Many Americans need to lose weight, it's true. But haven't we become a little obsessed with dieting and too fixated on our girth? Isn't it time for a little more heart and critical thinking to enter the conversation?
Let's consider that from barber shops to The Tonight Show, fat jokes are fair game. Public disgust with large people buying an order of French fries goes uncensored, unsolicited weight loss advice spews from every tabloid, and reality television shows suggesting "tough love" and reinforced with a "jury audience" is commonplace.
The "Americans need to go on a diet" message comes across the radio waves, our television sets, the Internet, and from family, friends, and community at an alarming frequency. Just the other day I read an article on ABC News warning us about the "crisis" of childhood obesity. While I listen to and heed these warnings knowing that 18 percent of children ages 6-11 and 36 percent of adults are obese, this message is not the whole truth. In fact, this message blocks out the rest of the weight loss story.
Consider the following facts: Approximately 30 percent of girls are overweight or obese; however, 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. In addition, more and more research on the relationship between weight and health shows that being overweight, and even mildly obese, doesn't lead to greater health risks, while gaining and losing weight -- perhaps the most common result of diet programs -- is clearly linked to health risks.
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." Research shows that 97 percent 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.  I argue that it is not only the level of obesity that is alarming, it is the internalized voice in girl's and women's heads that repeat "I'm unattractive," "I'm fat, ugly," "Nobody will ever want to be with me," and "I'm lazy, disgusting." Further, the "diet" message 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 an estimated 300,000 deaths per year are due to the obesity epidemic, an estimated 480,000 die of eating disorders. Clearly, many people need to lose weight and take more care of their diet and health; however, at least as many people need to stop worrying about their weight and living in a house built on body shame and self-hatred.
To go further still, I assert that the "American's need to diet" message puts all the focus and blame on individuals and parents for the problem. However, the data is quite clear: Diet programs don't work! The $60 billion diet industry has at most a success rate of 5-10 percent. That means more than 90 percent of all people don't lose weight or 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 work with my clients, and through the research I have undertaken, is that people naturally resist criticism and shame. Telling people they are fat and need to lose weight is ineffective for most individuals. Without some deeper psychological and critical thinking, these efforts 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.
The repetition and narrowness of the "diet" message has painted a distorted picture of the problem and can encourage the kind of criticism that can injure as often as it heals. Our concern with people's weight needs to be thought about and spoken about by elders not critics. The real truth -- that many of us (mostly women and girls) suffer more often than thrive from this message, that many people do not 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 less criticism, and a whole lot more love."
David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW is the author of the book Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. Bedrick is sought-after expert on the topics of shame, personal and collective trauma, cultural and sexual identity issues, stereotyping, and more. Signed books are available for sale on the website: www.talkingbacktodrphil.com
For more on body image, click here.
 Lisa Berzins, Dying to be thin: the prevention of eating disorders and the role of federal policy. APA co-sponsored congressional briefing. USA. 11/1997.
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