As many of you know, I have spent the majority of my career training people, mostly women, with fat loss goals, and you may have heard me say recently on our podcast that my job isn’t really about bodies. The bodies part is easy. It only gets hard once we factor in emotions, willpower, motivation, self worth, a self destructive inner voice, and/or any other psychological obstacle that might possibly inhibit or distract someone on the path to their goals.
So, between clients and the 4 women I live with (my wife and 3 little girls), I am invested in the lives of quite a few women. As such, I find myself brainstorming often. Lately, I have been pondering cause and effect in the subjects of weight gain and insecurity about body image. The question in my head: does a person always gain fat and then become insecure about it, or is it possible that insecurity causes fat gain? As it turns out, the latter appears to be more common than I imagined, but a poor body image isn’t the only factor involved. I’ll explain, but first let’s back up a bit so I can break down how I got here in the first place.
There are so many people out there who have wrestled with their fat for the majority of their adult lives. Paleo/primal/ancestral/caveman (call it what you like, just eat like a human) provides an excellent explanation for this – the lion’s share of our modern foods are garbage and excess body fat is just one consequence on a list of many. If I were only an author and speaker, I could stop right there and go about my business pretending that I had saved the world by telling them about “the paleo diet.” But I’m also a trainer. I don’t get to deliver information and then walk away. I’m in the trenches with these people and I can’t deny that following “the paleo diet” like it’s nothing more than a set of rules leaves many people with some results, but often far short of their complete fat loss goals.
Then, after following that rabbit hole for years, I have found strong correlations between those who succeed and those who perpetually struggle. I wrote a lot about that in my book, and to rehash it hear would go way beyond the scope of this post, but I will say that, in my experience, there is almost always a perspective problem in those who struggle. A broken perspective drives desperation and inhibits repair. (For those of you who don’t follow my work, you can find an intro to this stuff here and here.) Those who really suffer at the hands of their inner voice and who don’t have an internal locus of control tend to fail. Those who love themselves enough to repair the damage that happened while they just weren’t paying attention tend to succeed with the kind of ease that makes it look like they barely tried.
I’m almost ready to return to my question, but I have to explain one more thing. Our modern mainstream weight loss prescription – eat less and move more – is at best, ineffective, and at worst, horribly damaging. The “experts” have tried to reduce everything to thermal dynamics, telling us we need to consume fewer calories while we “burn” as many as possible. Toss a little desperation in the mix and we end up with a huge caloric restriction and hours of steady state cardio. What most people don’t understand is that this is a recipe for a broken metabolism. Our amazingly adaptive bodies do their best to adjust to this apparently terrible world where we have to work really hard to stay alive and where there isn’t much food available. The result is a slow metabolism, to save energy for the next stress event, and very efficient and stingy fat storage, to make sure we make it through the famine.
Okay, back to my question. Does a person always gain fat and then become insecure about it, or is it possible that insecurity causes fat gain? You probably read that question a few paragraphs back and thought I was crazy, but I’m finally getting to my point. Now that you understand the type of situation I’m talking about and the type of advice we have been given, I think I can rephrase my question. Is it possible that some people, through their insecurities and poor body image, are driven to dislike their bodies where others would not, and do those people often embark on a journey intended to bring about weight loss that instead breaks their metabolism and causes fat gain and perpetual struggle? The answer is yes, and as crazy as it sounds, I think this seemingly flip-flopped order of events is quite common.
Think back to when you first started to struggle with your body image. Many of you will be able to look at pictures of yourself at that time and think, “If I could only get back to the shape I was in then, I would be so happy.” Yet, at that time you were unhappy enough to set into motion those changes in your metabolism that, whether or not you have ever understood them, have always been at the core of your frustration.
My client and dear friend, Christy, has graciously agreed to let me use her as an example here. Having lived it, she feels as passionately as I do about trying to help young girls avoid the perils of the body loathing path. Christy is in her late twenties now, and her battle with her body began when she was around 12 years old. Here she is at age 14:
Typical cute little 14 year old girl, right? When Christy first showed me this picture, she said, “This makes me sad because I already thought I was fat, and look how cute I was! I vividly remember being worried when this picture was taken because I thought I had cellulite on my legs.” Within a year of this picture, she started taking diet pills and restricting her calories. Since then, Christy has never quite been able to return to a body she loves, although she is finally on the right track today. Her teenage years and entire adult life are marked by her constant struggle to feel good in her own skin and escape an inner voice that wouldn’t let her forget that it hates the way she looks. To greater or lesser degrees, every part of her life has been effected by what she began around the time this picture was taken. And it all started when she manufactured in her mind something that wasn’t really there, setting standards that she finds ridiculous today.
If this story doesn’t describe you, all you would need to do to find someone that it does describe is ask around. Someone in your world has a very similar story to Christy’s. Maybe it’s not so crazy to think that insecurity can cause a person to become overweight and struggle with their body fat for a lifetime. Even though it seems more logical that a person would gain weight and then become insecure about it, mainstream advice can take something that is barely noticeable and turn it into lifelong torment.
So what can we do about it? Those of you who, like Christy, have already done the damage simply need to get on the path to peak health that Sarah and I preach here on this blog, and in our books, seminars, and podcasts. It requires the whole lifestyle, and sometimes lots of patience, but the results are sustainable for a lifetime. As for the next generation, I think we can do much better. It will require a lot of heart to heart conversations, but our daughters need to, first, know the right way to get an amazingly healthy body that looks and feels great for a lifetime, and second, know what the consequences will be of the cocktail of mainstream advice and desperate body loathing.
Please note that I am not suggesting that we simply teach our daughters to love themselves the way they are and stop right there. To pretend that they will throw away forever their innate desires to be attractive is a pipe dream and goes against the very laws of nature that create success in any species. That has never been my message and it never will be. We definitely need to teach them to love their bodies rather than hate their bodies, and we will do that in large part through example, but we must also teach them that healthy bodies are and always will be most attractive. This understanding will negate the idea that there is a perfect body shape because healthy bodies of all shapes and sizes are more attractive than unhealthy bodies at some ideal shape and size. We are attracted to good displays of genetics and, in humans, that means good displays of health. Regardless of what Disney movies and sappy novels would have you believe about romance, these are the facts.
So please, please, please take the time to explain these concepts to your daughters, step daughters, nieces, and any other young girls with whom you might be close enough to have a heart felt talk. I spend my days working side by side with women who are deep in psychological and physiological battles to reclaim something that could have been easy, normal, and unworthy of consideration had they only known what you know now. We can save them from anguish that will permeate everything they do. Let’s let them stand on our shoulders rather than suffer our trials.
When I look into these eyes, I know I can do better for her.
Go forth and be awesome.