘great job’, ‘congrats’, ‘I’d love to go jogging with you’, or any number of responses without vaulting the person up as a hero because of the way they look.

What do you guys think? Have you felt like you were letting down people when you gain weight or fail to lose?  Do you think the hero narrative is helpful or hurtful?  Please share your experience, as this is just what makes sense to me.  Love you all!

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20 thoughts on “Heroism and Weight Loss

    1. Yeah that’s true. I think people just buy into the industry message without really thinking it through. I mean I’ve been dieting since I was 8 and never thought about it before this weekend. 🙂

      1. It’s a “control” issue. People are expected to control their behavior. The prevailing attitude about fatness is that it’s the result of sloth and gluttony, which many persons believe to be deliberate choices, indicative of selfishness and other character flaws. Thus, beginning in elementary school, the advice is “just eat less and exercise more.”

        People want to believe they are “in control.” The fat person is a billboard emblazoned, “This could happen to you.” The message is about fear of losing control. The un-fat displace that fear, by blaming fat persons for not conforming with expectations about size. It’s really the un-fat person who wants to feel heroic about his own size.

        The reality is that we don’t know everything about how the human body can malfunction; the endocrine disorders that we do know about, very often are not correctly diagnosed; and there are relatively few fat persons for whom diet and exercise are easily effective.

        1. Very valid points. I totally see the control argument but I still think the hero narrative plays a part in at least my negative cycle. I really do.

        2. Of course it does. The un-fat want to feel heroic about being in control of something for which they really can’t take credit. If the un-fat can induce the fat to “control” themselves by losing weight, the fat will be lauded for being heroic, like unto the un-fat.

        3. Very true and very well said. Kind of scary for me to think about how much hurt in my life was caused by that control or lack their of.

        4. “It’s really the un-fat person who wants to feel heroic about his own size” that’s a very good point. I think there is some of both skinny and reformed fatties with the hero narrative.

          And I do think a lot of them by into that language because that is the way it is so often sold in the media and in personal conversation. Like I said, even the first lady has phrased her mission in the heroic terms. Kids hear it when they are young and never give it another thought.

          And you are right. We don’t know everything. The research at Health at Every Size is very compelling.

  1. I agree completely. When I was serving my mission, I lost 100 lbs. in six months (riding a bike in Houston in the summer). I was referred to as the Incredible Shrinking Elder. It felt really cool to have the moniker at the time, but it’s really just a perpetuation of what you described above. Now that I’ve gained back all that weight and more, I don’t really want to see anyone who knew me as the “weight loss hero.”

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience Jeremy. It’s good to hear it’s not just a female problem. I know what you experienced. I’ve been there. I’ve not wanted to see someone and see the disappointment in their eyes (whether real or imagined). It can be so discouraging.
      These kind of monikers and labels are very tempting because we like to be on top. I mean who doesn’t want to be a hero? But I’m definitely going to be more cautious with them from now on.

      1. It’s tough too, because a lot of my motivation to lose weight is derived from the positive comments from friends and family who begin to notice the drop in weight. I would prefer my motivation be purely intrinsic, but I’ll confess that I tend to feed off of the positive feedback and it often becomes my primary motivation for change. What do you do when the positive feedback goes away? Of course then there are the (mostly family) people who bring up your weight every. single. time. you. see. them. And remind you that you need to lose weight and want to know what you’re doing about it. Ugh. I think society needs a lesson in personal boundaries.

        1. Totally get that. One time I was swimming my first 5k and my uncle says ‘you know if you lost weight this would be much easier’. I just had to laugh. Even doing the most physical thing of my life somehow it came back to losing weight.
          Motivation is a tricky thing because I think that encouragement from family and friends is a good thing. I just think we stretch it too far and deify someone creating a downward slope that doesn’t help anyone.
          And I wouldn’t want people to be watching every word they say to me but when a repeated trend that is marketing influenced is never called out then we have a problem.

  2. Thanks for your post. I agree with you. I have lost an gained over twenty pounds this year. I feel shamed at the gain, but have to keep reminding myself that it is part of the journey. By the way, I miss swimming with you. I would love to come and swim some time this summer.

    1. Let’s stop with the shame! You’ve become a new Mom. I know I can’t be in change my body, diet, self-focus mode all the time. Life just doesn’t work that way. That’s why I wanted to write this post. Let’s stop the madness. 🙂
      I totally want to go swimming with you. I am planning on getting up to Blackridge at least once a week if not 2 or 3 times and that’s close to you so it would be perfect. Counting down the days! Did you know you are one of the people that inspired me to believe I could swim open water. I’m so grateful.

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